I didn’t know a lost receipt could push me over the edge. But that’s exactly what happened when I suddenly found myself shaking and crying, seemingly inconsolable as negative thought after negative thought flooded my brain. The simple mistake of losing a receipt, for something I needed to return, made me feel like a failure. I called myself irresponsible, incapable of handling money. I would never be able to help my family with their own financial situation now. I would fail both myself and them.
That jump from a small frustration to a huge criticism of my personality—catastrophizing, as many therapists call it—has defined so much of my experience with anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults in the United States 18 and older. Clearly not the first or last person to deal with negative, anxious thoughts, I still felt like the only one with this problem. Sitting across from my therapist one day, I relayed the experience to her and asked what I could do to not spiral again.
“What if you tried giving that voice a name?” my therapist asked. “Like a name you don’t like.”
Ah, perfect. A name I loathe. I figured I should try, Kevin*, my ex’s name. One that I vigilantly keep an eye out for on Facebook, making sure I don’t accidentally like a photo he’s already commented on. A name that feels strange to say now that years have passed.
As crazy as it sounds, this is a legitimate technique in the field. The “inner-critic” often shows up “when things don’t go as planned," says Elizabeth Cush, a Maryland-based licensed clinical counselor who works primarily with women dealing with anxiety. It’s ready to go, hurling the most critical words at you in a way that makes them feel valid; naming the critic helps patients take a step back and wonder if those things are actually true.
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“I have some clients who pick a proper name that feels right to them,” Cush says. “It might be the name of someone in their past or it might be fictional. Other clients call it their ‘inner-critic’ or their ‘negative part.’”
Not long after my therapist suggested the technique, I found myself standing at my kitchen counter dealing with an inner monologue that all started with a bagel. My inner critic pointed out every single flaw with my morning routine: I almost burned my bagel, so did I even know how to use a toaster? I was scraping the bottom of the cream cheese container, so why didn’t I buy more yesterday? I couldn’t even handle the smallest of responsibilities, so how did I expect to get anywhere in my career? How did anyone trust me with the job I had if I could hardly meet the most basic of adult routines? Honestly, they could probably find someone better than me to take my position at work—someone who knows how to functionally meal prep, perhaps.
See how quickly it can spiral out of control?
I try out the new method then, calling the voice “Kevin” and asking him, “Can you not?” But the memories of my ex flood in quickly: the way he often lost his temper, engaging in a lot of negative self-talk himself. I remembered the challenges of dealing with his outbursts while needing help with my own mental health.
The memories I associated with Kevin seemed too complicated, so I decided to go with “Brain” instead. Now, every time I start to feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts, I say “Alright, Brain, calm down.” It’s like talking back to the thoughts in a patronizing way—with an eye roll instead of my full attention.
Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit and the upcoming The Healthy Mind Toolkit, explains that “without psychological distance, it's easy to assume that just having a thought makes it true.” Lingering behind that constant self-doubt could be “a protective coping mechanism” that did actually serve a purpose during a stressful time, Cush says. But realizing when it’s no longer effective can make a huge difference.
These days, I like to call my negative self-talk by a few different names. My words sound more exasperated than anything else, like the way you talk to a child that keeps throwing the same tantrum over and over again. When my inner critic begins comparing me to others, saying, “Look at what that person is doing, you are obviously not that talented, you should probably just stop writing,” I respond with, “Okay, my dude, sorry I’m not an award-winning author but I’m pretty sure I have the right to keep writing. Relax.”
I usually say something to that effect a few times and move on. Some days, it takes more tries than others. “It won't completely take away your negative thoughts but it can help you get enough perspective to think flexibly and choose your behaviors based on the situation,” Boyes says. Cush explains that “ignoring or yelling at” the negative voice only makes matters worse.
It feels like a game of wits sometimes: me coming up with logical reasons why I don’t deserve the emotional abuse, with my brain responding that whatever I’m using as an argument is probably flawed. I wonder, often, what I could do with that energy if I didn’t have to battle against my own mind so often. In the meantime, I’ll just keep talking back.
*Name changed for privacy.
*Correction: A previous version of this article states that Alison Boyes is a psychologist. She is no longer practicing.
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