We all have an inner voice. Sometimes it’s more like that shoulder angel: offering words of encouragement, giving wise advice, and coaching us through a difficult situation. Other times it’s more like that shoulder devil: criticizing, judging, talking trash to us about us, bringing us down, or telling us to give up, give in, or quit. At its worst, it can be abusive and demeaning.
The healthiness or abusiveness of our inner voice is critical.
It shapes our inner experience and our outer reality. By inner experience, I mean our thought processes and our emotional experience. By outer experience, I mean, that our perspective creates our reality. Thinking something is true often makes it so. It becomes true for you. Healthy or unhealthy, helpful or unhelpful, it shapes how we relate and respond by shaping our attitude, intentions, choices and actions. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again… Be careful where you park your mind.
Where did this inner voice come from? What about its tone? If it is kind or sarcastic, if it tends to be pessimistic or optimistic, how did it come to be that way?
Child development experts tell us our inner voice manifests about age two or three as we acquire words and language. It arises from awareness and self-awareness. Our inner dialogue is the experience of our thought processes as we think, reflect and reason.
As children, we absorb many messages about…
- Who we are (good or bad);
- How the world works (good or bad);
- Who other people are (good or bad);
- What to expect (good or bad).
A child does not question the source. Children are impressionable, sensitive, eager to please and are quick to internalize the messages from those who are near and dear to them. These are after all the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect and god-like beings.
A child accepts its fate, the judgment or pronouncement of the parent, teacher, coach, older sibling or admired peer. It does not occur to them to think otherwise. All a child wants is to be accepted, loved, and to belong. Simple as that.
Objects Relations theorists theorize that the quality of our relationships with our parent/parents shape the tone of our inner voice as well as the message.
- Securely attached child = inner voice is confident, nurturing, encouraging and coaching.
- Anxiously attached child = inner voice is anxious, uncertain, insecure, reticent and apprehensive in tone.
- Avoidant attached child = tends to be critical, judgmental, mistrusting and dismissive in tone.
- Abusive parents = tone tends to be abusive, as well as critical and judgmental.
Ever wonder where those negative tapes, all those negative messages you replay in your mind over and over come from? What you should and shouldn’t do? Who you should trust or mistrust? Well, now you have a better idea.
Cognitive Therapists call them Negative Core Beliefs. As children, these beliefs have been reinforced over and over. They go deep into the unconscious. We have taken them up and repeated them to ourselves so often, we don’t even need to hear it from the original sources anymore. Decades after implantation, a situation, a word, or a tone of voice can trigger them and bring them flooding back. Let the Self-Recrimination Games begin.
Uncovering your negative core beliefs.
What are the most common negative messages, abuses or accusations you berate yourself with? Try this fill in the blank…
“I am ________________________.”
What did you fill in? Dumb? Stupid? Worthless? A failure? Bad? Unloveable? A phony? Ugly? Unwanted?
No one is perfect. We don’t always do the loving, generous, honest, wise and prudent thing. Yes, we make mistakes. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail. No one is all good or all bad. Chances are, you have done more good things in your life so far than bad things. How you see yourself and what you tell yourself may therefore be different than the reality. However, what you think becomes your reality. It is true for you, even though a thousand examples document otherwise. It is true for you, and that is all that matters.
If your inner voice is judgmental and demeaning, if it tears you down rather than build you up, then let’s call it like it is… it’s abuse. If it would be abusive to say or do the same thing to another person, then it is abuse to say or do it to yourself.
If you are locked in a love/hate, abusive relationship with yourself, how does it affect your other relationships? How does it help or hinder your hopes and efforts for happiness, to grow, to be all you can be?
Dr. Claire Weekes believed a healthy inner voice is critical, even essential, for mental health and recovery from anxiety and depression. I concur.
A healthy inner voice extends loving kindness towards ourselves. It is wise, coaching, guiding, and says the things we need to hear that build and lift us up.
How does one build or create a healthy, supportive, loving inner voice?
To say nice things to ourselves and not mean them isn’t likely to change much.
First, you have to build a healthier and loving, kind, compassionate and understanding relationship with yourself. How do you do that? By discovering, uncovering and appreciating your inner goodness.
Your inner goodness is always there. It is your true self. You can experience it at any moment you choose. When you are being kind, who is it that is being kind? What about when you are loving, who is doing the loving thing? And when you are giving and sharing, who is doing the giving and sharing? You are.
We all have seeds of darkness and seeds of light. It is just a matter of which seeds we water in ourselves (and others). Your inner voice waters those seeds in yourself. You can choose which voice, you listen to and strengthen. And you can change that voice. As Byron Brown says in his book Soul Without Shame, fire the critic and judge and hire the coach.
It reminds me of the Native American story about two dogs fighting. The grandfather asks his grandson which dog is likely to win. The answer: the one you feed.
As you practice mindfulness, you create a holding environment from which to view and examine your thoughts, attitudes and emotions. Glimpsing how the mind is experiencing, viewing and understanding your reality in this now. Adjusting your view and your thinking, if it is not accurate, realistic, beneficial and healthy. When it is unhealthy and negative or abusive, you need to catch it, correct it and change it, each and every time.
Over time, negative messages lose their power.
In the face of truth, how can they not? In time, when they arise, you will simply dismiss them, brushing them away like the cobwebs of a bad dream or a nuisance fly.
The old tapes become meaningless voices, echoes from the past that do not hold up under scrutiny and the light of experience. Thanks to the plasticity of the brain, with practice and repetition, new neural pathways are being created. You record new messages; the ones experience tells you are true. Ones that strengthen you, create healthy thinking, attitude, intentions and choices. As the old messages fade away, don’t be surprised when you experience wonder, joy, loving kindness and happiness. Go Well.
He received his undergraduate degree at the University of Detroit, an MDiv at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. and an MSW from Grand Valley State University.
As a therapist, David is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, narrative therapy, motivational interviewing, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, and mindfulness based cognitive therapy.