For as long as I can remember, I have battled with an enemy.
This enemy followed me everywhere I went.
- It talked down to me and told me that I wasn’t as good as everyone else
- Made me self-conscious, shy and worried about what other people were thinking
- Filtered out good things that happened and told me to focus on only the bad
After decades of battling with my enemy, which I decided was the entire world – I wore myself out and took a breather to regroup.
And that’s when it hit me.
The enemy was inside me. It had nothing to do with the outside world. [tweetable] The enemy was a never-ending stream of unspoken thoughts going on in my own head.[/tweetable]
“All problems are illusions of the mind.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
My enemy attacked early. The first clear memory of it is in grade school. At a time when I should have been focused on playing with friends and learning my ABCs, I was listening to a voice in my own head tell me that I wasn’t good enough and everything I did was horribly wrong.
- Grade school. I remember quite clearly looking around the school, comparing myself to other kids and realizing that some had things (new clothes, watches, shoes, book bags, etc.) and others did not. I was in the ‘did-not’ category and my head began to tell me stories about how the “haves” were better than me.
- Middle School. My anxiety about my financial status grew. My head also began telling me that I wasn’t as good looking as some of the other boys in school and I became overwhelming self-conscious about my looks. I discovered pot and alcohol. They relieved my anxiety. And I started drinking and getting high as often as possible.
- High school. By the time I made it to high school I was having small, private nervous breakdowns based almost solely on my social status and looks. I was so concerned with it that I rarely made it through an entire school day without leaving, sometimes walking several miles to get home if needed.
If you’ve never experienced what I’m talking about it might be hard to understand. Here is what happens when a person like me is involved in a seemingly normal social situation: (from Psychology Today)
You’re at a small party hosted by one of your family members when the conversation turns into a debate about the latest episode of a popular TV show. You express an opinion that the others disagree with, and although there’s no facts involved, you feel that you’ve just made a huge faux pas.
You hated the episode and everyone else thought it was among the best of all time. The self-talk chatter starts to build in your head: “You should’ve kept your mouth shut. Why can’t you just keep quiet when you disagree with someone? You came across as completely ignorant. They looked at you like you were nuts, etc. etc.” The more you listen to your own self-criticism, the more you retreat from the actual conversation going on around you.
Within a few minutes, you feel so horrible that you just leave the party, running through the whole episode in your mind over and over until you wish you had never even gone to the party in the first place.
If this wasn’t bad enough, there is also a problem known as ‘Filtering’ where you magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positive ones. An example of filtering:
You give a speech in public to 500 people. It goes very well and the audience gives you a standing ovation. Afterwards, hundreds of people stand in line to meet you and tell you how well you did. Then, one person tells you that your speech was stupid and you were terrible.
You instantly forget the hundreds of compliments and focus solely on the single negative review. You leave the event feeling like a failure. You think about that single negative review all night and decide to never speak in public again for the rest of your life because you’re terrible. Your head begins to tell you “I am terrible at public speaking.”
Ways It Can Affect You
One of the hardest parts of dealing with the voice in your head is that it speaks to you using your own face and voice. It doesn’t say “You are terrible at public speaking.” it says “I am terrible at public speaking.”
This can get really confusing and cause a lot of problems. Here are some situations where your mind, speaking to you in your own voice can really mess things up.
- Job Opportunities. Many times when you think of getting your dream job your head will say things like “Don’t be ridiculous, I could never do that” or “I’m not smart enough to do that” or “They would never hire me” before you even apply or investigate the possibility.
- Dating. A friend of mine is one of the top Pickup Artist / Dating Coaches in the world. He says that the biggest problem people have when approaching a potential date is thinking of all the things that “might” go wrong and as a result do not approach the person. “What if she says no?”, “I’m not attractive enough to have her” or “I’ll feel like an idiot if people see me get rejected”.
- Ask for a raise. Some people go for years without a pay raise because their head says things like “I’m lucky to even have this job, don’t screw it up” or “I’m not smart enough to make more money”. Trust me, your boss isn’t going to give you more money unless you go and ask for it.
- Starting a business. Maybe you have an idea for your own business. Your head might say things like “I could never be a good boss, I can’t lead”, “My idea might not work”, “What if I have to fire someone one day?”.
- Losing weight. You’re on a diet with a goal to lose 20 lbs in two months. After 2 weeks of eating healthy foods you binge eat a box of cookies. Your head says “I’ve ruined the whole thing, I quit”, and then hits you with “As long as I’m off track, I might as well have that box of ice cream too”. You completely forget that for the previous two weeks you did great.
- Suicide. The worst example of people giving in to the voice in their head is suicide. This happens when someone reaches a high enough degree of guilt, failure or depression that their head says things like “I would be better off dead” or “No one cares that I’m alive” or “Everyone else would be better off without me”. None of this is true. You forget all the good experiences you’ve had or the good you’ve done and you focus only the worst.
How To Defeat It
“What a liberation to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” – Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
- Notice it. Most of us are unconscious to the voice in our head. It simply plays in the background, giving bad advice and inaccurate commentary from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep. Start listening for it and when you hear it – acknowledge it. As if to say “I’m am listening”. The moment you notice the voice it begins to lose it’s power. The more you are aware of it, the less power it has.
- Understand the voice is not you. You may think the voice in your head is you, talking to yourself. And if you believe that is true, you will be unable to defeat it, because that would mean defeating yourself. Treat the voice like a bad friend. The more they speak badly of you, the less time you spend with them. [tweetable]From time to time the bad friend will try to call you, but you simply stop answering the phone.[/tweetable]
- Know the voice is not correct. Sometimes, in early childhood the voice will hear an angry parent say something to you like “We never have enough money”, “You’re nothing but trouble”. Your mind records this and replays it for the rest of your life. Just because some silly adult said something to you a long time ago doesn’t mean it’s true. Especially not 20 years later. Every time the voice talks down to you, ask yourself “What evidence is there that this is even true?”
- Laugh at it. Instead of getting angry, treat your inner voice like a small, silly child who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. When it says something outrageous like “No one likes me because I’m stupid…” laugh at the voice and give it a pat on the head. Think, “Haha, nice try.”
- Disagree and Disobey. Decide to disagree with and disobey any and all things the voice comes up with. Say it out loud if needed. When the voice says “Everyone in this grocery store is staring at me because I’m too ugly” you simply think or say “I disagree and disobey” and carry on with your shopping. I wrote this phrase on a Post-It note and stuck it on my mirror for a year. It works.
- Meditate.The voice rarely turns off completely. But the fastest way I have found to have a moment of peace is to meditate. It can be as easy as taking 10 deep breaths in and out of your nose. Put 100% of your focus on the breath coming in and going out. When your attention is fully on the breath, the voice cannot be heard.
These days I try to pay attention to the voice in my head. While it is happening less, it still tries to get me from time to time. The difference is that I don’t believe it anymore. If I look in the mirror in the morning and my head says something like “My life is ruined”. I have to laugh because I know it’s not true.
Starting today – listen carefully to what the voice in your head is telling you. There is a good chance it is talking to you all day without you even realizing. Monitor it closely, and if it’s talking smack, realize that what is says isn’t true. If possible, treat the voice in your head with sympathy like a small, angry child.
Give it a pat on the head and say “Hey little guy, I can see you’re having a hard time.”
And carry on with your day.