What to Do About That Horrible Voice in Your Head Telling You that You Suck Sometimes (or All the Time!)
I talk a lot about the “voices in our heads” over on my YouTube channel, and sometimes I think I sound like a crazy person, but then I remember—Ohh riiiight, we’re all crazy people.
Because most internal human dialogue is pretty wacky 'n weird. Even if it's not anxiety-ridden or pain-producing, hell, it's still fascinating to examine.
I’m staying at an AirBnB right now and I had to message my host to ask if she had “an extra large towel”, meaning "a second full-size towel", but as soon as I hit SEND I realized she might think I’m asking for a hugely enormous XL towel because I worded it poorly, and what if she thinks I’m some kind of spoiled princess who only uses giant luxe towels? And will she then be annoyed by such a dumb request? Will she give me a bad review on AirBnB?? Couldn’t I just be satisfied with the one stupid towel she gave me?!
SPOILER ALERT: She brought over some extra towels and it wasn’t a big deal. Duh.
But the MIND. THE MIND IS STRANGE.
When I’m working with clients, and we’re knee-deep in some weird, winding, mind mucky-muck, and they’ve convinced themselves that they're annoying, or that they suck on some level, or they’re lazy and unlovable, or jeez--they can’t stop comparing themselves to to their cousin Beatrice who just has all of her shit together, I have to remind them that these thoughts, that internal voice, those words and feelings and stories they hear inside are just that—stories.
And sure, they might be stories they’ve repeated to themselves so many times that they just don’t question them anymore, but that doesn’t make a story true. I could tell you the story of Rumpel-fuckin-Stiltsken every hour, on the hour for fifteen years, but that doesn’t make Rumpelstiltskin a real dude.
YOUR MIND IS JUST TELLING YOU A BUNCH OF INTERESTING AND SOMETIMES SHITTY STORIES.
The stuff we hear in our heads is like different channels playing on a TV set. Or records that can be put on or taken off a record player. Or movies being projected on a giant IMAX-sized screen in your highly creative, prone-to-worry, often anxious mind.
And I hear you when you proclaim, “But this voice in my head is really loud! This voice is really mean! This voice is the only voice I ever hear and it’s telling me awful things, and it has been for years!”
And I need you to think about it in this context: “Man, this TV channel really sucks! This channel plays all the time! It’s awful and scary and I hate the programming!”
Babe. Find the remote. Turn that shit off.
“I’ve tried! I lost the remote a long time ago! Or no one ever gave me a remote in the first place!”
Okay. Here’s what you can actively practice and commit to when your mind-channels are outta control and need to be turned the fuck off. Or at least muted for a little while so you can relax for just like a minute.
1) Label and call out the damn channel.
This is the most brilliant-est step one: Just notice what channel is playing.
It might feel like you have a lot of different noise going on up there, but there are usually only a few messages that continuously play out on repeat for each of us. Get clear and specific about what the message is.
Some painful but popular internal narratives/“mind channels” are:
- You’re not good enough.
- Your future is fucked.
- Bad things are going to happen.
- Bad things have already happened.
- Everyone is thinking terrible things about you.
Ugh ugh ugh. Premium cable say what? THESE CHANNELS ARE AWFUL BASIC ACCESS THAT WE GOTTA STOP WATCHING.
When your mind begins spontaneously going over the details of what happened at yesterday’s meeting, and you’re remembering what you said, and the look that Beth gave Claire as you spoke, and you imagine how they went to the break room and laughed about you afterwards—PAUSE, NOTICE, AND LABEL IT.
“Ohhh - the ‘everyone is thinking terrible things about me’ channel is playing! We’ve watched this one before! This episode sucks!”
There is so much psychological research and evidence in support of the theory that simply labeling your internal experience (thoughts, feelings, etc…) helps to regulate and decrease the hold it has on you. I encourage you to test this theory out for yourself and have a little at-home experiment. Make some popcorn and tune into the mind-movie. Review it. Do you wanna keep watching? Decide.
2) Try giving your attention to literally ANYTHING ELSE.
If there’s a TV on at the restaurant you're eating dinner at, does that mean that you have to watch it? Just because it’s on? Because it’s situated over your table, or in your line of sight?
Could you pay attention to your food? Could you pay attention to your friend eating dinner with you? Could you get out a book and start reading?
You do not have to keep your eyes glued to a TV set just because it’s on, and you do not have to keep your attention glued to your mind just because it’s telling you mean, terrible things. I would strongly advise you to turn your attention away from your mind when it is telling you mean, terrible things. There is no good information being delivered to you at that point.
If you really can’t change the channel, or can’t turn the TV off, distract yourself with anything else. Interrupt your mindless viewing and shift your attention elsewhere. Math problems. Counting the hairs on your left arm Noticing the variance in temperature between your two feet. Poetry. Prayer. Remembering every character from “Harry Potter” and what Hogwarts house he or she was in. The options are limitless. Practice shifting focus.
3) How about playing producer and introducing some brand new channels!
So listen, this metaphor only goes so deep. Because if there is an actual, physical TV implanted in the wall and it’s on at full volume all the time, unless you take a sledgehammer to that puppy it’s gonna stay there, stay on, and keep showing you whatever’s playing that afternoon.
But this is YOUR MIND we’re talking about. What plays in your mind is actually up to you. You run the network. And your mind is highly suggestible. You might not be used to suggesting new thoughts and content to your mind, but trust me, your mind is a malleable motherfucker. How do I know this?
If you were lying in bed in the midst of a painful, self-degrading meltdown and I walked into your room shrieking, “Justin Timberlake is down the street giving a free concert!!” you better believe your self-degrading meltdown would be put on pause.
If you are entrenched in worry and then happen to notice a $100 bill on the ground - BOOM - suddenly your worries aren’t the primary focus anymore. Get. That. Money.
If you’re over-wrought with anxiety and receive notice that there’s a stampede of miniature ponies trucking through your backyard, you’re gonna go to a window and check out the damn ponies.
The reality is that most of us never suggest new, creative, enticing alternatives to our minds. We’ve bought into this idea that MY MIND IS MY MIND AND IT SAYS WHAT IT SAYS AND I MUST LISTEN TO IT AND I AM ZOMBIE MUST FOLLOW MIIIIND…
I call bullshit! Play with your mind!
Imagine situations that would or could jog you out of your meltdowns and worries (I suggest making them extreme, enticing, and/or hilarious), and call upon them whenever you can. Get creative. Use your imagination. Thinking about stampedes of miniature ponies is much more useful and enjoyable than thinking about how you should’ve chosen a different major in college, trust me.
Above all else, know this:
You are not alone. You are so far from alone. I know what it's like to feel like you and your mind are at war. That you can't turn off the mean-bad-bad thoughts, that you'll never be able to change the damn channel that feels like it's been on for an eternity.
And I promise you, I PROMISE YOU, it can be different. It can get so much better. Those thoughts and stories and feelings can (and want to) loosen their grip on you. You don't have to tune into shitty programming whether it's on VH1, Lifetime, or inside your own brilliant head.
Check the metaphorical couch cushions. Find some version of a mental remote control. Get a little more selective about what you're watching, call it out, shift your focus, and introduce some new programming. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And the easier it gets, the more you'll want to do it. So go. Start practicing. NOW!