Triumphing over our bad inner voices

Triumphing over our bad inner voices

Heartfelt advice from someone who learnt how to quieten the voices

Ananya Prasad

Most of us, since the moment in our early childhood when we gain consciousness of our thoughts, usually around the age of 3-5 years, start to function around the backdrop of a murmuring stream of thoughts that run along inside our minds most of the time.

Sometimes, if we are lucky, these murmuring streams of thoughts which is our inner voice, is very kind, encouraging and tells us that everything is going to be okay in the end. But for many of us who did not win this lottery, our inner voice is simply not nice at all. It is humiliating, anxiety-ridden, punitive and condemning. We find ourselves disgusted with ourselves and always by default, accept that nothing good can ever belong to us. Every cell in our body seems to believe that we are inherently bad and deserve all the shame in the world. 

The hurt

Where do these inner voices come from? We start absorbing the tone of our parents and how they treat us from the moment we are born. Some of us had childhoods that were so disturbed and cruel, so filled with shame and loneliness that we internalise those unhelpful negative voices and assume that things will always be as bad as they once were. The authority figures of our childhood keep repeating their messages over and over until they get lodged in our brain and shape how we view ourselves.

When we think of bad childhood, our minds immediately wander to physical or sexual abuse or situations where a child is beaten, screamed at, blamed, put down, mocked and tormented. Such harrowing images make it hard for us to fathom that there might be another more prevalent and just as equally, if not more, damaging form of injury to which children may be exposed where there is no physical violence and no taunting and shouting. In fact, at first glance, from an outside person’s perspective, everything might seem to be perfectly normal even though there is a deep wound inflicted through what psychologists term as ‘emotional neglect’. 

A child afflicted with emotional neglect is simply ignored by their parents who probably always have something more urgent to do than spending time with them. There are no cuddles, no hair ruffles, no nicknames or terms of endearment. Birthdays are not a matter of interest for the parents and the child is not reassured or consoled when they cry. None of this seems especially bad at first but it would be wrong to conclude that no damage is done. 

The psychologist William James observed that it is just as bad as physical abuse to be on the receiving end of indifference. Since a child completely depends on their parents for their survival, they would go to any lengths to believe that their own parents are not vicious or uncaring figures and the child remains attached and obsessed with them. Due to this reason, if a child is not of much interest to the parents and is treated as if he or she is non-existent, the child immediately starts to think that there must be something deeply wrong with them to justify the indifference. That is also when the inner voice of the child starts to turn vicious and begins to tell them that they are profoundly ugly, repulsive, deformed or lacking because that seems like the only conceivable explanation for the blankness with which their existence is received. 

An adult who suffers from such a childhood, experiences a continuous desire to please their caregivers but deep within themselves, they are afflicted with self-doubt, paranoia and self-contempt. They might resort to all kinds of numbing, calming addictions such as drinking to silence their internal voice that repeatedly reminds them of their repulsiveness. Many of us might even pick up the habit of compulsive skin-picking which is called Dermatillomania. This poignant phenomenon is mostly developed in early childhood due to emotional neglect where we are made to feel fundamentally alone. We direct our anger and sorrow in on ourselves and take out our pain on the only person we can reach, ourselves.

Learning to heal

In order to achieve happiness and alleviate our sufferings, we need to alter our inner voices. One way to do that is to internalise the equally convincing and confident but also helpful and constructive voices of other people that we may encounter in our lives. They might be the voices of a therapist, a lover, a friend or even an author. We need to hear them often enough for a long period of time until we start to say those things to ourselves and those constructive voices replace our dominant negative inner voices. 

The best kind of inner voice feels like a sympathetic arm around our shoulder. It is very gentle, kind and speaks to us in an unhurried way. It separates our achievements from our worthiness to receive love, respect and kindness and reminds us that we are worthy of affection even if we fail. It tells us that being a winner is one part and not necessarily the most important part of one’s identity. It is the voice of the person who loves us for being ourselves regardless of our achievements or failures.

These should have been the voices of our parents. However, if we did not happen to have such parents, we need to start reparenting ourselves. Our childhood, in psychological time, is always recurring. The child in us is still there and we can talk to it and respond to it in a way that allows it to overcome past traumas and become resilient.

A positive inner voice cannot ensure that nothing in our lives will ever go wrong. Catastrophes in life, as an ordinary course of nature, will keep occurring. However, there are better and worse ways to deal with a crisis. Those among us, who had that essential wise figure, a soothing adult, in our early childhood, were properly consoled and held tightly until our tears abated every time we faced what seemed like a catastrophe to us, like breaking our toys.

These figures would then discuss with us, in a kind and loving voice, about how we might repair things. The voice of such a kind parental figure, many decades later when disaster strikes once more, helps us to overcome the problems by making us see how much still remains. It helps us to pick up the pieces and start anew. 

We need to understand that despite of what our inner voices so adamantly tell us, we are not the worst people in the world just because something bad happened to us. We are not just our bad moments. Most of our friends may have left us, our marriages may have failed multiple times or we might be in prison but we need to remember that we have still got our kind and lovable sides. The quality of our lives does not depend on what kinds of events befall us, but on the way in which our inner voices allow us to interpret those events. 

We should remember to mute our unhelpful inner voices that add shame, persecution, self-hatred and unbounded panic to our already considerable battlefield of life. We need to replace such voices with the helpful ones that tell us, even in the middle of a disaster that we do not deserve it, that a lot can be fixed, that we are still lovable and that we are not going to die. And that even if we are going to die, it does not mean that we cannot come to terms with our death with a measure of serenity and dark humour. In the face of the most awful event, we need to soothe ourselves with kindness and empathy of the gentlest parent soothing and consoling the distressed and frightened child we all once were and at some level always remain.