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Have you ever caught yourself beating yourself up? What can’t we stop it?

I was giving tuition to one of my students. When he was doing some assignments, I noticed he would scold himself out loud whenever he made a mistake. He probably didn’t even realize he was beating himself up the whole time.

He was always nice and kind when he talked to me, but when he talked to himself, it was as though he was transformed into another person. That made me wonder:

Where does our critical inner voice come from?

Where do we inherit this critical inner voice from? Is it from our parents at home? Our classmates and teachers in school? Our colleagues and employers at work? Or could it be the environment we live in?

What I know is it can’t be inherent. Look at babies. Babies are such beautiful beings. They don’t reprimand themselves for not being able to walk or talk. They just keep on trying until they get it.

So where do we learn to talk negatively to ourselves?

Where Did This Critical Inner Voice Come from?

At Home

Even though our parents have a good intention for us, we do pick up a lot of our beliefs from our parents or our primary caretakers (e.g. maids and grandparents).

Sometimes when I walked on the road, I would see parents scolding their children, dragging them to move along, and telling them off. I’m not a parent. I’m not in the position to judge them. But I always wondered how would that affect their children. 

  • Would their children grow up to be lack of self-confidence – always needing other people to tell them what to do in life?
  • Would they be constantly defensive and afraid to let others know their mistakes?
  • Would they treat others the same at school – telling other students off?
  • And would they scold themselves harshly whenever they made a mistake like what my student did?

Some parents believe that their children would only learn by scolding them. But I believe there is a kinder way to teach and guide children to navigate the world we live in. Constantly telling your children they are weak in something or a subject would make them believe they are really weak in that area even though it may not be true!

At School

School is another place where we spent most of our time as kids. It’s likely that we get our habits of negative self-talk from there too.

I remember there was one time when I was in primary 1 or 2 and I accidentally stepped on an insect during assembly. My classmate immediately gave me a lashing for being so cruel to the living creatures. Another time, my friends and I were playing catch with each other and one of my friends fell down while I was chasing him. His best friend shouted at me, “I’ll not let you off.”

As harmless and silly these incidents from childhood might seem, they made me feel bad about myself for quite a while.

What about verbal bullying in school? Our classmates laugh at what we said and how we looked, make fun of our names, and gave us nicknames. To prevent ourselves from being laughed at by others, we criticize ourselves first. We make sure we don’t make any mistakes. We make sure we look the best all the time. We lose sleep over our acne and our weight issue. All because we want to fit in.

It’s understandable that children aren’t taught how to emotionally treat other people well. But sometimes, it is the teachers. My secondary 1 teacher would bring us up to the front of the class one by one and mock at our Chinese compositions.

How would that make us feel about ourselves?

At Work

By the time we are out to work, most of our beliefs about ourselves had already been cemented within us. What our colleagues and employers said about us aren’t going to change what we think of ourselves much.

People at work merely act as a reflection of our past experiences. Subconsciously in our minds, our parents and our employers are very much alike. As kids, we depend on our parents for survival – we get food, shelter, and love from them. As employees, we also depend on our employers for survival – we get our salaries and bonuses from them. Fitting in with our colleagues are just like fitting in with our peers in schools.

The pressure and demand at work are likely to add on to our existing negative voice, but I don’t think that’s where our negative voice originates.


How about the environment where we grew up in? Does it contribute to our negative voice?

I believe so, especially if we grew up in a country that had major conflicts such as war or racial disputes. I was lucky that I had none of those when I grew up. But I did notice that friends who grew up in these environments were affected greatly by the conflicts. Imagine being minorities in a country and being bullied by others since young, what would that do to our self-esteem?

Why You Can’t Stop Beating Yourself Up?

Logically, people would love to be praised. But if that was true, why do we still beat ourselves up?

The truth is it’s more enjoyable to have our negative beliefs reaffirmed than

saying something good about ourselves which we don’t believe in.

Have you ever complimented someone and they reject your compliments?

Telling low self-esteem people that they are good makes them feel very uncomfortable. I know this firsthand. When one of my mentors in Bali continuously praised how good my book was, I started squirming and cringing. I was never praised by my parents. It felt really awkward to receive such compliments from others.

When someone said something that is in conflict with what we believe about ourselves, we tend to reject it. Everyone knows that negative self-talk doesn’t make us feel good in the long run, but we still do it. It’s like eating snacks that are unhealthy. Everyone knows that eating snacks are unhealthy, but we still eat them because the snacks make us feel good.

It’s the same for negative self-talk. As weird as it sounds:

Negative self-talk offers us some comfort and familiarity.

It reaffirms our belief about ourselves. That’s the reward! When my student asked me if I was boiling because he didn’t get the concept immediately, he wasn’t concerned with what I was feeling. He was actually seeking affirmation that he was a slow learner.

Stop Beating Yourself Up, But Don’t Blame Others

Just because we received most of our negative voice from our parents and peers when we are young, doesn’t mean we should blame them for that. They are doing the best that they can with the consciousness they have.

Be more discerning and aware of ourselves. Whenever we beat ourselves up, ask ourselves:

Is that really our voice or our parents’ voice? Whose voice is that?

Sometimes, I kept telling myself, “I’m late. I’m late. I’m late”. Then one day, I realized that voice and anxiety came from my dad. My dad used to fetch me to work. He would always get on his car first and remind me that I was late! I always felt a need to rush for work even though I was one of the earliest to arrive at my office.

Once we become more aware of our negative voice, we can change the voice and teach it to speak nicely to us. So be more mindful of how we speak to ourselves.

Featured Photo Credit: Let negative become positive / Paige Williams