You are your own worst critic. Or so the saying goes. But what is that inner voice? Does it have to be so mean? Can it ever be silenced?
“Why are you writing that? Are you completely useless?” He hisses.
This voice is familiar, harsh, perhaps more due to the Russian accent than intention.
“Why would I do that? I know more types of martial art than you have fingers and toes.”
Meet Laras Nikolao: a fictional character. I’ve been writing his story since I was fifteen (alongside the awesome talent that is Q from Nerd Cactus) and his voice, amongst many other characters from that story, is one I’ve come to love-hate when it pops into my mind. He’s there to comment on the writing. He’s there to correct my mistakes in his characterisation. He’s there to bicker, to nag and inspire when I become lazy and neglect the story too long.
Explaining the experience of ‘hearing voices’ in this way probably sounds pretty close to crazy. Yet Q discusses her characters in the same way: as an inner voice, an almost-real person that just so happens to reside in her head. And according to the interdisciplinary Hearing The Voice Project, it’s pretty normal for ‘writer types‘ to experience inner voices in this way. Apparently even Dickens used them to create his vast world of characters.
However, when most of us think about it – we all have inner voices. Not in the ‘there’s an overly aggressive Russian professor living in my head’ way like me and Laras. And not a weird, scary way like you might think of certain psychoses. Just in a perfectly normal, everyone-has-them kind of way.
For most of us, most of the time, inner voices might manifest as a silent, internal conversation. You know the kind – like when you coax yourself out of bed in the morning “just think how warm the shower will be”; or replay that argument with your partner in your head and imagine how the conversation might have gone if you’d just done/said that instead and been more chill or could think of all the good Shakespearean insults. Equally if you’ve ever had to do any kind of public speaking or attended an interview, there’s every chance you’ve worked through the things you want to say in your head a fair few times before ever saying them out loud.
Psychologists have been studying the mental phenomenon of inner speech in its various forms for decades (see Lev Vygotsky for the 1930s kickoff). However, what’s more interesting than just the experience itself (which yes is cool and curious and really very interesting on its own) is that whilst we all have that murmuring stream of thoughts winding its way through our minds, sometimes that mental voice turns on us.
There can exist a voice in our heads that is simply cruel. One that is critical, defeatist, sneering, vicious. The eternal party pooper of the anxious mind.
“You suck,” says this kind of inner voice. “Everything you do is crap. Everyone around you can’t stand you, just look.”
We can be tyrannised by such voices. They’re not ‘inner critics’ per se – they’re entirely unhelpful. Where the critic says, “Ok that bit fell flat, let’s work on that.” These asshole voices say, “Wowwww that was THE worst. You are THE worst. You should just crawl into a hole and never try again.”
For anxious people, people with depression, people in any kind of mental distress, those negative voices can be even louder. They can overtake the normal, calm, bubbling away little voices and disrupt our daily, healthy, narratives.
Why do these voices exist? They’re not helpful. They’re not cool. They’re inner trolls. Only they’re all too easy to believe and far more insidious, skewing our view of the world and our selves to one that is predominantly negative, stopping us from investing in important relationships or overcommitting to certain escapist habits.
Following that, the bigger question becomes how do you turn them off? How do you put inner trolls back under the bridge? Is it possible?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. Due to the plasticity of the brain, we can change our minds.
The theory is (see Vygotsky, Rogers, Longe etc) that once upon a time all inner voices were outer voices. And whilst the science of our inner voices is still very much under study, internalisation is one of the key factors to creating both positive and negative variations. When it comes to the normal, helpful inner critic, these are part of our defensive system – suggested by the “significant association between self-criticism and the lateral prefrontal cortex of the brain including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), an area associated with error detection and resolution.” In other words, if you were ever told by a parent not to touch a flame, then those inner voices are there to repeat the warning that stops you from burning yourself.
But there’s obviously a big difference between a helpful “hold the blunt end of the knife, you silly bean” critic and the troll that berates you endlessly for pricking your finger on said knife and getting blood on the sideboard.
In The Book of Life blog, they make the example that those troll voices may originate from an angry parent, a school bully, an impossible teacher, harried lover. These are the formerly-outer, overly-critical voices that we’ve internalised and that become our trolls. To change such inner voices the blog therefore explains that we need to come up with more believable positive voices – ones that are helpful and constructive.
Easier said than done, right?
But that’s why I started with Laras – fictional though he may be, he represents one of the most demonstrable examples of how we can make our inner voices useful rather than antagonistic. There are a series of steps that most blogs out there will discuss from learning to recognise the voice to understanding how it affects your behaviour. However, the thing that almost all advice pieces emphasise is the need to objectify the inner voice, to accept that it is Other to you, a mere point of view not the be-and-end of the discussion.
When I’m writing, I’m conscious of Laras and his voice in my head. I am also conscious that he is about as real as an invisible pink unicorn (sorry Laras) and that I have final say over the words on the page.
Thinking linearly, when my non-creative inner voices pop up, I try to imagine them in same way as fictional characters. Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul, suggested this as a way of becoming familiar but objective towards your inner voices. Allowing you to realise it’s not you, not your true, best or most reliable point of view.
Creating a space between the ‘real you’ and the ‘inner troll’ is key. By doing this you can establish a gap in which it’s possible to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, to be kind to yourself, to ask yourself questions that alleviate any anxiety and pressure generated by the internal dialogue. Moreover, the more you imagine them as external to you, the more you can figure out how they’re a symptom of mental distress rather than a reality, a habit rather than a truth.
How you objectify your voices might not be as characters. It might be better for you to imagine them as objects. Or as irritating roommates. Or as stories.
By enforcing the sense of Otherness upon the inner trolls we can more fully enter into a dialogue with them and take control of our personal narratives. We don’t want to be ruled by pessimism or voices that chastise and control us through fear. We want to be kind to ourselves so that we can learn and grow and be enthusiasts in life.
I’m not saying I’m there yet or that inner trolls can be put under the bridge forever. But we can find tricks that help. I hope sharing mine is useful. Because, to paraphrase Dolly Parton, we need to love ourselves, it’s the longest relationship we’re ever going to have.
This blog was written following Mental Health Awareness Week 2016.
If you need or want support for mental distress, then check out MIND charity’s page. It comes with some great PDFs and advice and also a handy phone number that you can call if you really need someone to talk to. You can find their details here.