When the inner voice is no friend to our progress, and what to do about it
Kirsten H. asked for this topic. Since this is near and dear to my heart, I had to respond. This is about that inner drill sergeant, that angry, spiteful, judgmental, irritating part of us which is so unforgiving if we DARE to have a chunk of chocolate, that extra glass of wine, or take a break day.
I am right smack in the middle of that dance right now. As a former military person, that drill sergeant, that incessant, demanding voice is with me all the time. It echoes my parents and my Catholic school nuns, and all the authority figures who taught me I was worthless, or in my father's case, threatening to his authority, and thereby needing to be controlled.
I hear it every time I skip a workout, or take a rest day, or succumb to a bar of chocolate on my way out of REI. Boy, do I. I hear it even when I am so tired it's all I can do to stumble to my couch for a nap. A part of me argues that I could go out for a run. Really?
Let's talk about this, and about making peace with The Voice. This is as relevant to me as to anyone, and I would invite all of you to weigh in and share your thoughts.
The way the world controls people, or at least one very effective way, is to demean us, embarrass us, and convince us that we're unworthy. A constant rain of disinformation and doubt can go a very long way towards torpedoing those who threaten the status quo. Just look at how society treated Judge Jackson and you get what I mean.
On the deeply personal, internal level, we integrate the ungracious and unkind internal battleaxe, the authority voice, every time we reach for a cookie or take a day off from workouts.
That voice is an Olympic-level shamer.
We weren't born with it. It was planted in us by folks who had their own version of the internal shamer. This is how we pass it down through the centuries.
It's one thing to have an internal regulator. That's the reasoned, calm, thoughtful voice which offers considered counsel.
You really want to do that? Why?
Have you thought about these consequences?
Are you willing to pay the price?
That's a good friend, someone invested in our living our best life.
The shamer, however, is no friend.
To that, and given that most, if not all, of us have this part of us hidden in our mental basements, here are some thoughts. First, this:
I love this quote:
Because of the way our brain works, we all have an automatic selective filtering system that will look for evidence in our environment that matches up with whatever we believe to be true about ourselves. We will then disregard other evidence to the contrary.If you are always saying to yourself I am an idiot, you might actually do a lot of smart things, but you will still zero in on the small mistakes you make (e.g., locking your keys in the car). You will fixate on those things because they match up with what you say to yourself.
In my world, I am fond of making fun of the dumb stuff I do, and I turn it into comedy fodder. However, that's different from berating myself, which I can do on bad days, which undermines my best efforts.
Here's one way to grow a different voice, or "Part," as I prefer to call it.
On those days when it has taken me FOREVER to finally pry myself out of this gorgeous house (it does act as an anchor at times) to go for a run or a hike, once I am out there, I have a conversation with myself which begins with,
"I love you for this. I love you for this gift." And on. I mean it, too, because invariably once I'm out doing as I'd promised myself I am so very happy.
I reward myself verbally for the gift of self-care.
Yesterday, for example, I did another six-mile hike. I met a ton of new people, petted more pitties than I could count, met some horse folks, ran into a woman I'd been intending to call for ages (that's the wonder of a small town). It had taken me a while to pry myself out of the house into the day, which had been threatening rain.
Nope. It's raining now. Yesterday it was spring-cool, the forest dappled and painted with new flowers and pleasant folks pleased to be out in that weather.
I reward myself with congratulations. I mean it, too. The same conversation happens on shorter hikes near my neighborhood, hikes that I sometimes turn into runs. The reward of acknowledgement, which frankly nobody else is going to do around here, rings with great authenticity in my brain.
Because this: humans suffer from the compulsion to be right, often at all costs, and often at the cost of our quality of life. In this particular case, if a part of me has decided that I'm worthless, useless, a slug (insert your favorite insult here) then I will seek out all such proof to ensure that I am made right in that assessment. It doesn't matter how insane this is. It's how the mind works.
We decide a "truth" about yourselves and then throw ourselves heartily behind proving it, despite great evidence to the contrary.
This is perfectly illustrated by an incident some years ago. Back in the early 1990s I was with a man I eventually married. One day in our apartment in Arvada, Colorado, we were having an argument. He followed me into the living room telling me that I could write a book. That argument was dredging up every kind of fear inside me about my self-worth, or lack thereof.
My belief about myself, my picture of who I was at the time didn't include "author." I ripped a heavy watch off my left arm and buried it in the drywall all the way across the room. I was furious that he would push me towards an idea of myself as a successful author.
Who the hell did he think he was telling me I could write a book?
He didn't know how inept, how poor my skills were, he had no idea what a loser I was. After all, my own father had called me a loser right in front of that man.
The truth that he threw in the face of what I believed to be the facts of my worthlessness cause me terrible anguish.
The relationship didn't withstand the test of his alcoholism and my self-doubts.
However, he was right and I was wrong.
I did write two books, so far, and both won prizes.
The first book addressed self-talk straight on, in Wordfood: How We Feed or Starve Our Relationships. It is such an important topic that I wrote an entire book about how we use language to destroy or uplift ourselves and others.
It is still an ongoing job to moderate the conversation. As I age, and as I adapt and adjust to this new place and continually juggle the demands of settling in with the unfamiliarity of absolutely everything, I have those voices return to remind me that they've been on hiatus, but are still there.
There are days I don't hit the gym. There are days when I choose to buy the chocolate bar. There are days when...well you get it. My legendary discipline, and it is by god legendary, slips through the cracks.
None of that makes me worthless. It makes me human, at times overwhelmed by all the items on my to-do list (now five pages long), the enormity of all I am trying to do in the time I have left to me.
I don't deserve punishment for being born (although my sainted mother might disagree, having desperately wanted a second boy child). I don't deserve punishment for making honest mistakes. And I don't deserve punishment for the occasional slip up. Or, say, for this morning, when I thought to go to the gym, but my aching body needs a nap first.
That doesn't make me a slob. I put in a long hike yesterday and I am sore. So back the EFF off, critical voice. Just back off.
Religion, most especially those religions steeped in guilt for simply being born (thank you Catholicism and Calvinism, for starters) bank on the notion that man is much more controllable and malleable if he is first convinced of his utter depravity simply for having shown up. After that, simply repeat the message often enough and maybe said man will behave as desired, in other words handing over money to the church and doing the church's bidding (as in getting MORE money for the church, and more converts, but I digress).
Twisted psychology like this works. That's why instititutions like churches, marriages, families, schools, governments use it. Such thinking is at the heart of every -ism, from racism to ageism to colorism. Convince people they are worthless because of X, which is largely out of their control, such has having been born, then manipulate by regular reinforcement.
Exhibit #1, the opening lines of Amazing Grace:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me...
I have a two-word, very rude response to that stanza.
What Kirsten addresses on a very local, personal scale is how we are controlled. The way you and I break free is to recognize where those voices began, question their sources, and begin to rewrite the narrative.
This again is Deep Work. All such freedoms come at a cost. The price we pay is cutting the strings that others have attached to our minds and limbs. The other price is to build our own healthy narratives. That takes a great deal of time and effort, as do all worthy outcomes.
A good-humored poke in my own side about being lazy, not going for a walk, or starting the week off with energy and ending it with a whimper is one thing. I can laugh at those days where I just don't have something in me, acknowledge the overwhelm and distractions, and recognize that I really am doing the best I can with what I have.
That's the re-written story, and it's true, too. I am doing my best. I don't summit the Big Mountain every day. Some days I am in the house the entire day because there is so damned much to do in order to get rid of all the junk that needs releasing. That, too, is good work. Not avoidance (okay okay, on occasion it is).
Sometimes the nap is also good work. Imposing unfair judgment on our best efforts, even on those days when we really do need to just be a slug, is patently unfair.
Challenging that Voice may well bring up, as it does for me, hackles on the back of my neck. When I challenged my father's insults, he backhanded me across the face, even when I was quite small. I never forgot the feeling of knowing I was about to be struck hard for standing up for myself.
At 69, I still have that feeling when I set perfectly reasonable and righteous boundaries with people who abuse my friendship. This is how powerful early training can be.
To that then: are we afraid to challenge that Voice, for in doing so, we may lose the (appearance or promise of) love of the parent, guardian, priest, pastor, educator friend whose approval we so desperately desire? And if that is a factor, what is the cost to us for allowing that Voice to continue out of fear, when the only true love we need is that which we give ourselves, which nobody else can possibly replace?
So for all of us, the questions that I recommend to ask ourselves when that Voice shouts its insults:
- What's the truth in this, if anything?
- What's the lie in this?
- What's the source of this criticism or attack? Where does this judgment originate?
- What's the cost to me of believing this?
- Would I say this to someone I treasured?
- If not, why would I say this to myself, whom I must treasure above all things?
- What's the benefit of retreading this particular tired old tire with a new message?
- What would it take to do that, and am I willing to do the work?
- What am I afraid of if I do invite that voice out of my head? What is the cost to me of keeping it installed, vs. challenging its agency over the quality of my life?
- And finally, am I not worth rewriting that script and becoming my own Voice?
The way I see it, this is all part of sacred Deep Work. Each of you has spoken in some way, in your comments, about the battles that go on inside us around self- care and self-worth. I don't have the answers. I have some ideas, but am always in the market for more.
So again, if you have thoughts on this, please share them. I am happy to craft another article with your strategies and suggestions.
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