We all have them. For some of us, it’s a single insistent voice. For others its more of a cacophony of voices, rising and falling according to the flow of the day and whatever perceived “success”, or lack thereof, we are having in the moment. Some of the voices are cruel, others inept or pitifully crying for attention, others hopeless and resigned. All of us have them and some of us have them all the time. Maybe we all have them all of the time, but have stopped listening, they are so wearisome.
The study of internal voices, which some call “sub-personalities”, has been around for a long time. People have built schools around this: Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (late 50’s), Hal and Sidra Stone’s Voice Dialogue (1972), Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (1990’s), Ann Weiser Cornell’s Inner Relationship Focusing (1991), and Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind (1999). Inner Relationship Focusing is derived from Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing (1950’s), which is another powerful way of giving voice to our unpleasant emotions and troubling body sensations. Focusing is wonderful, by the way, with the added advantage that you can teach it to a stranger in 10-15 minutes. Note here — and I return to this topic in all my writing — that all of these processes work better with a listener, or loving witness, present. It is very difficult to get accurate perspective on ourselves, by ourselves:
“We discover ourselves through the eyes of others” — Unknown
With so many wise and smart people studying this topic, I am not certain that I have anything to add. But I want to give it a shot, and talk about what I have learned, and am still learning, about my sub-personalities. This is going to get very personal. The techniques I am about to share are not exactly “voice dialogue” or related modalities, because it is more of a one-way conversation, a way to moderate the more exasperating voices. But it’s a good start. Perhaps, after “clearing the space” (as per Eugene Gendlin), more listening will be available to you. Or maybe you just want to get on with the job of living and tell your voices to take a nap. It’s all good.
I have noticed my own internal voices fall under two main categories:
The first category of negative self-talk, is “I ought to be doing, feeling or thinking something different than what is actually happening“. A stream of consciousness of this internal conversation, would go something like this: you ought to have done your yoga this morning. You ought to stop your compulsive coffee drinking. You ought to commit to something, anything, like making more money and taking better care of yourself. You ought to have spun out this article in half the time. You ought to be dating, putting yourself out there, you know that’s what you want the most. You ought to be a nicer person or less of an asshole. If you were a nicer / more interesting / more emotionally stable / wealthier / more charming person, you would probably have more friends and girlfriends and not feel so lonely. Etc …
The second category is “I am not good enough“. That stream of consciousness might go like this: you have no self-discipline (and consequently will never succeed at anything). Nobody wants to read your bipolar-writing shit. Why don’t you stop this stupid writing and do something useful, like your exercise routine, or play your autoharp. Oh, wait, I know why you are doing this: because you are so bored and lonely with your life, but you are too broke, old, crazy and ugly to find a woman. It’s an act of desperation. Snap out of it, get a life. Other people have lives. What does it say about you that you are 60 years old and have no job, no money, no woman, and no children?
The interesting thing here, is that these two self-talk categories play off each other so beautifully. Because the reason that I ought to be doing something different than what I am currently doing, is because I am not good enough. And the reason that I am not good enough, is because I am not doing the things that I ought to be doing (meaning that, if I had self-discipline I would be much more successful and hence less lonely). It is perfect logic.
Or is it? Let’s unpack this a little bit. There are several tracks that we can take here.
The first track is logic
This is the approach of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is the most effective therapeutic modality of all time, at least for short-term interventions (I personally consider it more of a coaching modality than therapy, exactly, but whatever, it does work, up to a point). That approach starts with a kind of Socratic dialogue:
“I ought to be doing something different” — oh really? Who says? Are you certain that this different thing that you ought to be doing, will move you faster and more pleasurably towards your desired outcome? Have you considered the possibility that the real problem isn’t that you ought to be doing something different, but this “idée fixe” you have about everything that you do? Have you, maybe, even considered that this obsessive / compulsive preoccupation you have about optimizing your experience is part of your genius?
“I am not good enough” — you are not good enough for what? Certainly it is a bit disappointing to be single, crazy and broke at the age of 60; but is it really such a tragedy? Are you not having a good time, now, and despite this unfortunate turn in your life? Could it be — have you considered the possibility — that all the stupid mistakes you have made in your life that have brought you here, had a purpose? What good is it doing to inventory a lifetime of failures and stupidities, or imagine that some different course of action would have led to a different result? And also is it not a triumph that you are still strong and healthy and able to have all these interesting thoughts? even if they are not interesting to anybody else, they are interesting to you. You know that’s true, so stop judging yourself by standards held by imaginary people. And even if such people exist, fuck ’em.
The second track is empathy: offer it and ask for it
The second track is at least as effective. It is aligning with the voices. “Find them right”. Don’t argue with them. Offer curiosity and empathy instead, and ask for empathy in return. As so:
“I ought to be doing something different“: It’s true. Your day would probably be going much better if you had done your yoga this morning. Maybe tomorrow you will. I know you like to feel good and that yoga makes you feel good. I also know that you feel some level of despair that you I am always promising you to do yoga in the morning and I so rarely do. That’s really not nice of me. I know it. Let me think about it and get back to you later, because right now I am really enjoying my coffee-powered bipolar writing. Can you forgive me?
“I am not good enough”: Look, dude, that’s tough. It’s a fact that some other people are much more successful than you, that they have people they love and are accountable for, and meaningful work to do that brings them money. But you know, I am doing my best in this difficult situation. And I don’t need to remind you that almost everyone is crazy right now. Your style of craziness is far from the being the worst that exists and your situation is also far from being the worst. In fact, you are mostly happy despite your situation (broke, single, crazy and old). Heck, you are still alive and kicking, and your brain still works, at least on a good day. You are also pretty funny, on a good day. People seem to like you. Think what a triumph that is? Soon you will be dead and won’t be able to enjoy even these pleasures. Can you give me a break for 5 minutes? I am really doing my best here, you know I am. We are on the same team. Please, find some other way to entertain yourself, other than torturing me.
Those two tracks are the basis of an effective strategy for dealing with inner voices. But there is a third track, and maybe the best one of all…
The third track is perhaps the most powerful of all. However, it’s best used after you have exhausted the other methods, because it takes a while. Try and “put out the fires” first, which is realizing that the voices inside your head often have a very tenuous relationship to reality.
The third track is non-attachment. Non-attachment is the tricky balance between compassion (or empathy) and wisdom (or discernment, accurate self-perspective). It’s such an important topic, I have written another post: