The Stories That We Tell Ourselves

The first moment I realized—I mean, really got—that another human could hurt me for reasons I didn’t understand happened on a school bus. I’m not sure how old I was precisely, but I think I was in second or third grade because I started wearing glasses right around that age.

On an especially chaotic afternoon, dozens of kids were packed into the seats. Some were yelling obscenities at no one in particular, while others hunkered down and tried to avoid becoming a target of said profanity. I had been part of the latter group, but when the bus began to sputter toward my stop, I had to get up. Several boys had scrambled into the aisle before me, each one pushing his way toward the front exit. I wasn’t paying them much mind; instead, I was focused on keeping my balance as we bumped along a road that had seen better days. My attention finally turned to the rowdy group in front of me when one of the boys turned around and shoved me. I looked up from my pink and grey sneakers, confused by what had just happened. Was the push an accident?

He—along with pretty much everyone else—was laughing uproariously as I climbed to my feet and hurried off the bus.

No. He spit in my face and shoved me again, hard enough that I fell backward. I crashed into the girl behind me and landed on the bus’s floor with a thud. This boy, who had harassed me before and whose name I no longer remember, then shouted something about me being a “four eyes” before rushing toward the door. He—along with pretty much everyone else—was laughing uproariously as I climbed to my feet and hurried off the bus. And that was that. I cleaned off my face with my shirtsleeve, walked home, and went about whatever you go about when you’re in grade school.

I’m not sure if that kid got in trouble. I don’t believe so. I think the driver missed the bullying in the midst of the afternoon’s bedlam, and I don’t recall telling my parents or teachers about what happened either. In fact, I don’t think I spoke about that moment very much at all, not until I was well into adulthood. When I finally did talk about the event, it was part of a larger conversation about why I had, for so long, been carrying this subtle but pervasive feeling that I simply didn’t belong.

The Songs We Write For Ourselves

I don’t know what prompted a young, spiteful boy to spit on me and push me to the floor of a bus one afternoon. Just like I don’t know why my 5th-grade class circulated a survey entitled “Is Rebecca a Snob”? (Results said “yes.” Bummer.) Just like I don’t know why a few people I have liked, admired, and even loved began ignoring me completely. Maybe I hurt that boy’s feelings. Maybe I was a snob. Maybe I did something so egregious that I didn’t even warrant, “I can’t talk to you anymore.” I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that all these instances where someone hurt me or shunned me for reasons that weren’t (and aren’t) entirely clear to me have formed this low-key melody that plays in the back of my mind. And not the good kind of melody either. No, more like the Muzak rendition of a 1990s grunge band. (You know the type—they sang about the world turning black or being alone all the time.)

Whatever I’m doing, wherever I’m going, the music plays. On endless repeat. “No one wants you here. You don’t belong. You don’t even deserve a proper good-bye.”

Psychologists call this song (or voice if you prefer) the Inner Critic, and sadly, pretty much all of us have one. We hear its accusations throughout our lives, all too often believing the whispers that we really are stupid or that we really did deserve to fail. And, without necessarily meaning to, we end up perpetuating the Critic’s existence. Sometimes, the damn thing ends up dominating every single thought that goes through our heads.

If that happens—if the Critic begins controlling the very way we think—our actions and our relationships with ourselves or others are inevitably affected.

We limit what we do, we deny ourselves respect or care, and we may even unleash that relentlessly harsh voice onto the people around us.

Maybe Just Try Being Confident Instead?

With the right support and an enormous amount of persistence, we can eventually overcome the Inner Critic or at least learn to disregard its malicious barbs. However, getting to that point—where you can rewrite your song or reconfigure your narrative—is a slow-going process. Especially because we don’t always notice how our self-criticism shapes our world views, attitudes, and behaviors. We lack the awareness or skills to isolate and address the voice’s distortions, so we end up just assuming there’s something wrong with us.

We probably all play the fake-it-to-you-make-it game at one point or another, and sometimes that works.

One of the ways I’ve attempted to deal with my song is to pretend I don’t hear it. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing that too. If you were to see me give a lecture on history or perform in a play, you’d probably have no idea that I struggle with feeling like I don’t belong there or that I wrestle with a lack of confidence. I suspect that this strategy is not something unique to me. We probably all play the fake-it-to-you-make-it game at one point or another, and sometimes that works.

In fact, I’ve managed to have some pretty awesome experiences because I was able to convince myself (and others) I was self-assured enough to be doing whatever I was doing. The issue is that the “just be confident instead” mindset functions as a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Because eventually the song’s volume increases, the Inner Critic revs back up, and I’m left wondering why I can’t get my act together. I imagine for a lot of people, myself included, the reason for our inability to tame the voice is that the narrative we’ve written for ourselves is fundamentally rooted in a fear of pain.

This Story Ends With You Getting Hurt

In its own weird way, the Inner Critic is trying to protect us from whatever hurts us the most, whether that’s rejection or failure or a loss of control. After all, if we think we’re not capable, we don’t try. (Thus, no failure.) If we think no one wants us around, we don’t bother forming meaningful bonds. (Thus, no one there to leave us.) Then, as we proceed through life, incidents of ostracism, humiliation, or disaster become proof that the Inner Critic can wield to persuade us the world is not safe. That we ignore its warnings at our peril.

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Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D.https://writelikeaphd.com/
Rebecca H. Bond earned her Ph.D. in US history from Louisiana State University, where she specialized in environmental history and policy. She’s published with professional journals and websites, and she also runs the writing blog, writelikeaphd.com. When she’s not binge-watching political or crime dramas on Netflix, she does freelance writing, content development, and editing. Her favorite topics of discussion include history, higher education, good writing practices, and personal development.
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Jane Anderson

Rebecca, first of all I’m sorry for the times you were the victim of somebody else’s bad character. I’m encouraged that you have used your circumstances to grow into a stronger person. I appreciate your article immensely because I have intense feelings of inadequacy and like no matter where I am, the ‘fit ‘ is forced or at least misshapen. I journal now but maybe I need to talk to my inner critic and figure out how to find peace where it devalues me.

Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D
Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D

Hi, Jane! Thanks so much, and I’m so sorry to hear you too struggle with those feelings. Sending you good thoughts in your own walk…taming the Critic is hard to do.

Laura Staley

What an honest and vulnerable article about the where the Inner Critic comes from-how it takes shape in our minds-hearts, Rebecca. Those early experiences lodge inside of us until we choose to flush them out of hiding, fully grieve the impact they had, and find that part of us that sits quietly bearing witness to our internal world and can question the validity or truth of these thoughts that are not who we actually are. It takes much courage to talk back to the lies the inner critic speaks. We create our realities from our inner worlds each and every day.

Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D
Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D

Hi, Laura! Thanks so much, and yes, well said. Our worlds are shaped in ways we often don’t even know or understand. It’s tough to confront and tougher to overcome…it can be done though, eventually! I think!

Laura Staley

Hi Rebecca! Yes, please know it is possible. May my life- that was filled to the brim with childhood into adulthood traumas- be a demonstration that a person can tame and even silence the “inner critic.” Meditation and mindfulness have supported me immensely as have many hours of all different types of mind/body therapies. May you find your ways to continue to heal, to transcend all that happened. Your story of not belonging resonates powerfully with my own. I love the idea of belonging to ourselves and finding ways to belong to one another from the heart. You are so brave. I applaud your honest writing and your journey.

Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D
Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D

Your words are so kind, thank you! I appreciate the encouragement, and I also really appreciate you taking the time to comment again. I’m going to think about what you said here!

Larry Tyler
Larry Tyler

Sorry to hear that happened to you. It happened to me when I moved from the farm to the city. My first day of school I got beat up by a big group of boys. I confess that later on I went after them one at a time until I could walk down the hallway unmolested. I went on to be a black belt and promised myself that I would protect those that couldn’t protect themselves. Your story is powerful and needs to be heard. I will share with all my groups. Thank you for your courage and walk tall and be proud

Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D
Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D

Hi, Larry! Thanks so much for your kind words and encouragement, and I’m sorry you experienced bullying growing up, good for you turning the experience into something that makes you want to help others rather than hurt them!

Joel Elveson

The pain you have suffered in various points of your life screams loud and clear through your words. The critic within us is the toughest critic of all. So many people or events have left deep scars that may never heal. Through the sheer humanity you put into your article which I can only imagine how difficult or painful (or both) it must have been to write there are others out there who went through or are going through much of what you did except now they have somebody they can identify with. What I am clumsily trying to say is that you are helping people in addition to inspiring others. Without going into detail suffice it to say I know all too well how you must have felt. This was such an incredible article that you can’t help but be touched by. I know I was. I hope simple human kindness, joy and hope find their way into your soul. Please note you have a very big supporter in myself as well as I am sure many others. Thank you for writing this article. Thank you.

Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D
Rebecca H. Bond, Ph.D

Hi, Joel! Thank you so much, your words are extremely kind. And I’m extremely appreciative of them! I wrote this article specifically to help others, so I’m glad to hear that it’s resonating with people and could maybe help them feel less alone.

Joel Elveson

Your article resonated deep within me. Your words meant a lot.

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