How did my inner voice get so mean?

I’ve been thinking of you since I woke up this morning. I wake up sorta early - around 6 - and for nearly 4 hours you’ve been on my mind. What keeps me up at night is probably similar to what keeps you up at night: unresolved “stuff” deep inside. I had a dream last night about contempt, and after journaling a bit I decided to share…

In my pseudo-wakefulness I invited myself to release contempt…and promptly fell back to sleep. I woke up, though, with the subject on my heart and mind. After the morning basics of breakfast and tea, I sat for meditation, and the path to contempt came to me. We’ll get to that.

So contempt is this sense that someone is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn. Ouch. When we hold contempt for someone, we are truly mean. We’re disrespectful. We resort to all sorts of “sexy” behavior like name-calling, eye rolling, and mocking. Basically, we lose our ability to behave like the people we usually are when we’re not all charged up. It’s like this deep hatred or disdain for someone takes over, and we just want the other person to go the F away!

I was talking with a client the other day, and she referred to her emotions and her stomach pain as if they were deserving scorn. She held contempt in her body and mood because they were SO needy. Interestingly, that’s not her response to others in her life. As we gently inquired of her body and wisdom, she asked me, “Why am I so mean and critical?” We continued working through the process for my client to discover that it’s her mom’s voice that she’s now taken on.

I can totally see that! And I think there’s something going on in addition to the learned mechanics of the caregiver’s voice…

When we’re little and developing, we aren’t yet able to meet our own needs. We’re dependent on others for everything other than breath. God (the Universe) takes care of that; it is that. But kids ARE needy, and to expect otherwise is to set up oneself for a great deal of frustration. But I digress… God is breath, so that’s all good for most of us, and then we’re left in the care of people who are sometimes able and sometimes not able to provide what we need. As the spoken words of “I love you” or “You’re the best” clash with the inner experience of being ignored, feeling left out, and not feeling like you matter, the natural outcome is one of bewilderment, or great confusion.

You say one thing. I feel another. Now I’m bewildered.

That is a very uncomfortable feeling, and in response one might become agitated. It takes a great deal of capacity to feel bewilderment, stop the nervous system activation, and drop in to find out what’s going on. It’s not a skill most of us were taught. Instead we defend against this activation and we go to the next stop on the contempt train: frustration. And we do this almost without a second thought. It’s pretty automatic.

You say one thing. I feel another. I’m bewildered. That feels badly. I’m frustrated, upset that my needs aren’t being met.

By the way, those needs might be for attention, a snack, a stop at the bathroom, room to breathe, space to think, a new shirt, or to spend time with friends. As adults we may experience that as not being heard at work, our partners overlooking our need to go to bed early and playing the TV too loud, or traffic getting in the way when we need to be somewhere. The manifestation of frustration looks different for each person.

After our needs to unmet for a while, time after time after time, we start to feel hopeless. I mean, why does it have to be so hard to be alive, right? But we have all been there. We ask repeatedly for a toy to no avail. We want our mom to come to our piano recital, she misses it again this year because of work. We ask our partner to communicate with us in a particular way, he never does. It’s the old cycle of asking (if we’re even aware of the need) and being “denied” or experiencing a feeling that something is being withheld. How long can that go on before despair, the complete loss of hope, sets in?

You say one thing. I feel another. I’m bewildered. That feels badly. I’m frustrated, upset that my needs aren’t being met. I keep trying. Nothing ever happens. I’ve lost hope; I’m experiencing despair.

And thus we start to conclude that our efforts are futile, and perhaps we are worthless. I mean, if they loved us, if we mattered, they’d come through, right? So we wrongly conclude that if others can’t or won’t meet our needs, then we don’t have any value. If others can’t see us, then maybe we aren’t worthy of consideration. But DAMN THAT FEELS TERRIBLE. So what’s our response? OUR GOOD FRIEND AND PROTECTOR CONTEMPT!!!

Contempt flies in to help us out…We protect our tender hearts by lashing out. if we’re mean to the other person, if we’re disrespectful and ridiculing, if we are sarcastic…then that other jerk will go away and we will finally be free of them and the pain they’re bringing. Right? And so the cycle goes:

You say one thing. I feel another. I’m bewildered. That feels badly. I’m frustrated, upset that my needs aren’t being met. I keep trying. Nothing ever happens. I’ve lost hope; I’m experiencing despair. That feels f*cking awful, I’m now going to be mean to protect myself from feeling like this. I’m going to treat you like you don’t matter—with the contempt you deserve.

Cycle complete. Rinse and repeat.


But that hurts our adult relationships, and if we’re honest…we don’t really feel all that good about being mean to the people around us. We start to realize that how we are being with others is a reflection of how we are with ourselves. We’ve turned against our own needs and desires, ignored them or minimized them. We’ve treated ourselves like we don’t matter because that’s what we learned from our caregivers. In the absence of a healthy model for good self-care, we simply blame ourselves for others’ unavailability.

If I wasn’t so needy. If I didn’t want so much. If I wasn’t so demanding, then everything would be OK and I wouldn’t hurt like this. These aren’t always conscious thoughts, mind you, nor are they necessarily discernible without really slowing down to notice them. But again, that isn’t something we’re taught to do. So our solution is to use our critical inner voice to change…but it doesn’t works, and we’re back in the contempt cycle.

I truly believe your critical inner voice is the product of a series of unmet needs, repeated frustration, a loss of hope, and a fighting spirit that doesn’t know what else to do but to take it out on you and everyone around you. Lashing out can bring a sense of power back to a despairing soul. If you are nasty to someone, it’s likely you’ll get a response. And what does that do? It alleviates, even for just a moment, your frustration of feeling ineffective. But that voice doesn’t stay externalized, as we know all too well.

Here’s the good news: you know the voice is critical, and though it’s familiar it’s also painful. And chances are that you’re tired of this pain, of all your pain. So you’re tuned in and know that your strategy to keep you safe, the critical voice that demands that people go the F away, has yielded just that. People HAVE gone the F away, but your bewilderment, frustration, despair, and contempt have not. And your critical inner voice is as loud as ever.

So you’re left wondering…how did I get here, and how do I get out?

It’s a bold step to decide to do something different…and on the other side of what you haven’t done yet is everything that you want. Now is your time.

If you’d like support in shifting your inner voice from critical to kind, please contact me or call 407-951-4951.