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I'm fat. I'm ugly. I'm stupid. I'm boring. No-one likes me.

And on it goes. That sub-personality – that nasty little voice in your ear – intent on bating, undermining, screwing with you. Scanning for flaws; insisting you're not worthy, that you'll never fit in.

If you don't have an Inner Critic, you're a superhero in a dress. Or jeans. Most of us, at some point, fall prey to nagging self-doubt or criticism – or struggle with flaky self-belief.

The fear fanned by that voice can hold us back in work, relationships and life. It corrodes our best efforts to learn and try new things, to live boldly and adventurously. When we're feeling good – like when we're in a new relationship or we've been promoted at work – it can pick away at us until insecurity takes over and causes us to sabotage our own happiness.

At its most offensive, the voice plays havoc with our self-worth and mental health. Self-doubt and a negative self-image can maintain depression, anxieties and other mental illnesses.

Who let your “voice” out?

Sometimes the voice yaps from childhood, rooted in early environments or key people – such as parents, caregivers or teachers – who were critical or neglectful. Or it echoes the negative feedback we've received in the world.

Being bullied, ignored or the target of hurtful remarks; being told we have no talent (e.g. You're not musical, You can't draw, You're hopeless at maths) can all leave scars. In the case of neglect, it can simply be that our strengths and unique talents haven't been praised so we have no or little appreciation of them.

Research indicates these people, environments or experiences take aim at a person's sense of self: either stunting its development or damaging it before it has a chance to mature. When the sense of self is fragile it can make you more vulnerable to life's twists and turns.

The good news is your sense of self is not fixed: it can be built and boosted at any age, from childhood through to later adulthood – if you are up for making change.

But first, you need to slap a MUZZLE on your inner critic. Here's how.

1. Name it

Give your critic a name. Choose something you consider boring like, say, Kevin (apologies to any Kevins reading this but that's the name Google once identified as most unlikely to get a date*). When the voice starts up with its dark chant, calmly say "Hi Kevin" as though you are greeting someone who doesn't interest you. It will de-power the voice.

2. Be curious

Take an investigator's approach. What is the tone, the volume, the pitch of the voice? Is it male or female? Is it a voice you recognise? Is it always the same or does it take on different identities? Describe the voice to yourself – perhaps not out loud if you're in company. Your reputation does matter (slightly).

3. Break up with them

You shouldn't stay in a relationship with anyone destructive or focused on holding you back — including your inner critic. When you hear the voice, remind yourself words can only sting if you attach meaning to them. You don't have to believe everything you hear. Just let the words pass by and refrain from latching onto them.

4. Replace cruel words with kinder ones

The best way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with something healthier. In other words, replace your critic's nasty shots with words that make you feel good. Think of something you know to be true about yourself – it doesn't have to be related to what the voice is saying. (e.g. If you believe you are kind, then just tell yourself that you are a kind person.)

5. Gather evidence for the real you

This is the most important point of all because you need to provide yourself with proof of the person you really are in the world. So if you think, or have been told, you are kind, go and do something – no matter how small – that reminds you of the kind person you really are.

That's it. Five steps. Remember, the voice is not real, it's an illusion borne of your own fears. Do you really need to be afraid of yourself?

*A personal confession: I'm married to a Kevin.

Written by Karen Nimmo. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.

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