Inside all of us sits a voice that provides a running commentary on our actions, our success and failures, our attempts, our private moments, and our thoughts (how meta). It may tell us our desires are “good” or “bad”, it may push us to try harder or give up sooner, it may remind us that we’re actually worthless, or perhaps that we can only rely on ourself.
This inner voice has a remarkable role in boosting or dampening our self-esteem and self-worth. Yet, for many of us, this voice lies somewhere out of our consciousness. It is like the gentle humming of music on the radio or in a movie that fades into general background noise (unless we purposely choose to tune in) yet has a remarkable ability to make us feel at ease, or tense, or uplifted. It can be hard to notice the voice despite the clear results it can have on our mood. For example, if our inner voice consistently evaluates situations as potentially dangerous or involving too many factors we cannot control (which must be bad, right?), it is likely we’ll feel a level of chronic anxiety. Or perhaps that voice is particularly astute at noticing every and any flaw or failure, constantly reminding us not to get ahead of ourselves or feel too much joy or pride as we are clearly such an imperfect thing (unlike everyone else, right…?). This, naturally, leads to feelings of dissatisfaction or sadness and further thoughts of inadequacy. The problem isn’t even that the thoughts themselves are wrong but the negative or catastrophic judgement we attach to the thought (e.g., that being out of control is terrible; making mistakes is proof I’m crap) typically causes the suffering we feel.
It may be useful for us to start proactively seeking out that voice. Tuning in to it. Listening to what it is saying (note – this doesn’t mean we have to agree or endorse it). Only once we understand the way in which our inner voice is trying to colour our lives can we start the process of changing it to a different and more useful narrative.
The first thing we need to do is recognise that just because the interpretation of the inner voice is the first and automatic judgement of an event, doesn’t make it correct, meaningful, or necessary.
Lets practice. What do you think is happening in the following picture? Who are these people? Where are they? What are they doing? What are they discussing? How are they feeling?
This picture is purposely vague and ambiguous.
Perhaps they’re university students coming together to work on an assignment. Perhaps it is a group of people at a start-up company, having a team meeting. Maybe it is a group of friends who are just about to video-chat with another friend who is overseas. Perhaps the middle lady is planning a wedding and is having a meeting with the event organisers. Or, perhaps it a random group of people who are posing for a stock image.
It doesn’t matter which interpretation is correct, however, I wanted you to recognise that there are multiple interpretations of this photo, just like most situations we find ourself in. When you find yourself having a strong emotional reaction I would encourage you to check-in with your thoughts and ask yourself if this is the only way to interpret the situation. Can you provide yourself with enough examples of other interpretations to reduce how strongly you accept the first, automatic interpretation made by your inner voice?
To further acquaint yourself with your inner voice try answering the following questions.
- If you make a mistake on something you’ve done many times before, what do you say to yourself? How do you feel?
- If someone cancels their plans with you, what would you typically presume is the reason?
- Do you believe that the world is fundamentally a dangerous place? What are the things that make it (not) so? In what way does your belief help you and in what way may it hinder you?
- Do you believe that people are fundamentally selfish and will end up taking advantage of you? What experiences have you had that might inform your view? Can you think of experiences that are contrary to your belief?
- Do you believe it is worth having people get close to you? What would you worry about the most in someone getting to know the real you?
- On the whole, are you a good person? When answering that question did you think about what other people have told you or by the things you have done? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?
- When you do well at something, what do you say to yourself?
- When you feel unmotivated, what would you tell yourself?
- Often when you feel guilty, was it even something that was in/should have been in your control?
- When you feel angry, what do you think about yourself?
- If you’re doing something pretty difficult, what would you be telling yourself to make sure you finish?
- Overall, what is your inner-voice like? Helpful? Kind? Punitive? Cautious? Encouraging? Belittling? Is there a dominant theme in the narrative of the inner-voice (e.g., failure, mistrust, dependence, entitlement, approval-seeking, critical)?
- Is this voice actually helpful? Does it motivate you, help you, make you feel good?
Hopefully, some of these questions have allowed you to take a more critical look at you inner-voice and become more familiar with it. Often, this inner-voice started off as an outer-voice – perhaps a teacher, a parent, a bully we once knew. While this can be very useful if you were loved and encouraged, this can be detrimental if we were regularly criticised or belittled. Changing that inner-voice is often hard work but can be achieved, particularly with the help of a trained mental health professional.
Thank you for reading,
Daniel J Brown