Does it ever seem as if there’s an internal debate going on in your mind? One voice says, “This report which I’ve prepared for my boss sucks”, while another voice tells you that “It’s fine – never mind the typos and grammatical errors”, and a third voice chimes in, saying “Why don’t I take a short break and then give the report a quick edit”.
Or your husband doesn’t seem to notice that you’re wearing a new dress. An internal voice tells you, “He just doesn’t think I’m attractive anymore”, and another voice says, “I shouldn’t expect him to pay attention to me”. Yet another voice pipes up with, “He’s got a lot on his mind and is distracted”.
Does this chattering inside your brain make you feel a little crazy? If so, rest assured that in the vast majority of cases, you’re fine. You’re just experiencing what we all have, which is a committee in your head.
A popular belief exists that we should think only one thought and have only one feeling at a time. This myth causes an untold amount of distress. The truth is that we are not just one consciousness. Many factors contribute to what we’re thinking and feeling. It’s perfectly natural, for instance, to feel simultaneously happy and sad.
We could be thrilled that our spouse is home from the hospital after surgery and also feel upset that they’re still in pain.
We could acknowledge that we might benefit from some additional personal growth and also consider ourselves reasonably happy with our current stage of development.
This is human nature.
However, we can run into trouble by:
- beating ourselves up for not being single-minded and completely unambivalent
- not getting to know the origin and reason for the specific voices in our head
- not understanding that some of these voices, while initially helpful, have outlived their usefulness
- following guidance from some of the unhelpful voices
- not developing a wise and capable chairman to our committee
If we place the demand upon ourselves to always be thinking only one thought at a time, we are bound to fail. We are holding ourselves to an unrealistic standard that we wouldn’t want to meet even if we could. The truth is that we grow by staying open-minded and allowing ourselves to consider different points of view. Internal debate can often be healthy and conducive to seeing new options, without overthinking matters.
The analogy could be made to board meetings in a work setting. Such meetings can be invaluable tools to hear everyone out and to develop a game plan – but we wouldn’t want them to go on forever. At a certain point, the meeting should draw to a close, preferably with a summary of what’s been accomplished and with a list of action items.
Once we become more conscious of the main voices in our head and how they came to be there, we can better discern how much credence to give them. For instance, often we’ll find that one or both parents, a sibling, a teacher, or other person who was instrumental in our early life is still talking – even if we no longer have any contact with them or they’re no longer alive.
Once we clearly define the voice (and sometimes it can be a part of us, not another person) we can begin to consider what that person (or part of us) experienced, how they chose to cope (and are still coping), what weaknesses or limitations they may have, and how these all may factor into how they treat us. We might then develop some compassion for them while also seeing them as simply another imperfect human being, rather than a be-all, know-all entity whose “advice” we reject or blindly follow.
For example, we might come to see that the inner voice of a perfectionistic and punitive mother has resulted from our actual mother going through a difficult childhood in which she could not trust anyone to meet her needs. So, our mother may have compensated for this perceived lack of control or safety by being overly cautious, controlling, or rigid. During our childhood she may have criticized our food choices, weight, and clothing choices, which may have contributed to our feeling inadequate. Perhaps this conversation with our mother (or the “mother” voice in our head) is still taking place.
However, accepting her word as law (or something to rebel against) need not be our destiny. We can take a step back and give a name to this voice, which could be simply “Mother” or a descriptor such as “Critic” or “Controller”. We can then have a dialogue with this voice.
One method is the “empty chair technique”, where two chairs are placed facing each other, and we sit in one chair, in the Mother voice, saying “you….” Then we switch to the other chair and assume our own voice, responding to the Mother voice with statements such as, “I know you’re trying to protect me, but I take good care of my body and am happy with my weight”, or whatever words come to mind that are true for us. This technique is often used in psychotherapy sessions to separate our real selves from these other internal voices.
We can also write this dialogue out in a journal. Either way, after a number of such sessions, in which we’re one step removed from this other voice, we can begin to extract ourselves from its mental and emotional hold. We’re more able to say and truly feel that “I am over here, and you are over there”. And we can thoughtfully and proactively respond in our own best interest.
Not that this is an easy process. As small children almost entirely dependent on our caregivers, we needed to believe that they were all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. We needed to believe that they would take good care of us, that we would be safe.
Eventually, often in adolescence but sometimes sooner, we are confronted with the inevitable and uncomfortable realization that our caregivers are imperfect, as are all people. This can engender rage, fear, and rebellion, but over time we usually make the transition to accepting our caregivers as flawed. However, sometimes we unconsciously take the fall ourselves, meaning that instead of acknowledging our caregivers’ faults, we choose to believe that we are the ones at fault. This way we can keep our caregivers on a pedestal.
As a result, those voices of our caregivers, which are now also in our heads, can tyrannize us. If so, we can live in reaction to the voices, rather than in response to them. Note that such voices rarely go entirely away. And they don’t need to. Instead, the lesson and opportunity is to learn how to hear them, know them for who they are, and, if warranted, disagree with and disobey them. This is where emotional maturity blossoms. We don’t expect the voices to disappear. Instead, we develop a different relationship with them.
To return to our committee and boardroom analogy, we’re on the road to greater sanity and emotional balance when we recognize that there are a lot of people in our mental boardroom. Our task is to hear everyone out, but not let anyone other than our own Wise Self chair the meeting and make the final decisions.