About the Critical Inner Voice

What is the Critical Inner Voice?

The critical inner voice can be thought of as the language of the defensive process. It has been defined as an integrated system of thoughts and attitudes, antithetical toward self and hostile toward others that is at the core of an individual’s maladaptive behavior. The concept of the “voice” is not restricted to cognitive processes but is generally associated with varying degrees of anger and sadness. The term “voice” is used to describe a form of intrapsychic communication that represents a split within the individual between forces that are life-affirming and those that are antagonistic to the self .“Listening” to the voice, that is, believing its prescriptions and prohibitions leads to self-limiting behavior and negative consequences. In other words, people often make their actions correspond to their self-attacks.


Are you saying that people can’t always trust their own thoughts?

Yes. We have found that although most people are aware of some aspects of the voice, they may be unaware of destructive thoughts existing on a more unconscious level. For example, at times people do not realize that they are attacking themselves or that they are simply accepting a negative image of themselves. The most crucial point here is that most people are unaware of the damaging effect that these thoughts are having on their emotions, their actions, and the way they are conducting their lives in general.


Is the critical inner voice like a conscience?

No. The voice is not a conscience or a moral guide. Although the voice may sometimes seem to be related to people’s values and ideals, its statements against the person usually occur after the fact and are filled with self-recrimination. The demeaning tone of the voice tends to increase feelings of self-hatred rather than motivating people to change undesirable actions in a constructive manner. In addition, these destructive thoughts are often contradictory, as in the case of addictions. First they influence people to act in self-defeating ways and then they condemn them for those very actions–a destructive cycle that is familiar to people with substance abuse problems. More in Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice.

Watch Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Introduce the Concept of the Critical Inner Voice


Aren’t there positive thought processes?

Yes. There is a wide range of thought processes such as self-reflection, daydreaming, fantasizing, planning constructive actions, etc. However, we are using the term “voice” to refer to destructive attacks, not to positive types of thinking. There are also seemingly positive voices of vanity that are compensations for painful feelings of low-self esteem. And there are apparently friendly voices that encourage people to engage in addictive behaviors. “You haven’t had a cigarette in a week. It won’t hurt to just have one. It’s obvious that you’re not hooked.” These voices are destructive in that they set people up to act against their own interest. More in Combating Destructive Thought Processes.


Is the “voice” similar to auditory hallucinations or voices experienced by psychotic individuals?

Critical inner voices occur as thoughts and can be distinguished from hallucinations as in the psychoses. They are not experienced as external sensations but are a way of thinking about ourselves as though we are being talked to. Both hallucinations and the voice tend to have a parental tone, that is, a directing, controlling, evaluating, and judging quality. In the case of psychotic patients, hallucinated voices reflect a more drastic split within the personality. More in Voice Therapy: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to Self-Destructive Behavior.


Does everybody have these destructive thoughts? Is everybody split or divided in this way?

To varying degrees, all people are divided within themselves and have a basic conflict in relation to their goals and aspirations in life. On the one hand, they have feelings of warm self-regard, and traits and behaviors that they like or feel comfortable with in themselves. On the other hand, they have a harsh, judgmental, and critical view of themselves. This antagonistic point of view is expressed by destructive voices. Smetmes these destructive thoughts become intense and take precedence over people’s more realistic or rational ways of thinking. See Division of the Mind Chart.


How can therapists determine the extent to which a client’s behavior is being influenced or controlled by the voice?

Destructive thoughts vary along a continuum of intensity ranging from mild self-reproach to suicidal ideation. Similarly, self-destructive behavior exists on a continuum that may include self-denial, self-defeating behaviors, accident proneness, substance abuse, and eventually direct actions that cause bodily harm. There is a relationship between these two–an individual’s behavior is strongly influenced by his or her negative thinking.

Mental health professionals have long recognized that self-limiting, self-destructive behaviors can be represented on a continuum of seriousness or severity. Robert W. Firestone and Lisa Firestone believed that the self-critical statements of the voice could be used to construct a scale that would assess self-destructive thinking along a continuum. They expected that one could better assess the seriousness or “dangerousness” of suicide intent by identifying where and with what frequency an individual’s thoughts lie along the Continuum of Negative Thought Patterns. They developed the Firestone Assessment of Self-Destructive Thoughts (FAST) for therapists to use as an assessment tool in clinical settings. More in Suicide and the Inner Voice.


Is there evidence to support the hypotheses about the influence of the critical inner voice on people’s behaviors and lives?

Yes. Empirical research from reliability and validity studies on the FAST demonstrated the predictive power of the concept of the voice in suicide. Results of testing more than 1300 outpatient and inpatient subjects showed that the FAST distinguished between suicidal and non suicidal individuals better than other instruments currently used in clinical practice. More in the FAST Manual.

Watch an online CE Presentation with Dr. Lisa Firestone Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice: An Adjunct to Clinical Practice.