Editor’s Note: Transform Through Therapy specializes in online group therapy, with a special focus on grief and caregiving. In this series, they will be talking about COVID-19 and the impact it is having on mental health.
During the past few months, many of us have spent a lot more time at home — alone with our thoughts. And that may be much more than we’re used to.
Every single one of us has what’s known as an “inner critic,” though it has other names as well: inner voice, a personal checker or what we like to call you inner alarm system. This system serves a function, just like your heart or liver.
Here, we’ll talk about its purpose, how it functions, and what happens when it’s a little out of whack.
What is your personal alarm system?
Your personal alarm system, often called your inner critic, is an internal mechanism that is designed to help keep us safe from danger, whether it’s physical or emotional. It functions by collecting data, and then using that data to make predictions and give you warnings when it senses danger. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, uses the acronym S.A.M., which stands for Scan, Alert, Motivate. Your inner critic scans a situation, is alerted to danger, and motivates you to change or take action.
How does it work?
To illustrate how it works, let’s go back to prehistoric times. We walk down to the watering hole for a drink, and we first scan the area and start collecting data. Among that data is a specific smell.
Our alarm system is alerted to danger because the last time we smelled that particular smell, we were chased away by a T-Rex and barely made it out alive. So we are motivated to hurry up and leave to avoid what our alarm system senses as an imminent threat.
How can I understand and trust what it’s saying?
Sometimes our alarm system can be wound a little tight, and instead of keeping us safe, it’s being more of a little dictator and keeping us from the things we need to survive and make us happy.
Let’s take our prehistoric example first. When we’re at the watering hole and smell that specific smell, the alarm system associates it with a previous dangerous situation. However, that smell had nothing to do with a T-Rex, but an innocuous creature that doesn’t pose a threat at all.
So our inner alarm system is going off of bad data and keeping us from drinking at the watering hole, something that is vital to our survival.
Today, when our inner alarm system is out of whack, it can act as more of a dictator that is more concerned with what we could possibly do and who we are than what is actually happening.
The Inner Critic Part 4: Questions to determine where your inner alarm system is going wrong.
- What does your inner critic say?
- When does it say these things?
- Does it always criticize you? Notice times when it doesn’t, such as give you warnings about danger, etc.
- Does it show up in specific situations?
- What are those situations? Rank them in order of frequency.
- Does it have a certain tone? And is that tone different in different situations?
- What are its fears? When it scans, what specifically alerts it?
- What is important to it, as in what does it talk about the most?
- What outside stressors make it come out?
- When is it softer, and when is it louder?
Take these questions, and write down the answers over a period of time. Once you understand the pattern of when and where the problems are occurring, you can work with a therapist to understand the intention behind the warnings. Learning why your inner alarm system is alerting you to certain things is an important step in overcoming it.
It’s time to negotiate
Remember that this can be corrected. With the help of a qualified therapist, you can take the patterns and intentions and start simplifying things down into small steps.
One client had a case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — OCD — where he obsesses about a specific thing or action, and compulsively acts on it. In this case, he turns the sink faucet on and off 10 times. This stems from a traumatic childhood experience of a sink being left on and the house flooding. With all the extra hand-washing during COVID, it’s become a real problem.
The solution? Having a real heart-to-heart with yourself. We decided to test turning the faucet eight times. Because the client was home, they could ensure they would be there should anything happen. After a few times at eight, they went down to six times. And then four, and then two, and now just the one time. They were able to prove to their inner alarm system that it is no longer a safety issue, and it can turn its attention to something else.
Here’s a second example:
This client was terrified of going to the gym. This is something a lot of us can relate to. But this client really needed the benefit of exercise because of some health concerns, and the inner alarm system was keeping her from it.
The solution? She was asked to go to the gym not to participate, but just to observe. The assignment was to write down any time someone asked a question, apologized, appeared nervous or unsure of what they were doing. And particularly, how many people were watching others.
After all that information was collected, she found that everyone was focused inward on their own workout, and that there were lots of people who were far from exercise pros. The same heart-to-heart conversation happened. Consider this new data, and give it a try to see how it goes.
The first visit was for 30 minutes. Then she bumped it up to 1 hour. And now she is able to go for an hour, three times per week, which was her ultimate goal.
Having that rational discussion with yourself, to teach correct data, is the key to overcoming an inner alarm system that is out of whack. Don’t push it down or tell yourself it doesn’t know what it’s talking about — because then it won’t alert you when you are, in fact, in danger.
We suggest finding a therapist you are comfortable with, and working with them on adjusting and tweaking your inner alarm system so that it works for you, not against you.