Virginia Ironside's Dilemma: The critical voice inside my head

It's all very well your therapist telling you to ignore it, says Virginia, but you may well need a more practical strategy than that

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

I'm feeling very depressed. I've had a lot of counselling and my therapist says I'm suffering from the presence of a "critical voice". Even though I tell myself I'm successful, have a wonderful husband, two great kids and make lists of all the good things in my life, there's always a voice telling me I'm rubbish, that people are talking about me, that they think I'm stupid. My husband's getting fed up with reassuring me, but I can't seem to get stop constantly putting myself down. Any tips?


Yours sincerely,



Virginia says...

Join the club. I’m sure I appear confident to most people, but in my own brain there’s a constant drone saying “You’re an idiot!” “You should be ashamed of yourself” “Who would want you as a friend?” “You’re slimy and underhanded”. After getting your letter I checked with a few friends to see if we were alone and they all told me they have the same critical moan in the background.

It’s no good your counsellor telling you should simply “get rid of” the voice. It doesn’t work like that. My own method, which sometimes works, is trying to accept the voice. Acknowledge it. It wants to be heard, so hear it. But try to listen to it objectively. Is what it is saying really true? Does its message have any more sense in it than the babbling of a crazy person screaming abuse at no one in particular down the street? Try to isolate it. Yes, you have a critical voice. It’s there and it’s loud and cruel. But you are able to evaluate it. Try to think of it as just having some frightful nutter in tow.

Another approach is to ask yourself what function the critical voice performs. Why is its presence useful to you? I suspect that many of us, in our childhoods, felt ignored, abused or abandoned. Because we were tiny and powerless, it was too frightening to vilify our caregivers. We needed them. But our anger at being treated so badly had to come out somewhere. So we attacked ourselves. Instead of our misery being their fault – a situation that makes us feel exceptionally alone and powerless – much easier to decide that it is our own fault. We’re ignored or hated because we’re a bad person. In a way, the critical voice saves us from a dreadful reality – that we felt we were simply not loved or listened to when we were young.

Along with the critical voice often goes, in my experience, an equally unrealistic arrogance. Alcoholics and addicts, who are renownedly assailed by critical voices and use alcohol to drown it out, often describe this as the “His Majesty, the Worm” syndrome. So instead of feeling just like humdrum normal people, we can feel curiously special in our loathsomeness.

I’d ask around your friends and ask them about their critical voices. Once you discover that more people than you imagine are beset with these psychic put-downs, you might be able to live better with yours and regard it not so much as a sage old truth-teller but a mad old relative who evolved, all those years ago, to protect yourself.

Readers say...

Put it on paper

I used to suffer very badly from depression and its companion, low self-esteem, to the extent that I spent six months in a mental hospital in my early  20s – some 40 years ago.

We are all different, of course, but the thing that seemed finally to start me on the road to the happiness I now feel was when, during a bad time 20 years ago, I wrote out my life story in an attempt to understand how I’d reached this point of despair.

In writing it I realised that (unlike some others I’ve encountered) I am kind, generous, caring, supportive, loyal and funny. In other  words, a rather nice person.  It helped enormously.

Sara Neill, by email

Tackle it head on

The voice that you hear is the voice of an adult or elder sibling in your childhood, who belittled you. It has become deeply embedded in you and is affecting your self-esteem. The only way is to confront it head on. Whenever the voice tells you that you cannot, show it that you can. Go do what you feel incompetent to do. If you do this you will beat the voice in the end.

Good luck.

Francis Beswick, by email

Next week’s dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My partner and I have been together for five years and have a two-year-old daughter. We are extremely happy except for one thing. He has admitted that before we met he was very much in love with a woman who wasn’t interested in him. She has a partner of her own. But even now, they often meet for lunch and have long chats on the phone and I hear them laughing. They email daily. He promises there’s nothing in it and he loves us, but it upsets me. I’ve met her and she seems very nice, but I still feel excluded. Should I insist he give her up?

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise Gina to do?

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