4 Ways to Stop Negative Thinking
Having a critical voice is helpful—knowing how to block it out is even more helpful
September 14, 2021
“Humans, and our brains, have evolved such that we are capable of language, something no other mammals have,” explained McLean’s Lisa W. Coyne, PhD. “Our ability to speak, think abstractly, and reason gives us the ability to plan, problem solve, collaborate in groups, and learn indirectly, in the absence of our direct experience. For example, you might have learned not to touch a hot stove because your parents told you ‘Don’t touch, it’s hot!’”
Moreover, Coyne stated, “Everyone has a mind that ‘talks’ to them. We think of this as our verbal mind or our ‘advisor.’ It’s the part of you that is linked to your languaging brain, whose function is to serve as your threat detector.”
Having a threat detector or “critical voice” is a good thing. “It points out all the stuff that could be dangerous to us, including stuff that might happen in the future and all of our missteps from the past,” said Coyne, a senior clinical consultant at McLean’s Child and Adolescent OCD Institute.
“Its function is to help us to avoid making the same mistakes so that we are physically and existentially safe,” she added.
How We Experience Our Critical Voice
People “do not hear voices, per se,” Coyne explained. “But we do notice critical thoughts popping up as we go through our days.” She stated that “we have evolved to experience our thoughts as literal truths. It’s what allows us to learn indirectly by listening to what other people say, rather than only directly through our own experience.”
Our inner voice, Coyne stated, “is always on, and it’s overinclusive in its estimation of what is threatening.” These are “features, not bugs” of our critical voice, she said. “It wouldn’t be a great threat detector if you could turn it off at will, and it wouldn’t be a great threat detector if it somehow underestimated threats, right?”
Our nonstop, always cautious critical voice, Coyne said, is “an incredible ability, a boon to our survival, but also comes with a dark side.”
“People run into trouble when they get stuck listening to their mind solely, rather than being out in the world and noticing that sometimes the mind isn’t correct about what it thinks,” Coyne stated.
The critical voice, she said, can cause people to “focus solely on avoiding unwanted thoughts and to avoid situations that trigger those thoughts.” This is defined as “experiential avoidance.”
“If it’s our default for managing unwanted thoughts, it can trap us, such that we lose our focus on other, more important things in our lives,” said Coyne. “The problem? Not only does this focus on getting stuff out of our heads capture our attention, but it also often backfires—sometimes the more you try not to think about something, the more it sticks around.”