Coming to Grips with that Voice in Our Heads

Understanding the nature of our humanity is a useful step in securing our sense of well-being. As we have seen on many occasions before, the defining characteristic of our humanity is our consciousness. Our consciousness not only makes us aware but aware of our awareness. It creates for us a “theatre of mind” which gives us access to our thoughts, our sensations and creates very good representation of the outside world. But as a result of our consciousness we have to deal with a “world in here” as well as a world “out there”. It doesn’t take much thought to come to a realisation that, contrary to popular opinion, our well-being is largely determined by our interior world. Unfortunately too many of us are still trying to solve our problems and gain our pleasures and sense of fulfilment from what goes on in the exterior world. Let me assure you such efforts are likely to have limited success.

But coming to grips with the interior world is not a simple undertaking. Fortunately most of us have the necessary resources to do so. Astute observation and a little intuition seem to be what is required.

Now if you acutely observe this “theatre of mind” one thing will become obvious – it is seldom a vacant mindspace. Mostly the mind is full of chatter. The chatter is usually unhelpful. It is for this reason that Buddhists often refer to this inane, incessant chatter as “monkey mind”.

It is often critical.

“Why did you say that?” “You’ve really blown it now?” “You’ve done it again!”

It is often self-focussed.

“I don’t know why I volunteered to give this talk. I am going to look stupid!” “I shouldn’t have accepted the invitation to this function. Everybody will be better dressed than me. They’re such an erudite lot. They are going to think that I’m ignorant.”

It is often pedantic and repetitive. “You never ever have the courage to defend your point of view. You always give in to clever bullies.”

It accentuates your weaknesses. “So you might have written a brilliant essay this time, but you usually produce crap!”

But often it just provides a commentary on things going on around us.

The great teacher in the yogic tradition, Ramana Maharshi encouraged us to ponder the question, “Who am I?” I have gone through this process in my essays many times, so I won’t bore you with it again. But certainly we have often been encouraged to believe that our thoughts must constitute some substantial part of who we are. Rene Descartes initiated a revolution in Western thinking when he proclaimed, “Cogito ergo sum.” (“I think therefore I am”.)

(The good Dr Phil would often point out the logical fallacy of this statement. He would counter Descartes statement with, “Because I am aware of my thinking I must be more than my thoughts.”)

We in fact observe our thoughts. The principal feature of “I” (the essential Self) is that it is the Subject in this process and all that it observes or becomes aware of are merely Objects. Or again as the good Dr Phil would say, “I am the Knower not the known.” In many Eastern traditions, that faculty we have to observe the theatre of mind is called the Witness.

Now we know all of us have to contend with this inner voice ceaselessly chattering away. How we deal with it is fundamental to our mental well-being.

Those who cope poorest seem to dissociate the voice as an internal phenomenon and treat it like an external influence. As a result they enter into an audible dialogue with it. We commonly say such poor souls are “talking to themselves”. In fact we all talk to ourselves but we tend to keep such conversations to ourselves. But once the person has dissociated from the voice they assume they are being spoken to by God or aliens or the CIA is trying to control their minds! For such people the voice in their heads absolutely controls them.

People who are depressed understand that the voice is an internal phenomenon but allow themselves to be dominated by it. The voice they hear is interminable, critical and relentless. It berates them and throws up objections and doubts in a depressing process known as rumination. Depressed people have not relinquished control of their lives absolutely to the internal voice but they have poor defences against it and are often worn down into despair by it.

The rest of us have developed coping mechanisms that are effective to varying degrees.

Positive psychologist, Martin Seligman tells us pessimistic folk and those that are depressed react in a specific way to criticisms by the internal voice. They assume that shortcomings that are pointed out are:

  • Permanent,
  • Pervasive, and
  • Personal

Let’s provide an example. Suppose you are selected to represent your company at a conference. Part of the arrangement entails your making a presentation on a technical problem confronting your industry. Your boss gives you access to the technical experts, and after a briefing you ask them to prepare some notes for you to build your speech around. You have given many presentations in the past but not on technical issues. Consequently you are a little in trepidation about this particular event. After you finish your presentation you are confronted with polite applause but nobody takes up the opportunity to ask you a question. You can see from the faces of the audience they have not been greatly engaged by your speech. At the break one of your friends from another company in the industry sidles up and says, “Well you blew that one! Everybody’s talking about the recent advances made by researchers at ABC Co, and yet you declined to touch on it.” He good naturedly pats you on the back and then moves off to chat with a colleague.

Now Seligman asserts that the response from a depressed or pessimistic person is likely to be:

  • Well that’s the last presentation I am going to do. I’m obviously a hopeless presenter and I am not likely to get better. (Permanent)
  • I don’t seem to be able to do anything right. Let’s face it – I’m a failure! (Pervasive)
  • There’s no use denying it. This disaster was my fault. (Personal)

But a person with good coping strategies in place is more likely to rationalise as follows:

  • Well I guess I blew it this time. But I’ve given plenty of successful presentations in the past and I am sure I will again in the future. (Not Permanent)
  • Well so I am not the best presenter under the sun but I have had many successes in my life. I suppose you can’t excel at everything. (Not Pervasive)
  • I wish our technology people had given me a better briefing. Then I might have been able to give a more relevant presentation. (Not Personal)

Fundamental to coping with the voice inside our head is just to be aware of it. We don’t have to give it credence, but just notice it. The simple step of noticing the voice is the first step in disassociating with it.

When we learn meditation techniques we are encouraged to think “there are those thoughts again”. This is a good response because we are noticing the thoughts coming and going and not identifying with them. Our meditation teachers tell us it is just like watching clouds blowing across the sky. “Look, here comes another cloud (thought) floating across the sky (mind).  Beyond this cloud there is the blue sky. (Beyond this thought there is the serenity of the Witness.) The cloud is dark and threatening but as surely as night follows day it will disappear into oblivion. (If I don’t identify with this thought then surely it will disappear as well.)

Those adept at meditation are able to put the thoughts aside for significant periods which provides significant relief. It is of great comfort to know that the mind can be stilled.

As we have seen in previous essays, those who are depressed tend to be self-obsessed, not in a narcissistic way, but in a self-deprecatory way. The voices in their heads are invariably negative.

When I ask people to tell me about the times in their lives when they were happiest it is never when they have been self-obsessed.

The Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, be altruistic. If you want to be happy, be altruistic!”

When your thoughts move to improving the welfare of others you soon forget your own malaise.

The voice in our head can often seem to be a tyrant obsessed with disturbing our well-being. As we have seen there are various strategies to diminish its negative influence.

But first and foremost, understanding that we are observers of the theatre of mind is the key step in ensuring we are not overwhelmed by it. That is the essential path to freedom.

One Reply to “Coming to Grips with that Voice in Our Heads”

  1. No one is the author of their own childhood. I sometimes think my sisters and I were brought up in different houses, such is the difference in our memories. Now I’m trying to learn how my sons’ memories of the same incidents differ. Fascinating stuff, Ted.

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