How to Stop Suffering

How to Stop Suffering

This exercise will be helpful to you if you can relate to any of these difficulties:

Low self-esteem, being shy, embarrassed or awkward socially, feeling shame about mistakes, intimidated by others at work or home, extreme reactive responses of rage or hurting others (plotting revenge!), trying to control everyone and everything in your life. Or if it is simply hard to be around your parents.


Suffering can be seen as a perception. What we consider to be suffering someone else might not. The kind of suffering these 5 tips will address is brought about by that critical voice inside your head that constantly informs you that whatever you try to change about yourself, others, the situation/circumstances and your environment/surroundings, you can’t. It tells you that you can’t change and end your suffering because you are ‘not good enough’. It is this belief that you are ‘not good enough’ that dis-empowers you to change and keeps you bound to suffering. Here are 5 tips to help you get ready to change so as to end suffering:

  1. Identify your critical voice

In order to gain control of your critical voice you have to first be able to hear him/her. This requires special vigilance and commitment. Begin to be aware of your critical voice in problematic situations such as:

–          Meeting strangers

–          Contact with people you find sexually attractive

–          Situations in which you have made a mistake

–          Situations in which you feel criticized and defensive

–          Interactions with authority figures

–          Situations in which you feel hurt or someone has been angry with you

–          Situations in which you risk rejection or failure

–          Conversations with parents or anyone who might be disapproving

  1. Monitor your critical voice

Here is a three-day exercise you can do to monitor your critical voice. For one day, stay as vigilant as possible for self-attacks. Count the number of critical statements you make to yourself. On days two and three, take a further step. Instead of just counting, keep a notebook and write them down. Here is a sample:

Number          Time               Situation         Critical Statement

At night you will do one more task. Read what you have written. Take another piece of paper and for each number, situation and critical statement divide the paper in two and answer the following questions:

This Makes Me Feel or Do                                       This Helps Me Avoid Feeling

Notice when you do this exercise, that there were certain basic themes such as avoiding social anxiety, fear of being surprised by rejection etc. Notice how your critical voice drives you to higher levels of achievement and improvement by setting very high standards. Notice on the one hand, when you achieve the standard set by your critical voice how you can feel intoxicated, but on the other hand when you don’t achieve or live up to your critical voice’s expectations you feel ‘less than’.

  1. Unmask the purpose of your critical voice

When you unmask the critical voice, you expose his/her true purpose and functions. Here are some examples of ways you might unmask your critical voice:

–          You’re kicking me right now to force me to live by the rules I grew up with.

–          You’re comparing me to everyone so that I’ll drive myself to do better.

–          You’re slapping me around like my parents used to do and I believe you because I believed them.

–          You’re insisting that I be perfect because if I did everything exactly right, I might finally feel O.K. about myself.

–          You’re saying I can’t do it so that I won’t bother trying and won’t have to worry about screwing up.

–          You’re telling me they won’t like me so that I won’t be so hurt if I’m rejected

–          You’re saying she is disgusted with me so that no matter what the truth is, I’ll be prepared for the worst.

–          You’re kicking me around so that I can atone for splitting up with my partner.

Getting clear about your critical voice’s function makes everything he/she says less believable. Remember your critical voice attacks you because the voice in some way is being reinforced. When you are able to identify the role this critical voice plays in your life you can begin to undermine the credibility of his/her message.

  1. Talking back

Talking back helps you refute and reject the old negative programming you received as a child. What follows are three methods of talking back to your critical voice:

The Howitzer Mantras:

These are selected words and phrases that are designed to hit the critical voice like a cannon blast. Here are some examples:

–          This is poison. Stop it!

–          These are lies

–          These are lies my father/mother told me

–          Stop this garbage!

–          Shut up!

Choose a mantra that helps you feel angry. When using the Howitzer Mantras shout them inside so that you can drown him/her out with your anger and indignation. What also helps to reinforce the Howitzer Mantras is to put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it while sub-vocalizing your mantra. The important thing is to catch your critical voice just as he/she starts.

Asking the price:

There is a price that you pay every time your critical voice speaks. It’s time to evaluate the cost. Make a list of the ways your self-esteem has been eroded by this critical voice in terms of your relationships, work and level of well-being. When you have finished the list, combine the most important items into a summary statement that you can use when the critical voice attacks. Fight back by saying, ‘I can’t afford this, you’ve cost me…’

Affirmation of worth:

This method is hard to practice, especially if you have a deeply held belief that there is something wrong with you. When your critical voice has been silenced, albeit temporarily, you need to replace his/her voice with a positive awareness of your own worth. Remember, you are a person who is trying to live and that makes you worthwhile as every other person who is doing the same thing. The following affirmations are examples of things you might say to yourself to keep the critical voice at bay:

–          I am worthwhile because I breathe and feel and am aware

–          I am worthwhile because I do the best I can

  1. Making your critical voice useless

You may now be aware that your critical voice’s function is to push you to achieve or protect you from the fear of rejection and failure or to atone for your guilt. But knowing this function doesn’t change much. Those same needs must be met in new and healthy ways before you will be willing to forgo the services of your critical voice. Let’s look at some of these needs and what can be done to change them.

The need to do right:

Your old strategy has been to rely on your critical voice to coerce you into walking the ‘straight and narrow’. The healthier strategy is to reevaluate your list of ‘should’s, musts and ought’s’ and personal standards to see which ones realistically fit you and your current situation. Ask yourself: How do these values no longer serve me?  What alternatives are there available to me if I change these values? What are the short- and long-term consequences for each alternative?

The need to feel right:

Your old strategy for temporarily feeling more worth has been to compare yourself to others or to set high perfectionistic standards. The healthier strategy is to learn to see yourself more realistically so as to help you develop an accurate and accepting evaluation of yourself.

The need to achieve:

Your old strategy relies on your critical voice for motivation to achieve more. But you pay by feeling bad and worthless every time you miss a goal, every time you make an error, every time you lose momentum. The greatest problem though, is that you believe the basic premise of your critical voice’s barrage. You believe the lie that your worth depends on your behaviour. The first step towards meeting your need to achieve in healthy ways is to challenge your old belief that what you do is what you are worth. The next step is to redefine your goals around what you want as opposed what you ‘should, must or ought’ to have.

The need to control negative feelings:

The attack from your critical voice can paradoxically help you to control your fear, guilt, anger and other feelings. This control has a price; it is very much like digging your fingernails into your hand to block awareness of a painful injury. Here are some ways you can turn around those negative feelings:

a)      Feeling not O.K. or bad or valueless – This critical voice can be turned around when you learn to see yourself accurately and with genuine acceptance. Stop comparing yourself to others. Use the affirmation ‘I am a valuable and unique human being. I have the right to be on this planet just like everybody else’.

b)      Fear of failure – The critical voice solves your fear of failure by telling you that you ‘can’t do it’. A healthier strategy for controlling the fear of failure is to redefine the meaning of your mistakes. Recognise that each decision you make is the very best one available to you under the circumstances.

c)      Fear of rejection – The critical voice helps you cope with rejection by predicting and thus desensitizing you to hurts. The critical voice also helps you cope by making you act in a way that others are discouraged from any criticism. A healthier strategy would be to learn to check out an assumed rejection, rather than mind-read the thoughts and feelings of others. Ask specific questions that are designed to clarify suspected negative feelings in others.

d)     Anger – The critical voice helps you deal with your fear of anger by deflecting it into an attack on yourself. A healthier strategy for dealing with your anger is to learn to say what you want and negotiate for change. Learning to be assertive will reduce feelings of anger both towards others and you.

e)      Guilt – The critical voice helps control your guilt by punishing you. A better strategy is to determine if your guilt comes from a violation of a healthy or unhealthy value or rule. Find out if the violated value or rule is realistic, meaning that it is based on the likely consequences and outcomes of your behaviour as opposed to fixed ways of thinking about what ‘should’ be right or what ‘should’ be wrong. You can fight your guilt by beginning to question your old value or rule. The only way to stop the critical voice is to initiate a process of positive atonement.

f)       Frustration – The critical voice helps you control frustration by blaming you and beating you up until you’ve discharged enough negative energy to reduce your tension level. The healthier strategy is to relax and calm yourself down by using slow deep breaths and an affirmation that ‘this too shall pass’. The main purpose of this strategy is to help you toward a sense of personal forgiveness and compassion for your own struggle.

We wish you all the best in your quest to love and treat yourself well. You can Skype us to get help applying this exercise or for further support on your particular journey.

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Acknowledgements to Matthew McKay Ph.D. and Patrick Fanning’s book Self-Esteem.