The Voices In My Head
“Time is limited, don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others drown out your own inner voice.”
I love this quote from Steve Jobs. It reminds me to listen to my inner voice. The still quiet voice from within that reminds me who I am and what makes me come alive.
Except that’s not always the inner voice I hear. I don’t know about you, but sometimes there’s another voice. One that is disapproving, doubtful and critical.
Sometimes it sidles up to me when I’m about to take a leap, asking “Are you sure you want to do that? Is that really wise?” luring me back into my comfort zone.
Other times it’s outright cutting. “You want to do what? Who do you think you are?”
Often it invites me into a minefield of unhealthy comparison, “She’s much smarter, he’s far more experienced, you’re nowhere near as established, or as qualified, or as confident, or as good at…”
It scoffs at me “Do you really have what it takes?”
It highlights other people’s success “That idea that you had? Already been done by ____ no way you can compete with them.”
Sometimes it sounds like the voice of reason, wisdom even, “Think of the kids. You don’t want to take that risk. Stick to what you know. Play it safe. Be realistic…” pointing out all the things that could go wrong.
And saves me from losing face “Hold off. You’re not ready yet. If you do this now, you’ll make a fool out of yourself.”
What do you do, when your inner voice gets you stuck, sucking up your time and energy with self doubt, second guessing and indecision?
Here are four strategies I have found helpful:
1. Name that voice
Seth Godin calls it the Lizard Brain. That part of our brain that that is responsible for the primal survival functions of fear and protection telling us to go slow, be careful, avoid risk and compromise.
John Williams calls it Top Dog. The internal critic that tells you it won’t work out, you’ll make a fool of yourself, it’s too huge, or you’re not good enough.
Coaches know it as the The Saboteur. I often call it the little Gremlin on my shoulder.
Clients I’ve worked with have come up with an array of names – sometimes actual people from their past, when they realise that the voice in their head isn’t theirs at all, rather an echo of what others have said. Sometimes well-meaning. Sometimes not. Either way, it was helpful for them to reassign that voice to its original owner.
Naming your inner critical voice can help you to identify it, “Huh, that would be my Lizard Brain talking” and decide how much you listen to it, rather than swallow its messages whole.
2. Change the conversation
The power of our inner critic is in how we hear its voice.
It might be soft and persuasive, harsh and sneering or loud, booming and authoritative.
As we know with kids, different tones of voice have a massively different impact on how the message is received. So why not change the tone of your critical voice? Speed it up or slow it down. Raise the pitch or turn down the volume. It’s hard to take any voice seriously if it sounds like Daffy Duck for example!
Take it a step further and add a visual image. A little yappy dog, a character from Alice in Wonderland, or Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy perhaps? Check out these extremely disappointed animals for more inspiration.
Have some fun with this!
3. Acknowledge the purpose
As unhelpful as it is, our inner critic often serves a purpose – essentially to protect. To protect us from getting hurt or from losing something important to us.
It is this purpose that keeps us listening to the voice. Logically we know that the fears our inner critic conjures up are rather extreme. But part of us still listens, because it addresses a legitimate need. The need to feel secure, loved and fulfilled.
The key is to address the need, rather than react to the fear.
Fear might say “You can’t speak in public, you’ve got a terrible memory. You’ll look a complete fool when you forget your words.”
Addressing the need may go something like this: “What would public speaking give me? Credibility. What do I need to do to achieve this? What resources or techniques will help me to remember and deliver my talk confidently?”
If your inner critic says “You’re not good enough” think “What do I need? What have I got?”
If you hear “You can’t do it. It won’t work.” ask “How would it work? What can I do?”
In particular, on the subject of comparisons, instead of “Well she’s got x, y and z going for her” focus on what you bring to the table. Your identity is about who you are, not how you compare to someone else.
4. Tune into positive voices
We can sometimes be too close to our inner critic to distinguish it clearly from the voice of reason. That’s when having the support of others is absolutely invaluable.
Surround yourself with positive voices. People who will point out when you are beating yourself up with Top Dog’s yapping, or when the Lizard Brain has you paralysed. People who will remind you of what you are already achieving and the fruits you’ve already seen. People who will see the best in you and call out what makes YOU brilliant.
Don’t waste your energy fighting Top Dog or trying to surgically remove your Lizard Brain. Simply give it a pat on the head, acknowledge it for what it is, and use these strategies to start changing the conversation and give yourself the support that enables you to take action – because action always speaks louder than words.
I’d love to know how you get on with these strategies and what names or images you come up with for your inner critic. Speak your mind in the comments below!