How many voices do you have in your head? I’m not talking about psychosis or schizophrenia, but those nagging voices that make up your internal dialogue throughout the day? We all have voices in our head that constantly chatter away. Sometimes they can be motivating, sometimes they can be silly (most of mine are utterly bonkers), sometimes kind; but most of us, unless we are very Zen, have our own worst enemy living in there too.
It’s a common request from clients: ‘I want to stop being so mean to myself’, ‘I want to stop sabotaging myself’. It all amounts to the same thing; a negative inner dialogue that tells you stories – that are usually false by the way – that stops you fulfilling your potential and leaves you feeling disempowered. It is a very human trait and the downside of having the brilliant minds we do. In ancient yoga texts this is called chitta vritti, literally translated as a whirlpool of mindstuff. My yoga teacher Sarah calls it the ‘itty-bitty shitty committee’, which I think is far more fitting. That collection of voices that chatter away with a hundred stories about the past, the future, what we should be afraid of, comparing ourselves to others (in good and bad ways) and holds us back. It wastes the most precious of mental energies on worrying and fretting about things that haven’t even happened.
A primitive foe
But where do these horrible voices come from? It might surprise you to learn that the point of these critics are actually to keep us out of harms way. The part of our brain that is the most negative is so for a reason, it is trying to keep us safe. The subconscious part of the brain often doesn’t know what is real and what isn’t, it only understands cues that alert us to a threat or not. If you are walking home in the dark and you hear a noise, it is likely your negative brain will kick in, as a way of keeping you safe and alert. You thoughts may become simple, repetitive and very negative, trying to keep you safe. That part of your brain does not want you to be relaxed and positive as if you are you might get attacked! So it keeps you on the edge of your panic button, so that every noise or twitch of a tree becomes the potential murderer that you have to run away from.
This is great when we’re actually under threat, but when we can’t turn that voice off, when it constantly harps on at us telling us to think the worse to be afraid, it starts to sabotage our potential. It starts to tell us we’re not clever enough, not attractive enough, that people don’t like us, that we’re doomed to fail… In short, turning from a helpful friend into a sinister foe that takes on a life of its own.
The itty-bitty shitty committee
But where on earth do they get off telling us that? If we had a best friend who talked to us like that we would soon cut them out of our life, if we had a boss who constantly told us we were useless and lazy, we would change jobs, and hopefully if a partner spoke to us like that we would get the hell out of the relationship. So why do we allow ourselves to carry these negative voices around in our head, making our lives more difficult?
Some voices do echo the voices of others, especially the voices that had most influence over us as a child. If we had a particularly critical parent, if we were bullied at school, then this can contribute to having a more negative inner dialogue as an adult. Sometimes this isn’t the case and it is the very fabric of living in the modern world that disempowers us. We live in a world where we are bombarded with messages telling us that we are not good enough, and after a while these seep in and become our own negative narrative. If we ever suffer from periods of anxiety and depression (times when in terms of evolution it was necessary to think negatively, in order to save our life), then this can make the problem worse, and the critical voice can linger long after the anxious time has passed.
So how can we stop this itty-bitty shitty committee from turning up and ruining our day? It takes practice but there are techniques, which if practiced regularly can get them to pipe down, or at least be a bit more constructive and nurturing in their ways:
The traditional, most ‘old-skool’ way of dealing with the shitty committee is meditation, and by ‘old skool’, I mean people have been using meditation to calm the mind pretty much since we had minds. Certainly Indian scriptures dating back 5,000 make reference to mediation, and it’s been used in one form or another since then, but more and more people are using it again to find some peace from the hectic world we live in. You don’t have to follow a belief system to meditate, you can just sit comfortably for ten or so minutes a day and focus on your breathing; if your mind wanders, then bring it back to your breath and congratulate yourself for doing so! Alternatively if you want a bit of help, check out Buddhist centres and yoga studios for meditation classes, they’re usually inexpensive, if not free and it can help focus you even more if there are other people present (so you can’t get up and check your iPhone!).
If you are looking for something a little more contemporary, but based on the same principles as meditation, then perhaps try some mindfulness techniques. Again, there are classes in mindfulness that can bring more conscious awareness into your daily life that help you shut out the negative chatter. Mindfulness colouring books are a fun way to switch off for a while, and if you really want to build a good daily practice of mindfulness meditation then I can highly recommend the Headspace app.
As a hypnotherapist I use trance to help people make positive changes and that includes changing the nature of their internal dialogue. If someone has been drip feeding negative thoughts for years – in itself a form of trance – then being put into a trance state and giving the subconscious positive messages, changes the nature of the thoughts. During a trance state you can be guided through visualisations, such as turning the sound down on the negative voices or making them into characters that can be questioned and challenged. A few sessions with a solution-focused hypnotherapist can really make a huge difference to internal chatter, and to help find that more nurturing voice.
The challenge doesn’t have to be in a trance state; in fact consciously challenging the negative narratives can be a very powerful way of creating change. When your committee starts up, challenge it! Either vocalise it, write it down or do it mentally, but challenge them! Ask them what evidence they have that you’re going to fail or that nobody likes you? You might find the answer a lot weaker than you expected. This is an excellent practice to get into as it gets you back into your pre-frontal cortex, which is the most rational and realistic part of your mind. By practicing this conscious dialogue between your rational mind and your shitty committee you gain a lot more control over what they say. It’s always a good strategy to stand up to any form of bullying, especially bullies that live in your head.
I believe whole-heartedly in the POWER OF THE POST-IT. Writing positive affirmations on Post-its and sticking them places where you need some positive thoughts. Stick them on your mirror, your desk at work, your locker at school, your fridge. Charge them with the power of intent and positive thought, anything that you need to be reminded of that’s positive. By repeating them over and over whenever you see them, you start to replace the negative voices with your own self-boosting voice. This is one of the best ways to turn your enemy voice into the voice of being your own best friend. Think about what you say to your friends when they are feeling low, AND THEN SAY IT TO YOURSELF. You are the one who needs to hear it!
Now you may be in a place where positive affirmations, mindfulness and peace from your negative voices seem to be out of your grasp. Perhaps your voices have taken over a bit and you can’t seem to find your positive counter voice. In that case I suggest finding a coach or therapist to help you in your self-enquiry. A therapist can help you understand your critical voices a bit better (perhaps even discovering their origins) and help turn them into a more nurturing and motivating team. If you find someone who has experience of hypnotherapy and CBT they can also help you out with some of the other methods of quietening the din and finding your inner cheerleaders. Whatever way you choose, it’s time for the shitty committee to stop being a bitch and shut the hell up, and allow you to get on being the fabulous being that you are.