Are you listening to the voices in your head?

“Would you let someone else talk to you the way you talk to yourself?” The facilitator forcefully asks this question at a recent workshop I attended. In the audience, we all dutifully say “No! I would never let my partner (or friend) say the kinds of negative things that I say to myself.”

Intellectually we know the power of self-talk. But somehow we can’t seem to get rid of those voices in our heads.

Google “self-talk” and you’ll find blogs, research studies, and commentary about the power of negative and positive self-talk.

So when the negative self-talk comes out and we hear it in our heads, we say to ourselves,
“I shouldn’t say that to myself.” “I should say some affirmations.” We talk ourselves into saying positive stuff that we don’t quite believe.

Well, sometimes we believe the positive and sometimes we don’t.

Do you fake it ’til you make it?

I’m not so sure.

Over the last seven or eight years, I’ve been listening more to the voices in my head. I’ve been trying to hear what they say and to understand where they came from in the first place.

We grew up hearing these voices outside of us. Sometimes parents, teachers, caregivers, peers said things out loud.

Sometimes they gave us the “look.”

Sometimes we felt the disapproval, the disappointment in the tone of a voice or a cold shoulder from someone who was trying to get us to do what they wanted (even it was not right for us).

Sometimes it was in the form of a report card.

After years of listening to them from the adults around us, we learned to internalize them and they became the voices we hear now (or try to ignore now).

Because the majority of us in childhood experienced authoritarian parenting, caregiving, and educational systems, we took in the voices of the adults around us without question and they became the voices in our heads. [Read more about how we get these voices here.]

These experiences of control create subconscious beliefs about how we should treat children and as a result, ourselves. 

The voices in my head yell at me for my lack of discipline and lack of perfection. They remind of the things I heard in childhood. Do better, work harder, be perfect, make us happy.

These voices also tell us that we aren’t good enough or worthy.

So should we try to eliminate the voices in our heads?

We could do that.

We could try to drown them out.

We could say other words to challenge their power.

We could try to reason with them.

I’ve tried many of these tactics. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.

But in the heat of the moment, when the emotions are running high, rationalizing, intellectualizing, powering over them, none of that seems to work.

Instead, we could decide that the voices in our heads served us at one point in our lives.

The majority of the coping mechanisms we used in childhood helped us to be safe, to make it to adulthood.

They may not have been perfect, but they worked.

That’s why we’re still here.

When we try to fight them using power-over techniques, they go deeper, they hide from us, but they are still there. And they seem to resurface even stronger.

Rather than continuing to use the same ineffective techniques over and over again, let’s try something radically different.

These voices need to be heard. To deny them means that we deny ourselves.

We can invite them to come in. We make a place for them in us.

When we bring them out into the open and welcome them, even honor how they might have kept us safe in childhood, then we have the opportunity to come back to wholeness.

If we listen to what they have to say, we DO NOT have to agree with them.

But by consciously hearing them, acknowledging their presence, and practicing being non-reactive, we give them a little more room.

We let them be and then we consciously choose where to go from there as opposed to having a knee-jerk reaction to them.

Besides, they are already there and they haven’t left yet, after however many decades we’ve been alive.

It helps me sometimes to imagine the voices in my head as the little girl I was. In trying to cope with what seemed like a chaotic and unfair world, she learned how to meet others’ expectations.

Those expectations were impossible to meet. Mostly because they had to do with the pain felt by the adults around her. They had little to do with her.

(I know this because when I feel pain now it can come out toward the children in my life in the same ways it came out for my parents.)

So she took those voices in, tried to do what they said, believed them. And soon the voices became a part of how she thought about the world.

When I see the voices as my enemy, I want to eliminate them.

When I see the negative voices in my head as the ways a small child tried to make sense of the world and have some control over her life, I can hear them more gently and not be afraid of them.

And if we give them space and room to be with us, if we can accept and love them for how they may have helped us at a time in our lives when we were little, vulnerable, and scared, then we can move outward and be with others in acceptance and love.

Very likely we did not receive unconditional love and acceptance in childhood.

So we have to learn how to give AND receive this kind of love. This includes acceptance of the ways we internalized the disapproval and conditional approval from the adults around us.

And as I wrote earlier, acceptance doesn’t mean we have to act on those voices. We can hear them, acknowledge them, even love them for how they protected us for a time, while we make the choice to treat ourselves with gentleness and kindness.

We strive to give the children in our lives unconditional love and acceptance. Their need is also a reflection of what we need as human beings.

When we give it to ourselves, then we increase our capacity to give it to them. When we deny ourselves that unconditional love and acceptance, we limit our capacity to offer it others, especially the children in our lives.

Read more about the voices in our heads and breaking the internal cycle of control here.

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