The subtle smile from a friend, the encouraging nod from your teaching assistant,  the gentle nudge from your gym teacher telling you that a little mid-pose wobble is nothing to worry about. It’s these small acts of reassurance that we have been missing in a socially distanced world – and that absence which creates the ideal habitat for a critical inner voice to thrive. The inner critic formed in prehistoric humans and its entire precept was ‘don’t get killed’. It’s the part of your brain that deals with the fight-or-flight response. Presented with a threat – such as a pandemic – this part of your brain will be hyper-alert, which is why you might have noticed your critical voice getting louder of late. But every challenge poses an opportunity – as we say in our Junior School, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you” – so here is your chance to master the art of healthy self-talk and become your own advocate.

That sniping voice inside your head is unique to you and your experiences. Maybe it holds you back, telling you, “You’ll never be able to do this” the first time you are faced with the glare of stage lights in your drama production, or maybe it scolds you for making mistakes in your maths lesson. In the same way you get to know a new person, it will take a while for you to recognise your critic’s pattern. I would suggest that it takes time to master healthy self-talk – you shouldn’t expect immediate results. The first step in retraining your inner voice is to identify and find a way to isolate it. We might accidentally stumble whilst practising our piano scales and hear ourselves say. “Oh, I’m so clumsy”. Being able to recognise when our critical voice kicks in, we can challenge ourselves by saying, “I’m not clumsy, I was just distracted.”

This may be easier if you practise what researchers at the University of California describe as “self-distancing” – treating your thoughts as if they are external to you. Quoting American basketball player LeBron James, “I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy”, they set out to discover whether addressing yourself by your own name (rather than personal pronouns such as “I” or “me”) improves the way you talk to yourself and is a powerful way of dealing with your inner critic. The study found that participants who were able to talk to themselves using their own name showed an improved ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings and behaviours when under pressure, making it a useful tool in coping with social stress and anxiety.

We all know that it’s easier to be kind to others than it is to be kind to ourselves. As we have enjoyed the first week of our students and colleagues back in school after a prolonged period of lockdown, I have been encouraging them to express gratitude for themselves. It is particularly pertinent right now because our comfort zones have shrunk. We need to be gentle with ourselves. Give ourselves a pat on the back for every small thing we achieve. And enjoy those first signs of Spring as they promise hope of a new way of life emerging.

Nisha Kaura, Head of The Abbey Junior School