Who would narrate your life, if a Morgan Freeman style voice over was available? Would it be David Attenbrough, full of wonder and astonishment? Would it be closer to Fight Club as anger and confusion spilt over from the mind to the physical realm?
It is not a purely speculative question. Whilst our every move may not be voiced for the watching millions, unless we embark on the latest Truman show type reality series, we do often have our own, internal, narrators. The voice which at 3 am reminds us of something we said 7 years ago. The critic which insists no one wants to hear our opinions. The sly, snide, commentator who is instantly there to remind us of every mistake, every failure, every misstep.
I once read someone call this internal critic “jerk brain” and it felt like the perfect description. This voice is a jerk. Imagine if it were another person? Would we want to be friends with someone who brought up the mistakes of others, who tore down every moment of joy with a sly comment? Most of us would want nothing to do with such a person. What then do we do if this is not another person, but a part of our own psyche?
It is important to point out here I am not talking about disassociative identity disorders, multiple systems or hallucinations. Our inner critic, the powerful “jerk brain” is not separate from us, indeed it is a very real part of us, which gives it a lot of its power.
How then do we deal with the jerk, when it is a part of us? Let’s consider how we would deal with an unpleasant work mate, who always denigrated the work of others?
It is a simple fact that it takes two to have an argument. This is the case when the argument is going on inside of our own heads. Metaphorically walking away can be incredibly powerful. Part of the reason people often find CBT does not help them, especially if they are survivors of domestic abuse, child abuse, or have CPTSD, is that the criticism mirrors those who had power and authority in their lives. If someone told us, repeatedly, that we were worthless, a slut, destined to fail, and society told us that they spoke with authority, we absorb those messages simultaneously. When we try to argue rationally with our jerk brain, if we have not unpicked the power relationships of who gave us those original negative messages, we can be doomed to failure. (Which is not to say that CBT never works, for some it is an ideal intervention).
So, instead of arguing with the inner critic, a good tactic can be to walk away. Recognise that the thoughts are there, acknowledge them as we would the annoying work mate, but refuse to be drawn in. Even saying to ourselves “this is jerk brain” (or whatever designation you prefer) can be very powerful. Mediation and various techniques of mindfulness can be helpful at familiarising us with our own minds, and how to step away from negative thoughts.
By refusing to engage in an argument with our inner critic are we making ourselves the one with power, and control. It also removes a lot of energy both from jerk brain itself, and thus gives us more energy to spend on other, more positive things.
CHECK IT OUT
Think about the obstructive workmate again. One of the things you might do is ask other people you trusted about their experiences of working with the person. Talking to those you know and trust about the thoughts, ideas and suggestions of jerk brain can be incredibly helpful. A word of warning though, abusive people will try to reinforce the feelings, and it can be hard to ignore them when we are struggling to believe jerk brain is wrong. For many therapy is the initial space where they admit exactly what their inner narrator has been saying. It can come as quite a shock to clients when I reflect that instead of someone weak and worthless I see someone of immense strength and courage.
Social media can be a useful tool too (again assuming we are safe from abusive people like trolls). Often sharing the negative thoughts and beliefs we have built up can be revolutionary.To discover many others feel the same is to discover the lies of those who fed us the original jerk brain script. While we may have been told by a spouse, partner, parent, that we were uniquely terrible, the fact actually is that abusive people tend to be very predictable, and many will have had the same criticisms levelled against us.
Checking it out can even be done with our past selves, although sadly Tardis’s are not yet available in counselling rooms. Instead, when you are feeling well and positive making lists of affirmations and challenges to jerk brain can be very helpful. If a common thought is that you are useless, make a list of all the things you are good at. If need be ask your therapist, or good friends to help. Keep this list safe, perhaps in your self care box, then, when needed get it out to remind you of the truth. Try not to argue with yourself, as I have already pointed out, this just uses up a lot of energy, instead try to just read the affirmations or lists, and accept them as facts.
DISTRACTION IS OK
I have lost count of the number of people who have expressed surprise that I don’t look down on distractions. It seems to be a product of a culture which praises over work, and the self-help books of the past which insisted we must we working on ourselves every second of every day.
There is nothing wrong with loosing yourself in a book, favourite TV show, activity such as colouring, knitting, baking or exercise to distract from jerk brain. Not every second can, or should be spent on self-improvement. It is OK to say, today I just need to ignore the jerk, and find something to distract me from its sound and fury. Some people find it useful to ask for suggestions of TV shows which are positive and non triggering, and also keep these with their self-care suggestions and materials.
IT’S OK TO NOT BE OK
Perhaps the most important thing about dealing with jerk brain is the realisation that almost everyone has it from time to time. Accepting that sometimes we struggle, because that is part of being human can be incredibly powerful. Reaching out, and discovering that others too are suffering can be an important moment in moving from the darkness into the light.