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An Unwanted Neighbor

Your alter ego, Negative Nelly, inches closer. “You are a fraud. Success? Ha. You are fortunate to remember your child’s name. Ohh — and good luck with that presentation. Maybe you can ask Rick Perry for speech advice.” You wince, pleading with the merciless critic to play nice. He mischievously chuckles, gloating at his latest victory.

The critic’s name is Isa. He belittles every move, condemning you to a tortured existence. Sensing that twisting knot in your stomach, Isa pounces. Like a bad comedian, his timing is always off — before a date, a meeting with the boss, or a presentation.

Who is Isa? Standing for internal self-awareness, he is your — and my — muttering internal critic. For some, Isa is mindful. For others, Isa is a 6’6″ bodybuilder, hurling mean-spirited invective as you cower in a corner. In a haughty voice, Isa chortles as he surveys the emotional wreckage: self-doubt, paralysis by analysis, and the sinking pit in the stomach.

Slowly, you and Isa reach an uneasy detente. He is like the Craigslist stranger in your spare bedroom. Intrusive? Yes. But only bothersome when you respond to his predictable torrent of criticism. Just like the Craigslist stranger, you yearn for the day when Isa isn’t renting (head) space.

The answer: relabel. And then relabel some more. This is an acquired skill. For years, negative thoughts pummeled me. Isa, the 6’6″ brute, mocked me with derision. He craves fear, smirking as he taunts you.

How do you stand up to the schoolyard bully? By striding confidently, puffing your chest out, and confronting him at the bike racks. Glowering at my nemesis, I reframe every negative, unwanted thought. Previously, the negative thoughts were automatic. My reaction mirrored the Seattle weather: gloomy, sullen, and depressed.

With my counselor’s guidance (thank you, Dr. McCann), I now challenge the distorted thinking. Dr. McCann introduced cognitive-behavioral and acceptance commitment therapy. Before Dr. McCann’s tutelage, I was clutching a life raft paddling feverishly toward nowhere. Now I have a viable strategy to manage overwhelming thoughts.

Here is a real-world example. When teaching a course or composing an article, Isa preys on my thoughtfulness or intelligence. “You are a complete fraud, Matt. You don’t make sense. Stop rambling incoherently.” I would shake my head ruefully, either passively acquiescing to Isa’s histrionics or shrieking at him to shut up. Neither worked.

I have altered my approach. Intimidation is muscle-bound Isa’s fallback; he is undefeated in shouting matches. Changing the playbook, I now deploy savvy and emotional intelligence. Greeting him with a firm handshake — no man hug for Benedict Isa — I say to him, “Good to see you, frenemy. I know your tricks. I am making progress. And by the way, I am making sense. Thank you for the encouraging feedback. Aren’t you kind?”

With that 6’6″ veneer, Isa once towered over me. There are days when he goads me, snickering at my panic-stricken response. But now, more than ever, I am glaring downward, not staring up and pleading for divine intervention, at Isa. My 2016 goal: a Craigslist advertisement under ‘free stuff.’ It is time to clear space.

Conscience image available from Shutterstock

An Unwanted Neighbor

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). An Unwanted Neighbor. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 3 Jan 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.