Quieting the Inner Nag

by Manal Ghosain on October 8, 2015

Mental chains

Have you ever had someone in your life that nagged you constantly?

When I was younger, my mother was the ultimate nagging machine. As I got older, her nagging eventually stopped. But another, way more powerful, nag emerged: the inner nag.

The inner nag is similar to my mother’s nagging. In spite of being well intended, it doesn’t help much. If anything, the nagging fuels resistance and anger. Even when I act to silence the nag, the feelings of satisfaction are short lived. There’s always something else to worry about.

The inner nag doesn’t ever get tired. Its tenacity is admirable—if only it was helpful. So what does the inner nag want?

What the inner nag wants

The inner nag focuses mostly on two things: Should and shouldn’t. It tries to push you, and protect you at the same time.

All the shoulds that are not accomplished turn into painful feelings of underachievement and disappointment. And the shouldn’ts are mostly limitations and excuses that eventually become regrets.

Look within and see if you can detect an inner nag. If you were to give it a voice, how loud is it? More importantly, how often do you hear it?

How are you feeling?

The best way to detect the thought pattern, or belief system, behind the nagging is to notice how we feel.

Some of the persisting feelings can be the direct result of the inner nag. If they’re not directly related, they’ll be exacerbated by the ceaseless buzzing of should and shouldn’t.

Restlessness and unease: The mind doesn’t stop finding things that you need to worry about, or deal with.

Nothing is ever enough: No amount of success is good enough. You’re not good enough, capable enough, or smart enough. The same lack is projected onto others. No one deserves success, or nothing they do is that good.

Fear, doubt, and overwhelm: You’ll hear the inner voice telling you that you’re doing something wrong, or you need to do something else. Or this is taking too much time.

Tiredness, apathy, and lack of motivation: The inner nag tends to feed itself by demotivating you. So it comes up with excuses not to do something, and then starts making you feel guilty about not doing it.

Unwarranted grief or anger: Grieving is not meant to last forever. It will pass, like anything else. The same is true for anger. The inner nag can dwell on, and keep us stuck in, sadness or irritation.

How to break the nagging habit

The inner nag can be loud and cruel. But we don’t need to fight fire with fire. We need to be gentle and not nag ourselves out of nagging.

One common mistake when dealing with inner nagging is to jump right into action. This can provide temporary relief. But it won’t change the mental habit. The best thing to start with is awareness.

1. Recognize the pattern

The inner thoughts that keep coming up usually revolve around a theme of feeling. If you’re confused, the recurring nagging thoughts will add to your confusion and complicate things more. If you feel tired or overwhelmed, you’ll notice more thoughts feeding the same feeling.

You don’t need to label it, just notice the energy of the feeling accompanying the thoughts.

2. Feel before you act

Instead of listening to the thoughts and trying to reason with them, go with the feeling. Feel the overwhelm, the fear, the frustration. Let it be; sit with it.

Most negative feelings are familiar to us. We were programmed to resist how we feel. This resistance feeds the same negative self-talk.

3. Take a deep breath and smile

Before taking any action or doing anything, just breathe and smile. After allowing the feelings to subside, breathing will relax the body and mind, and smiling will lighten up any leftover negativity.

4. Act, if needed

If the self-talk and feelings were related to a specific action or situation, determine if you need to do anything.

If the entire scenario was just a repetitive thought and feeling exercise, you won’t need to do anything. And this is cause to smile even more.

If you need to take action, look into how you feel before you act. Are you acting calmly? Or are you still motivated by negativity (fear, anger, or grief)?

If you still have negative feelings, allow yourself to feel more—before acting.

Keep a written action list to take things off your mind.

5. Let go of judgment and go back to awareness

It’s normal to feel that we’re not doing enough, or we’re doing something wrong, or we’re doing the wrong thing. The moment we notice the judgment, we can feel whatever comes up and then let go.

The self-nagging habit may not create physical dependencies and cravings. It does, however, create mental and emotional cravings that can be quite harmful. The need for constant validation and approval, a sense of lack and apathy, or burnout, are just a few examples of the pain of the inner nag.

What makes the inner nag more menacing is that it feels quite intimate and inseparable from who we are. But it’s not. It’s an acquired habit that we developed over the years through conditioning, and past experiences. We can change it.

The starting point is to not jump into action, but recognize the thoughts and feelings. And accept that you’re not your thoughts, or feelings, or actions. Everything you experience is only a tiny fraction of the totality that is you.

The inner nag’s time is up!