Being trained as a psychologist has its share of weird perks (I’ll explain in a minute) and moments that inevitably bring a smile to my face. If I had a dollar (it used to be a penny, but inflation and all — if you’re over 40, you’ll know what I mean) for every time someone asked me upon finding out that I was a psychologist if I was “analyzing” them, I would be a moderately rich man. That same experience occurs when I hear people talking about the “voice in my head” that is telling them a variety of things about themselves, the world, the past, and their future. When we talk that way, more often than not, most people are afraid that they have “slipped a cog” in their heads and they start looking over their shoulders for the men in “white coats” (which by the way doesn’t even exist anymore today). In spite of all that, when we admit the presence of that voice, we are sure that the people listening to our account of the debate that rages in our craniums are concluding that we are hearing auditory hallucinations. Let me put this myth to rest… it’s not a “voice” like it is in the psychological sense, but clearly most people will admit that there is an ongoing stream of commentary running in the background of their thoughts.
This commentary is often a stream of poisonous negativity that is slowly leaking into our thoughts and contaminating each as we form them. While many might ask, “where does that come from?”, that answer will have to be postponed for a later post. Furthermore, the “where?” question only serves to distract us from two very important things: What is it saying? And, what do I do about it? That “where?” question might be important to consider as long as it doesn’t distract us. Clearly, what happens “upstream” from where I am in my flow of thoughts is important only as long as I’m willing to consider the whole picture of how my thoughts are poisoned… the “where?” The “what?” And, the “what now?” Too often, we stop our self-examination once we have figured out from where our problems originate. Using the stream-of-water-and-the-spring analogy, it’s as if we feel comforted to identify that the spring from which the water is coming is contaminated. That way, when our irritability or sarcasm rains down on someone and he/she protests, we can say… “yeah, but the spring(my upbringing, my abuse, bad relationships or whatever else you can blame your behavior) is contaminated… I can’t help it!”
Okay, back to the voice in our heads. Often, this “voice” is negative, foreboding, and even ruthless. It doesn’t let up under any circumstances. As a matter of fact, it is quite versatile because whether the situation I am in is positive or negative, it always has something to add. If it’s positive, it will chime in with “just wait, this is too good to be true, it’ll go south because it’s you!” Or, there’s the ever popular, “You don’t deserve something this good, so get out now before the other person finds out what a fraud you are.” On the other hand, there’s also the negative situations I find myself in where I have let someone down, or I’ve “failed” (by my exacting and ruthless standard, of course), or I simply haven’t performed to the “high” (a.k.a. perfectionistic) expectations I have of myself. In this case, “the voice” is sure to capitalize on it and amplify the messages I’m concluding myself. I do all the heavy lifting for the voice in my head; it just cranks up the volume to make sure that’s all I hear. The thing to keep in mind here is that this commentary is not necessarily “facts” in the truest sense of the word. Instead, this stream of commentary is actually the conclusions we have made about ourselves, about the world around us and how it works, about our past, and our future. How are conclusions formed? Usually conclusions are formed based on a relatively confined set of facts that have been collected over time about a variety of topics. The conclusions I make about myself are generally the “therefore” part of the formula to create a conclusion. What do I mean, you ask?
Let me play Toto from the Wizard of Oz for a minute and pull back the curtain on what’s happening with the “man behind the curtain.” We are designed to collect information. As a matter of fact, we are wired to notice differences in our environment, particularly novel differences. The longer something in our environment(whether our external environment or our internal environment) stays the same, we develop something called “change blindness.” We simply don’t see it anymore because it’s the same as it was a minute ago. We collect bits of information, as I said before, about ourselves, the future, our worth, the “world” and how it works, and even about what the future might hold for us. So, when we collect information about ourselves we go into the “stack” in the library of our minds labeled “me” and start to go through the information found there. There was the time that I failed a test (Fact 1). There was that time that my (spoken generically here, not specific to me) dad yelled at me for being so stupid. (Fact 2) There was that time when I was in a relationship with another person, and he/she left because “it didn’t work for him/her.” (Fact 3) And the stack continues ad nauseum, and virtually ad infinitum. Then, here it comes… THEREFORE… I don’t deserve to be in a good relationship. THEREFORE I will never accomplish anything. THEREFORE, I can’t do anything right. Get the picture?
Given this process, these conclusions are so well-rehearsed that before long, we simply don’t see them as flawed or built on flawed information. As a matter of fact, the “voice” in our heads just keeps the process going, and continues the cruel and ruthless rehearsal. That’s the “voice in my head” that we are talking about here. Yet, we would never admit that we have one of those, because we don’t want to “be crazy.” So, the beat goes on. The wizard stays safely hidden and pulling his knobs and levers trying to convince his audience that he really isn’t what those conclusions are asserting.
Which, leads us to, “So, what can I do about it?” Before we can answer that question, we have to take a close look at how we are “flying.” Dallas Willard in his book, “The Divine Conspiracy” gives the example of a fighter pilot who was conducting high-speed maneuvers. “She turned the controls for what she thought was a steep ascent — and flew straight into the ground. She was unaware that she had been flying upside down.” (pg. 1) It seems to me that all too often we are just like that pilot… flying upside down, and not aware that we are. As a matter of fact, we have been flying upside down for so long when it comes to listening to the voice in our heads, that we actually believe that we are flying right side up. Therefore, when we try to make a correction, or “do something about it” we end up crashing and burning. First and foremost, we have to examine whether we are flying upside down or not. At least when it comes to flying (of which I’m not even a novice) it is my guess that we have to have some outside measure to establish if we are flying right side up or upside down. That outside measure might be the instrument panel, or it might be a trusted observer (sooner or later this metaphor is going to collapse!), but whatever the case is we are going to have to first figure out how to fly right side up. Once that is accomplished, then and only then, can we begin to address the issue of “doing something about it.”
In the upside down flying world, the way that you deal with the voice is you attempt to shut it down. You can’t tolerate hearing it another moment longer, and you look for ways to silence it. Makes sense, right? Yep, in the upside down world it does. Brute force, “willpower,” “positive thinking,” or denial are all methods of the upside down world. It’s going straight at it, and vanquishing it. For most of us, we have attempted these strategies over and over again, and end up with the same results (hmmmm… sounds familiar), the same levels of discouragement, and the voice only seems to get louder and more persuasive.
In the right side up world, the way to deal with the voice in our heads is terribly counterintuitive. Whenever I have the opportunity to talk about this, and I suggest the solution, I will get a look from the other person like I had just grown horns and was fast friends with Satan! It simply doesn’t make sense, but what is critical to understand is that it doesn’t make sense when you are flying upside down. What’s the solution? Nothing! Yep, that’s right nothing! Let me explain. When I assert doing nothing about the voice in my head, I mean that the voice in my head is not nearly as important as many think. What’s more important is what I do to cultivate different beliefs in my way of thinking about myself, the world, and the future. Instead of focusing on getting the voice to stop, the more important strategy is to make the kind of changes about my basic assumptions about life that the voice becomes more and more irrelevant. Needless to say, that is by no means an easy assignment, but in many ways, it requires a different focus of my attention. Either I attend to the voice, or I turn my attention to a chorus of other voices (perhaps) of friends, loved ones, and even co-workers that communicate a very different, maybe even opposite, message to the “voice” in my head.
Interestingly, Jesus had something to say about that in the gospel of John. In John 10, Jesus talks about the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. He focuses on the voice of the shepherd as the compelling reason why the sheep follow him. Because the sheep recognize his voice (hmmm… sounds familiar), they will follow him. If they hear the voice of a stranger, they run away. In the right side up world, I listen to the voice of the good shepherd who knows me by name, and no matter how messy I am or how stumbling I am I keep my attention focused on His voice (which is echoed by other “good” voices in my life). Any other voice (and what it’s saying to me), I RUN!
Let’s take a quick look at the upside down world again. In this world, I focus my attention on the voice of the “thief” who only comes to “steal, kill, and destroy”, and I run from the voice that knows me by name, and calls me his own. It’s all backwards. Unfortunately, like the pilot, if I try to “pull out” I’ll crater myself because I’m flying upside down. On the other hand, in the right side up world, the voice doesn’t stop, but I’ve focused my attention on the truth, and when I pull out, I run away from the voice that is only there to steal, kill, and destroy.
A story is told of the great reformer, Martin Luther. While I think that it is a pure fabrication, it does serve to make a point that supports my assertion about the “voice” in our heads. The story is told that Martin Luther was pestered by demons, evil spirits, and Satan himself which was common for people of the late Middle-Ages. Apparently, Martin Luther was sleeping and he was awakened by a sound in his room. When he turned over to look what was causing the sound, he realized that Satan was sitting on his desk nearby. He looked at Satan, and replied, “Oh, it’s you…” and turned over and went back to sleep. It’s not that his enemy wasn’t important or even dangerous, but in Luther’s mind that night, he was thoroughly irrelevant. What was relevant (to use the example of the good shepherd) was listening to the voice that called him His.
So, to what voice are you going to listen?