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How to Make Your Cruel Inner Voice Work for You, Not Against You

Stressed woman

“We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy and strong. The amount of work is the same.” ~Carlos Castaneda

I’ve always had issues with food, but in the past five years this struggle became a full-blown eating disorder.

I remember the first time I thought I was too big, in fourth grade. Now I know that I wasn’t too big. Maybe I hadn’t outgrown my baby fat yet, but I wasn’t overweight. Still, all the other girls at my school were smaller than me.

There was one day when a pediatrician came to our school for a health check. Everyone was measured, weighed, etc. I can still feel the sheer horror I felt when my friends asked about my weight.

I lied, but they didn’t believe me. Instead, they called me fat and ugly and told me that they didn’t want to play with me any longer.

This feeling, this shame, stuck with me all my life.

Since that day I’ve struggled with low self-esteem and the fear of not being accepted for who I am. I believe this was beginning for my eating disorder.

Inner Voices

In therapy I learned that my self-talk influences me tremendously, and I also learned that the inner voices aren’t always right. Sometimes they are ego-driven, and not focused on what’s the best for me in the long run.

My inner voice told me that I’d only be worthy and likable if I were skinny.

It would cheer me up when I was eating less than the day before, and it would beat me up when I ate “too much.” (Note: one apple plus one tub of cottage cheese was “too much”!)

I was literally starving myself. I was so brainwashed by that constant mantra of “Come on, Mona. You’re stronger than your hunger! You made it yesterday! You don’t have to eat!” that I didn’t realize I was highly depressed and severely underweight.

When I finally got tired of feeling constantly miserable, it took two therapists, countless tears, and an incredible amount of hard work to overcome my destructive behavior.

But I can proudly say, I did it. I made peace with my eating disorder voice.

Now I want to share with you the technique that kick-started my recovery and gave me back my life.

Our Inner Team

The inner team is a model borrowed from communication psychology, developed by German psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun.

Schulz von Thun uses working groups or teams as metaphor for the inner voices we all embody (the inner plurality) and a team leader, who ideally decides and executes (that’s you).

Unfortunately, our inner voices usually don’t act like a team, but more like a gathering of selfish narcissists pretending to be important, often by screaming louder than everyone else.

The composition of our inner team depends on our given circumstances, upbringing, and environment.

In my team, for example, there is “the rational.” Its comments are well thought out and very reasonable. It wants results, numbers, and theories—“no emotional bs.” I also have “the perfectionist,” who always insists on excellence and nothing less.

In the past five years my loudest voice was my eating disorder voice. It’s been bullying all the other team members to silence them, frantically screaming the calories I had just eaten or pretending to be “the only one who really cares.”

Here’s how I got my inner team from a one-woman-show (starring my eating disorder voice) to a team of equal partners, trying to achieve a win-win-situation.

How To Manage Your Inner Team

Step 1: Identify the team members.

Who are they? What do they say? Can you give them a name? I suggest you make a sketch to visualize the team constellation.

When I was in therapy, I paid attention throughout the course of one normal day to listen to and identify the voices that popped up.

The first thing in the morning I “heard” a voice telling me that I’d screwed up the day before. It told me that I’d destroyed everything I’d worked for by eating so much and that I had to skip breakfast to make up for it.

This was my eating disorder voice.

Then a quiet little voice spoke up: “Don’t be to hard on yourself, honey. You restricted yourself for so long, you deserve that cake. And not just one little slice. You deserve the whole cake.” This is, what I call, “the Mother,” as my mum (and grandma) always emphasized the importance indulging in food.

This team member deeply cares about me and wants to protect me from starving myself, but as “the Eating Disorder” is so overly powerful, it needs to become more drastic itself.

As I told you, I also embody “the Perfectionist.” During my eating disorder phase, all my team members were affected by the message the eating disorder voice kept yelling.

It’s like you’re being brainwashed. And so were my other team members.

I always had an interest in clean eating and when I tried to integrate this concept in my life, “the Perfectionist” was my biggest enemy. If I ate clean for a whole day, but then had a slice of birthday cake, it would beat me up for not eating 100 percent clean:

“You’re a failure. You just totally screwed up. Why would you even eat healthy, when eventually you’re always going to ruin everything?”

Then “the Mother” would jump on that wagon, encouraging me to indulge into the cake, while the eating disorder would furiously try to stop me from doing so.

With these and my three other team members, it got messy in my head. The next step gives order to the chaos.

Step 2: Listen carefully.

Now every team member gets the chance to explain him or herself in greater detail. Make sure to listen carefully to every one and write down the main arguments.

Some of mine included:

Eating disorder: “I just want you to be skinny so that you’re confident and no one can hurt you. So please stop eating so much.”

Perfectionist: “If you stop making mistakes, people will like you. When you’re perfect, they’ll have nothing to criticize.”

Mother: “You are stressed, I can feel it. Have some cake to calm down; you deserve it. You have to take care of yourself.”

Only if you truly accept each team member will you understand its message. Think of a team at work. You have to accept people and face them with openness so that they are willing to share their thoughts with you. Only then can you really try to understand what they want need.

Step 3: Brainstorm. 

In the previous step you acknowledged each of your team members and gave them permission to exist. Now dig into what each one of them really needs.

Let’s go back to my example and have a closer look on what my team really wants and needs:

Eating Disorder: I want to protect you and I want you to love yourself so that you can be confident around other people.

Perfectionist: I want to protect you from the pain of not being liked.

Mother: I want to help you comfort and take care of yourself.

Slightly different from what their message was before, isn’t it?

Now it’s time to get creative: How can you satisfy the needs in a healthy way? A piece of cake won’t give you any comfort or make you feel less stressed. All it does is provide energy for your body, when what you really need might be a break.

Step 4: Decide.

Now that you’re aware of the different motivations, concerns, and needs, it’s easier for you to make an informed and self-determined decision.

I easily get stressed and would turn to food for comfort. Now that I’m aware of this pattern it’s easier for me to resist the urge to swallow down a jar of peanut butter and do some light yoga instead.

When my eating disorder voice starts saying that I have to lose weight to be liked, I start talking to it. I say that I heard and appreciate its concerns and that I’m working on becoming more confident, but that I’ve decided to try a different approach this time.

This is my version of the Inner Team framework, and even if seems a little strange at first to “communicate with your inner voices,” it’s so beneficial.

This process gives you the chance to take a step back and slow down instead of rushing through life one autopilot decision after another.

You become mindful.

By allowing all your inner voices to co-exist, you reduce their tendency to catch your attention through “screaming.” Acknowledge their right to exist and know that they do want the best for you, though their suggestions aren’t always right.

I can genuinely say that I finally arrived at a point where I am in charge. Thanks to my inner team, I have the power to choose.

And I choose a healthy life.

Photo credit: © Mariayunira | Stress Woman Photo

Profile photo of Mona Lang

About Mona Lang

Mona runs a blog called Project Emme, where she helps young women to find purpose and design a life they genuinely love. Learn how to deal with your inner critics and get your workbook here. It’s free!

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  • Great post! As always, your writing is helpful and inspiring 🙂

  • Marie, you’re so gorgeous. It is wonderful to hear you found this post helpful. Have a great day 🙂 <3

  • Wonderful article, Mona! If you haven’t also checked out Richard Swartz’s Internal Family System stuff, it is great for identifying the different parts of ourselves. I love that this type of psychology is becoming more popular as I know it helped me THE MOST of all the various therapies I have tried in my life. I’m always delighted to see someone write about the parts and understanding how to work with them and be Self-led!

  • Hi Shannon, thank you so much for sharing your light and incredible helpful information. I haven’t heard about that, but definitely going to check that out, right after sending this comment.

    I, too, found the most value in this system, which is almost crazy after years of therapy (which also were ooookay, but not that helpful as this method is for me). I just love the idea that we do have all we need to overcome struggles already in us. We don’t need to add anything, no fancy woo-woo magic, just work with what we already have and learn from it.

    I think Lori put it perfectly on her twitter feed yesterday: Some people think that to be strong is to never feel pain. Strong people feel, understand, accept & learn from it.

    I have nothing more to add.

    Have a great day, Shannon.
    xx M.

  • Liz Molitor

    i have a 4 month old and am really struggling with postpartum anxiety right now – this post has been extremely helpful. i’m going to take the time this evening to identify all the different voices i have going on right now (and there are a bunch!) and see if i can start listening to them.

    by chance, have you seen oprah’s special with elizabeth gilbert? elizabeth talks about something pretty similar in their discussion.

    good stuff, thanks for sharing your process!

  • YES! I agree it’s crazy that so many therapists don’t know about working with our parts and how healing it can be!! You may also want to check out the method taught by Ann Weiser Cornell at Focusing Resources. I am so thrilled you are writing about this and loved your article!! xo

  • fragglerock

    These are great ideas. It’s also important to acknowledge the voices of our parents and the larger culture. If our parents house and feed us and don’t beat us, sometimes we fail to recognize covert abuse and neglect.

    I struggled for years with the same issues only to learn my loving mother was a full blown narcissist. Realizing your parents and/or the culture might not have your best interests at heart is a hard pill to swallow but it’s more accurate and far healthier than the belief that our dis-ease is inborn.

    A runny nose is a sign of a larger problem — people exhibiting symptoms of mental “illness” can be signs of larger familial and cultural problems.

  • You are too, Mona <3

  • Hey Liz, first of all congratulations on the baby.
    Second, I am so sorry to learn about the anxiety you’re experiencing. I can’t even begin to imagine the overload of emotions one feels when having a child. Even though I’m not a mommy yet, I remember a something from Tal-Ben Shahar, who I found tremendously wise:

    He shared an advice he got from his pediatrician when he first became father, who said that they should prepare to feel the whole range of emotions, and that it is just natural to do so.

    I don’t know if this helps at all, but I think it’s encouraging to know anyways.

    As for the process, if there’s anything I can help you with, shoot me a mail and we’ll figure out a masterplan to kick your inner cruel’s butt!

    xx M.

  • Wow, you just blew me away. I rewrote this response like 6 times now, because the idea you’re talking about is so huge and important that I can’t really figure out how I can respond to that adequately. I haven’t given it that much thought – that our struggles aren’t inborn – and I believe I have to think about it to really grasp it.

    I do have a question though – if this is something you don’t want to talk about, I perfectly understand that: How do you handle the situation when a loving/caring parent shows narcissist tendencies?

    Thanks for sharing this thoughtful comment. You really got me thinking…

    xx M.

  • fragglerock

    Absolutely! Dealing with caregivers who show narcissistic tendencies is a slippery slope but one encountered by many of us in the PTSD community. Sometimes a relationship is salvageable, sometimes we must go low or no contact.

    The key is to take an honest look at how this relationship is affecting you. Do you come away from interactions with this person exhausted? Do you confide in them only to find they turn it into something about them (“where did I go wrong? I’m such an awful parent”). That was a big one for me, I was in an abusive relationship and needed help but all my mom could talk about was her failures.

    Allowing your parents, especially mom, to be accountable for their damaging behavior is still taboo. We are a culture that likes to blame the individual for their struggles instead of looking at how the system/family is abusive.We do not exist in a vacuum and we should not be expected to solve our problems in one.

  • stefany

    These are great ways to make peace and silence our inner critiques. I know what you have gone through because I’ve been in the same place as you were. When I was in college I had co students commenting at my weight every single day which left me thinking that i was overweight when i wasn’t. I was in my early 20’s so it’s normal to gain an inch of fat.

    To make matters worse, a couple of years later I had a boyfriend who made it a habit to remind me how “fluffy” I was and how he dislikes a woman with a little belly fat. I had to cut him lose real quick. I thought to my self why would you date a “fluffy” woman in the first place if like skinny girls.

    But you know, I notice that many disorders and traumas are caused by external sources, and we the ones traumatized are left to deal with the conflicts happening within us everyday.

    I learned that the only way we can break the chains our inner voices have is to learn self-love. when I started to love myself and practice self acceptance everything changed; I chose a healthier lifestyle and now I’m feeling great.

  • Stefany, it breaks my heart to learn about your struggles. I am always amazed how people can say mean things about others without realizing what that might cause.. I think your story is even worse – students in college should be self-aware enough to know that everything they say has an effect. That really makes me mad.

    Knowing that you’ve overcome your pain and are able to love yourself is fantastic. I experienced the same: when I started to respect myself (loving myself took me a little longer 😉 ), the way I treated myself changed dramatically.

    You’re a strong woman and I’m glad you shared your story with us.

    All the best to you,
    xx M.

  • Again, awesome information. I think the message you’re sharing is super encouraging for a lot of us, who always asked themselves why they’re suffering. Why they can’t overcome the issues.

    Although these decisions (reducing or avoiding contact) can be tough to make, I totally agree with you that we have to break the taboo around them. Being a parent does not equal being free from accountability for abusive behavior.

    Love this one, it’s exactly right and I have nothing more to add:

    “We do not exist in a vacuum and we should not be expected to solve our problems in one.”

  • fragglerock

    THANK you! Spread the word and never stop asking questions.

  • sebastianwrites

    This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read on psychology, and really these issues do apply to myself.

    Great work Mona…

    However, have to pick you ladies up on this, and why do women do this so often, and I feel to the detriment of “both” sexes. Your blog for instance Emma seems to be primarily directed at women?

    Men’s and women’s or visa versa issues… in reality are the same!

    I wrestle with “many” of the same problems you do. Similar thoughts… we all do to a greater or lesser degree.

    * However I do ask… how do you apply Healthy Creativity as an alternative solution to these thoughts? Something I have to work on… I’ve realised with this, that one of my really, really critical voices… really wants me to be “strong, and courageous, stand up for myself and not get hurt…” I could go on.

    Even when I understand the motivation now… it is hard to be honest, when I certainly have a voice which is indeed a perfectionist.

    Thanks again.

  • Joy ✨

    Thank you so much for sharing this wisdom.
    It is a very constructive, positive approach to understanding what goes on inside the mind. It also can be very useful in understanding people better and what motivates their behaviour.
    Fantastic article has been so helpful.
    Thank you

  • I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I’ve had other struggles that involved cruel inner voices.

    What an awesome and beneficial post! Thanks for sharing your story and wisdom Ms. Lang.

  • M_In_O_Town

    We live in a cruel society that *loves* to browbeat us if we are different, no matter how much we don’t change ourselves physically it will always be the same responses; “You are unapproachable” that’s why makeovers exist and everyone on daytime TV has had shows about them…even Oprah. We are taught that cruel voice by our peers including the (ig)noble born again “Christians” my experience, our parents and relatives contribute to this too. As the result of this I became an alcoholic and an addict to dull the pain of my existence. How could I be loved by God if his own people did not. I eventually did get that makeover and the second I completed that metamorphosis life most definitely changed with the women doing the chasing. People’s attitudes changed towards me as friendlier. I now had value. Even in AA where I was exploited as a good looking reason to come to meetings. I am sorry to report such an account of humanity’s traits, but we need a serious revamping of our perceptions and attitudes towards ourselves and others before we call ourselves enlightened.

  • Dear Justine,
    it’s wonderful to hear you find value in this post. I hope it helps and inspires you to work with your inner team, because I truly found so much hope and peace in it.

    I hope you’re having an awesome day, thanks for sharing your light with me!

    xx M.

  • First of all, it is fantastic to see that you approach your alcoholism and addiction head on! You’re a brave and wonderful human being.

    I believe you mention the really important point that our appearance does have an impact on how we’re treated in this world. I did experience the same – to some degree, at least – but I also noticed that my perception was totally programmed to seek for it. I don’t know if that makes sense.. I did think that when I was skinny/beautiful/smart/successful/any other superficial outcome, I’d be treated differently. In retrospect I think two things are true:

    1.) I was brainwashed from society’s image of beauty and it certainly did blur my image of it, too, so that I was constantly looking to prove my assumption right.. guess what, when you focus on something so badly, all you see is this particular thing.

    2.) I behaved differently. When I lost weight or felt pretty or accomplished, my whole appearance changed, I was more confident and open to people. My whole body language shouted “Hey look at me”… And they did…

    Still, I think you’re right, because why wouldn’t I feel and act the same way when I was not pretty in a conventional way?! I think this is the thing we have to work on.

    Another point I want to mention is that we absolutely have to focus on ourselves, as this is the only part in the equation we’re able to change, we are our circle of influence.

    Wow, sorry for the rant – but I feel like you mentioned something really important here, I wanted to explain.

    Thanks for sharing your light with me, I really appreciate it.

    xx M.

  • Dear Joy,

    awesome to hear you found value in this article. Actually you’re totally right with using this approach to understand people’s behavior. Schulz von Thun is a German psychologist, who did AMAZING work on communication psychology, so good!

    Thanks for taking the time to share your light – I really appreciate it.

    xx. M

  • Hi Sebastian,
    you’re so completely right, both sexes struggle with these issues – unfortunately. The reason why I focus on women is that I feel I know their perspective better than the masculine take on things. Still, it would be super interesting to know how they differ (if at all).

    I would love to work this issue through with you, but I have to admit I’m not getting the whole picture yet. What I can suggest would be that you send me a mail and we’ll work on this. Totally free, no strings attached, I just want to help as many people as possible to live the life they deserve – so, shoot me a mail and we’ll kick that perfectionist’s butt! 🙂 (you find me at hello@projectemme.com)

    xx M.

  • You’re welcome, and thanks!

  • Kelly @ In My Flow

    This quote could not have come at a better time for me. Thank YOU!

  • Oh yes, it’s so good. I feel like it’s the most empowering statement – you are in charge and you get to decide how to feel.
    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts – I really appreciate that.
    x M.

  • One of the best article i read in the recent times. Cheers and Thank you 🙂