Changing the Inner Dialogue

by Rebecca Crichton

Here’s one thing about being a writer: Everything counts as material. I admit to a kind of deep voyeurism that is always taking things in, sifting through impressions, descriptions, plans. It’s like having a tape recorder on all the time. I’m the Alexa of my inner 24-7 programming. Okay, that’s a bit extreme, but I bet you know what I mean.

I’ve been listening to the voices in my head with more attention lately. I’ll hasten to say these are not scary voices coming from unknown sources, these are my old familiars, more often friendly than critical at this point in my life. I know certain of my voices are not benign — my father’s judgment, past partners who wanted me to change, feedback from teachers and colleagues. Now I hear them and don’t let them get me off-center. They no longer have the authority over me they once had.  

Many therapies home in on the many voices we might listen to. Voice Dialogue, Narrative Therapy, Mindfulness Meditation, and others invite us to examine and identify what we are thinking and what it means in terms of overall health and healing.

Some of my voices are kind, soothing, compassionate. I try to cultivate them, listening for information and direction. I have named one the ‘Kind Observer’ — female, older and wiser — although at this point I know I am older and wiser than when I first heard ‘her’ commentary.

I have begun asking friends whether they talk out loud to themselves. Most of them do (“I live alone, after all!” one commented testily). Then I ask, how do you address yourself? By name, using the royal ‘We’, employing endearments, or with a nasty, dismissive insult like ‘Stupid’ or ‘Loser’?

Many years ago I heard a friend call herself a ‘Fat Cow.’  I was shocked and wanted to contradict her. I realized that she was often critical and insulting about and to others, and I saw the correlation between her own self-rejection and how she operated in the larger world.

Steven Levine, a major writer in the field of death, dying and grief, used to say that the mind was a “Wonderful tool and a terrible master.” I often share my favorite warning (see my tip from last April, Don’t Believe Everything You Think) for my own benefit and those around me.

Levine engaged audiences with an example of how the mind works:

Mind: “Let’s have an ice cream cone, it’s hot and it will taste wonderful!”

You: “I really shouldn’t. I’m trying to lose weight and going out for dinner tonight.”

Mind: “Oh go on, you know how much you love the Dolce de Leche. Just one scoop!”

You: “You’re right!”

Ice cream ordered, consumed and enjoyed.

Mind: “I wouldn’t have done that, if I were you!”

I remember hearing him play that out and laughed at the accuracy of the process.

There is increasing neurological and psychological research showing how our minds work and how we relate to them. I want to continue listening with attention to what my voices say and how I respond to them.

We all make mistakes, so notice when you are judging or critical of yourself. How do you counter those voices and reframe the content to be more compassionate and forgiving?

Aging gives us ample, sometimes daily, opportunities to discover the variety of things we do, say, forget or plan that are not what we intended. Each time provides an option for correction and redirection, learning and — best of all — humor!