The inner voice, the voice in your head, the inner monologue, the inner critic, the inner stream of consciousness.
These are all names for the endless banter that occurs in the privacy of our minds. You “hear” it as you read this sentence.
Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argues that inner speech is just a re-processing of external speech. It developed simultaneously with, or not long after, humans started using language.
This voice is the internalization of authority figures. It’s like a tape recording of the rules of our society, that keeps playing itself back to us. In some ways, it is useful for our survival, because it helps us to keep track of what we should and shouldn’t do to keep safe.
Thoughts that keep us safe are those like “look both ways!” or “don’t accept candy (as a kid) or drinks (as an adult) from strangers!” While reacting to these thoughts are important, most of us oblige our inner voice as if our survival depends on it all the time. For example, when we have a negative thought about ourselves, we react as if we are in real danger. Many of us react to the thought “I’m not good enough at X” as if we could be decapitated for not being good enough at X.
The reason we react this way is because we have evolved to believe our thoughts. If our ancestors didn’t believe the thoughts “run when you see a predator,” or “don’t eat the poisonous purple berries,” we wouldn’t be here today. We have evolved to internalize societal messages as our own thoughts, and then treat these thoughts as if our survival depends on them.
The problem is that the authority figures who program our thinking—industries, our parents, churches, schools—are self-interested and often wrong. For example, the diet industry isn’t trying to protect us by making us think that we have to be thin to be happy. It’s primary concern is profit, not our best interest. But when this messaging comes back to us as the thought “I’m too fat,” we react to this thought as if it’s true. In reality, these thoughts are like paid-for advertisements, programmed by authority figures, that play on repeat in our minds. We generally observe advertisements with skepticism. Yet most of us react immediately to all of the thoughts that we have as if they are true and necessary. We think that just because we thought it, it must be true.
In his book On Being Certain: Believing you are right even when you are not, neuroscientist and author Robert A. Burton pokes holes in the common belief that we can actually determine when our thoughts are correct. According to him, the feeling of certainty is just a sensation that “is most likely a biologically-based, involuntary, and unconscious process that cannot be trusted as a reliable marker that we are right,” Robert explains. The problem is that we rarely question our own certainty about our thoughts. The majority of the thoughts that we have in a day are just noise, a re-processing of things that we have heard, on which our safety does not depend.
Until we learn to question the validity and necessity of our thoughts from an objective point of view, we will live in reaction to them.
Finding our own unique self-expression requires recognizing that we don’t have to believe everything we think. It requires dis-identifying from our thoughts as ourselves, and knowing that thinking something does not make it true, no matter how real the thought feels.
We must begin to develop our ability to recognize that most of our thoughts are programmed noise that can be disregarded. Most of the time, we do not need to believe or react to our thoughts at all. In fact, always believing or reacting to our thoughts stands in direct opposition to living a created life. For example, believing a thought “I’m not good enough” will divert us from realizing our goals and instead have us working on fixing ourselves to become “good enough.” The problem is not that we are not good enough. The problem is that we gave significance to the thought “I’m not good enough.” As Byron Katie says, “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that.”
We all have mental static. Our minds are all tuned into the chaotic radio frequency of our societies. Until we recognize it as static noise rather than the gospel truth, we cannot be truly free to create our lives.
As Geneen Roth writes in her book Women, Food and God, “the realization that your internal voice does not speak the truth is like finally breaking free of your captor after years of being chained.” So when the voice speaks, rather than believing it, ask yourself if you can know for certain that it is true, and if it is really helping you survive. If the answer is no, observe the thought with the same skepticism you would a paid-for advertisement, and let it pass.
Author: Brandilyn Tebo
Image: Mike Lay/Flickr
Editor: Emily Bartran