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You know how they say awareness is always the first step toward change? 

This is annoying to me, not because it’s inaccurate (oh, it’s accurate all right), but because—as the adjective “first” implies—additional steps will be required. Ugh! You mean awareness is not enough to create change!? 

Anyway, despite my intellectual distaste for admitting that a cheap truism is in fact 100% true—yes, I’m on board. Cultivating awareness is indeed the first step toward a change. 

Are you talking to me?

Here’s the change I’ve been occupied with since my 20s when I discovered the presence of actual Buddhists in my neighborhood: Getting a grip on my self-hating self-talk. That’s not Buddhism’s main project, of course, but it does seem to be one of mine. Because the thing about this type of self-talk is that it causes intense psychic pain. The kind that can prevent us from watering the plants or experiencing love. 

The kind of psychic pain that Buddhists consider literal Hell. 

Now some people think that if you’re in hell, the less awareness of your home address, the better. But not if you want to draw yourself an accurate map of the way out. If your destination is love and kindness, the project becomes turning the awareness up to 11.

It’s not complicated. Awareness of self-talk is just putting some attention on what we’re thinking about, and doing that again and again and again.

And I don’t mean shutting down genuine insight or fresh ideas. I mean zeroing in on the drone of that unkind voice.

The Voice: You know it well.

The thing about insight and invention is that we have them in volcanic quantity. Or we would if we could just get that windbag the Inner Critic/Hanging Judge to shut up for a minute. 

In contrast to fresh thinking, the Voice only has a few ideas. I know them well. They are, essentially:

  1. You suck
  2. These people suck
  3. Everything sucks and we’re all gonna die

In one word: hate. For my poor brain, the bulk of Voice-originating thought—not including fresh insight and inventive notions—seems to roll up into just a very few categories, and hate is the biggest one. 

The others are fantasy and recycling. Some of the fantasy is hateful and it all gets recycled. Repetition is the Voice’s whole strategy.

If you’re interested in detail, I’ve catalogued:

  • Fantasy, worries (some minor disaster, but mostly full apocalypse)
  • Fantasy, revenge
  • Fantasy, future glory (includes life makeovers; staggering riches; and fluency in multiple languages, spoken and written)
  • Hate, self (name-calling, berating)
  • Hate, othering (name-calling; critiques of speech, behavior, and appearance)
  • Repetition, total nonsense (so embarrassing!! Hope I don’t start talking to myself in my later years because it will definitely disconcert the people…)
  • Repetition, all of the above

See how boring? What about your categories? Let’s compare Voices!

This is all leading to good news though! And since I’ve already revealed my little repetition habit to you, I will repeat that awareness is the first step.

And tell you that the second step is looking that disembodied voice of hate straight in its lying little heart‡ and sticking up for yourself by saying:

“INACCURATE! I am not a complete dumdum.* Here is the evidence.”

And then I skim a few pieces of evidence right off the top of a very tall pile, which is what my mentor Martha Beck taught me to do. 

And here is the other thing Martha teaches: You do this every single time. You train your awareness to catch the voice bullying you, and you never, never let it go. You make that bully back down. You stay resolutely on your own side, with kindness.

This is a challenging project for sure. But very worthwhile. Heaven awaits.

Let me know how you go.


‡ If you’re wondering, I acknowledge that many people believe the Voice “just wants to keep you safe.” I don’t think that’s accurate. Any voice that speaks the way my voice speaks has long since left the precincts of guardianship and is now running with a very bad crowd.

*Yeah, that’s not the word the Voice uses; it has a whole ‘nother lexicon for Internal Use Only.

Image: Girl in White Kimono, George Hendrik Breitner, 1894, Rijksmuseum. Used with permission.

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About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • Thanks, Max – the reminder is timely and well said!

  • Great article! My Voices are quite similar. Adding in: I’m not worthy.

  • You could be me!
    My mind is so often not my friend!
    Thank you for articulating the repeat part.. like a hamster in a cage. Knitting really helps quiet my monkeys
    With gratitude

    • I love the way you put this, so true. Thank you!

  • Add “Don’t try that. It won’t work. “. Sort of a sister to “You’re a dumdum”.

  • I think that voice USED to keep us safe, long ago, but no longer is helpful to us and it’s definitely important to shut it down.

  • Wow, it’s like you’re reading my mind! I’m starting to realize that my anger is ok and to allow myself to feel it but to go deeper and suss out what I’m REALLY angry about rather than getting stuck thinking about what I should have said/ done or will say/do if I have the opportunity. Finding out what I’M truly upset about and dealing with that is so much more helpful than trying to manage what OTHERS think of me is so much more productive and freeing.

  • This is really hard for me to do as I’m recovering from narcissistic abuse and I don’t have an inner voice I trust. So, being a Marvel nerd, I have recruited Captain Marvel to stand up for me as I learn to do it myself

    • I love this! Good for you! I might just follow your lead…

    • Yay you! Recognizing what you need, and getting it for yourself, is a HUGE step forward! Congratulations and hugs!

    • You can add all the superheroes you need to back down the bully: Super Self-Care Woman! Wristbands of empathy ward off internal misinformation! Wham! Ka-zam!!

      • Love that! Add a whole squad!

  • My Voice tells me on repeat that any and all of my achievements are only due to fooling others that I am capable – and the very next thing I do will expose me as an imposter I know I am to everyone else. It also tells me I am never getting rid of it and will be listening to it for the rest of my life. I continue to argue with it, but it is pretty exhausting.

  • Mine calls me an R rated dumdum, too! I tell it I’m not, I just (forgot, wasn’t paying attention, etc)
    In the early days, I gave it the name of my ‘nemesis’, & spoke back (*I’m* not the dumdum who married 3 alcoholics Mary)

    Anyway, baby steps. & remind people around you to not talk to themselves that way

  • I had a therapist in DBT tell me to always remember that your mind has bad neighborhoods and you should try to stay out of them. This metaphor has helped me a lot.*

    Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird as another good way of putting it. She says that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.

    Through my mental health journey, truly negative self talk has become a sign that I need to step back and work to make sure I have the support I need to be safe and healthy.

    * I know this is a problematic metaphor, as real life bad neighborhoods have lots of lovely people living there. However, the bad neighborhood of the mind, being a metaphor, is where the lovely people aren’t.

    • One event helped change my negative self-talk. I missed an early morning appointment with a wonderful friend and she called to see if I was on my way. I had totally forgotten the appointment and was apologizing profusely to the point of beating my self up. My blessed friend said “Stop! Don’t talk to my friend that way!”. I think I will remember that always. And I will pass it on to others, like you my knitting friends!

  • I love this. Thank you.

  • Thanks! I needed that.

  • Love this. Genius. I’m definitely going to be thinking about all of this.

  • My therapist told me early on in the process that I definitely had “a witch” in my head, and this certainly helped me to identify my negative self-talk. It’s an ongoing process for me. Some days she seems to be in charge, others not so much. Whatever the situation, she is entirely a construct of my imagination and my mind. None of the things she says are ever true.

  • Thanks Max. I find it interesting that when something is needed in our lives, the universe provides.

  • I thought I was the only one with this negative voice in my head.the voice the same one that I heard on my outside dysfunctional family, and yes boyfriends. I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t go to such and such private school, didn’t live in xyz neighborhood, was in the slow learning groups at school, the list went on and on. Yesterday I went to my favorite hairdresser and I admitted that I wished I had become a hairdresser instead of my college degree. I felt bad because I never made money, something close to 80k.( I made 35k a year) My wonderful hairdresser said to me, your got retirement package, health insurance and that is something I have never was then that certain walls broke down for me. I made choices based upon my experiences and the real fear of poverty, of homelessness of crashing failure. I did crash and burn, but I also got myself together and started up the ladder again. It is incredibly hard, I have a soap opera running through my head that harms no one but me. Maybe I should channel this into some kind of art…

  • Oh boy, I need this today. The voices are at stadium level! Thanks Max. Great column.

  • I have a special rage filled everyone is an annoying piece of shit voice which I’ve noticed starts when I’m tired. The cure is to allow myself to rest.

  • Wow. “Girl in White Kimono” is a perfect illustration, too.

  • I have often said that we are our own worst bullies. But it’a sometimes easier said than done.

  • Boy, did I need to read this today! My Voices just won’t just shut up lately. I’m going to save this article then head straight to Martha Beck’s website.

    • Interesting… I have been bullied all of my life by the witch in my head…AKA Mother. She has been gone for nearly 10 years, but has lurked in my dreams( totally invisible to everyone but me and I keep reminding her that she is dead and needs to be elsewhere). Night before last “she hung up the phone “…. I woke up and that was my first thought; the second being THE BEGINNING OF A NEW ERA.
      Thank you knitters for speaking and listening!

  • My favorite internal phrase is “it takes all sorts to make the world go round. If everyone was me the world wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.” It makes my internal voice stop in it’s tracks and realize that others have said (out loud to me!) what my internal voice is starting to say – and since I wholly disagree with those others, I’m definitely not going to say those things myself! Just because whatever isn’t being done MY way, doesn’t mean that it’s wrong – it takes all sorts of ideas/people to make the world go round.

  • My therapist recommended giving the Voice a name, maybe playful, to differentiate it a bit from myself. Different names (usually unsuitable for public hearing) seem to suit it at different times. Another little trick I’m learning is to recognize just when it shows up by feeling the sensation of everything internally getting swept up in an emotional tornado. In that moment, I can decide whether to let it blow through, or just not play its game at that time. Baby steps! Good luck to all of us that hear Voices!

  • This is timely as my inner windbag has recently found some new material (menopause) to torture me with. Thank you for the reminder and solid advice for shutting that voice down.

  • Thanks for the reminders on awareness of and dealing with “the Voice”…and for your straightforwardness and wonderful sense of humor in dealing with tough topics. I also love the references to Martha Beck. A few months ago my wise and caring doctor told me he was listening to “The Way of Integrity” by Martha Beck and highly recommended it to me. I borrowed the audiobook from the library and listened while I knit. My husband even wandered into the room frequently to listen with me. I especially loved hearing the book read by Martha herself.

  • Max I can’t thank you enough for this deeply honest, vulnerable & helpful column on an aspect of mental health that is so important. For me, when the self-loathing voice starts up without intervention, it’s a frickin slippery slope aka downward spiral to very emotionally painful places. I appreciate your honesty & yeah kindness on this topic. And I have been meaning to look for more Martha Beck! Got the podcast now, woohoo. MDK people: please keep Max in the lineup! Mental health needs more than knit & purl sometimes.

  • Thank you for this incredibly helpful post. I’m at the stage where I can finally see that some of the stuff I think about myself (or worse, think other people think about me, as if my inner critic is telepathic) is unfounded, negative bullying and it is a HUGE step to be able to do that.

    I don’t know if you ever watched Bojack Horseman*, but there’s an episode when his younger sister has a constant voice in her head because of anxiety (and he does too) and it was a bit of a wake-up call that not everybody thinks like that.

    Knitting helps me so much because it calms the noise down a lot and as a bonus I’m creating things so I’m not just being lazy (so f*** you inner critic!)

    *If you are in an even slightly bad place, don’t watch Bojack Horseman. It’s brutal.

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