As a therapist and therapy consultant, I have helped so many clients work on their relationship with that inner critical voice in their heads. Most of the time, this voice is an internalized version of early painful experiences in their childhoods. Parents who were critical, dismissive or even abusive. Teachers or coaches who used old school “tough love” – otherwise known as shame – in misguided attempts to motivate. Most of us have experienced some level of hurt or disappointment from wounded adults who did not have the skills to nurture and encourage us like we needed.

Many of my clients are surprised to realize how much these early wounds are still impacting them now. They’re even more surprised when they realize how much these wounds, and the corresponding limiting beliefs, are showing up at work!

We usually treat ourselves in whatever way we were treated by our early attachment figures, i.e. our parents. If our parents ignored our feelings, we ignore our own feelings. If our parents were critical, we are critical of ourselves (and sometimes others). If we got the message in early family life that we weren’t good enough, then we won’t feel good enough as adults. So we judge ourselves mercilessly on our performance. We overvalue work and assign too much importance to it instead of seeing it as one part of our overall life. We have trouble receiving compliments, and we also have trouble receiving constructive feedback. We overcommit, overwork and eventually find ourselves on a one-way road to burnout. (That’s usually the point where I enter the picture.)

It’s important to acknowledge these painful experiences, and it is also important to remember the people who did (and do) encourage us. Those grandmas, aunties, kind parents of childhood friends, mentors, teachers, coaches and bosses who really see us. The ones who see our greatness before we do, and reassure us that it’s there. The ones who believe in us.

I’ll never forget the day in college when I was alone in a hallway alcove working on a painting. I had taken a risk and decided to try something creative, which at that time was not something I allowed myself to do very often because my self-esteem was so low. A man who I had never seen before or since walked by and said “That’s beautiful!” and I could feel the sincerity in his words. It was a casual comment to him, but not to me. That man had no idea what he gave me that day.

I sometimes think back to that moment when I need a pick-me-up. Because here’s the good news: even if we didn’t always get the encouragement we needed back in our formative years, we can learn to give it to ourselves now. We can be our own encourager to the hurting parts of us that need to hear we’re good enough. We can create our own Amen Corner.*

Here is one way to fill up your inner encouragement tank and show your inner wounded children some love.

  1. First think of times that you have lovingly encouraged someone or something else. It could be a child, a pet, a friend’s child, a student, a patient, a younger family member, a client or someone you have mentored. Write down what you said or did to encourage them.
  2. Now think back over your life and write down a list of times you remember someone encouraging you. Write down what they said or did if you can remember. If you have any pictures of the person who encouraged you, even better!
  3. Now think of times when you have observed someone being encouraging to someone else. Maybe it was a colleague with their mentor, or a friend with their child. Write down what you saw.
  4. Finally, if you could have anyone at all in your personal Amen Corner, your personal dream team, who would it be? It can be people you know or people you don’t personally know like a celebrity, a character from a movie, a spiritual figure, or anyone at all. These are people who you feel drawn to and who, when you see them, you get to feel 100% supported. Print out pictures of these people or images that represent them.
  5. If it serves you, take everything you’ve collected and create a collage, either on paper or make an electronic version. You could even create a Pinterest board 😊

Now look at your collage. Notice how it feels to look at your encouragers. Notice what happens in your emotions. Notice what it feels like in your body to take in encouragement.

Whenever you want to feel more encouraged, look at your collage. Whenever you’re doubting yourself or noticing some of that critical inner dialogue, ask yourself, “What would my Amen Corner say to me about this?”

You might find that mixed feelings come up during this exercise. Sometimes when we’re imagining good things, we need to feel some grief over the fact that we didn’t always have them. Some of us have a hard time finding examples, or might have trouble taking in a good feeling. That’s OK. Just go with it wherever YOU are in your healing process.

When we learn to be our own encourager, we can gradually feel more confidence in ourselves and begin to move forward from those inner wounds and limiting beliefs that no longer serve us.

* “Amen corner” is a reference to the section of church where traditionally the elders of the congregation would sit and respond with multiple “amens” and other verbal expressions of agreement and support as the preacher was giving the sermon.