We all have this little voice inside our heads, chattering away behind the scenes. Stuff like, “You’re too fat. You’re not good enough. You’ll never get promoted. You don’t have what it takes. No one will like it. Why do I try? Who cares?”
It’s a sadistic, negative little voice.
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Other times, a dose of optimism courses through our being and the little voice becomes a cheerleader. It prattles on with encouragements like, “You’re the best. You can do this. You are beautiful. You are special. You’re a superstar.”
Sounds nice. Encouraging. Maybe even helpful for the moment. Except the voice is unreliable. Sometimes it forewarns us. Other times it leads us astray.
The voice seems to vacillate between self-limiting thoughts and egocentric blandishments. Either way, that little voice can’t be trusted.
We all lie to ourselves. Some of us do a decent job of honest, self-evaluation, but we often have our blind spots and misperceptions. And that’s a problem because it distracts us from living a more joyful life.
Hide your true self
Best selling author Joshua Becker is a self-described “minimalist.” His popular website, BecomingMinimalist.com, is all about choosing a simpler life. Less stuff and more living.
Becker’s blog post “9 Easy Ways To Become Unsatisfied With Life” outlines behavior that leads to unhappiness. Things like focusing on ourselves, worshiping money, blaming others, etc.
One particular negative behavior on Becker’s list is “Hide your true self.” Why do we find it so hard to be, or become our authentic selves? By failing to grow into our true selves, we are shortchanged from truly living. We feel this nagging sense of incompleteness.
Another important point Becker makes has to do with egocentrism or focusing always on ourselves. As Becker notes:
“The size of our universe shrinks considerably when we place ourselves at the center. And the people who are most focused on themselves are the least satisfied in life.”
Some of us are able to look beyond ourselves and seek inspiration from others. We often find heroes to look up to. People we’d like to be like. Such individuals can inspire us to become more or to improve who we are. But we should never forget our own uniqueness. That’s the thing that sets us apart from everybody else, despite what our internal dialogue might be saying.
Out of the shadows
The little voice in our head is always comparing, complaining, worrying. It tells us to copy the person we admire. Try to be like that person. Which is fine up to a point. There’s nothing wrong with emulating positive traits in others. But we can never be someone else. Nor should we want to be a cheap imitation.
“Authenticity can’t be replicated or faked. You’re either real or you’re not.” -Bibi Bourelly
Other voices can chip away at our authenticity. Sometimes parents refuse to accept all or part of who their children are. Maybe a father frowns on a son’s desire to be an artist. Or a mother refuses to accept her daughter’s sexuality.
It takes bravery to step out of the shadows of other people’s expectations and be who you really are. Yet, if we are to live a joyful life, we must stop lying to ourselves and take what our internal voice says with a grain of salt.
How do you know if you’re lying to yourself? Basically, it just doesn’t feel right. It gnaws at you. Like the guy who refuses to address his alcoholism. He denies his addiction. Tells himself he can stick to just a few glasses of wine. But the cravings persist. Deep down, he knows. He’s lying to himself.
Or the woman who swears that her abusive husband will change. He seemed really apologetic after the last time he struck her. Maybe this time will be different? But of course, she knows the truth.
Voice of doubt
The little voice inside our head, fueled by fear and insecurity, likes to lie to us. It masks its lies in false charm and is slow to reveal the truth.
It’s like a charitable friend who says you look fabulous in that new outfit. But if you probe long enough and ask for the truth, the friend will eventually admit that yes, maybe you do need to lose a few pounds.
So what is the nasty habit that’s killing your dreams?
It’s something we all do. Even the most self-confident people have moments when the voice of doubt starts its nasty work. Questioning. Doubting. Reliving past failures and cajoling our insecurities.
Or the little voice does the opposite and caters to our ego. It tells you how great you are. How talented and brilliant your work is.
Don’t fall for it.
If you want to achieve your dreams, you have to put unreliable self-talk in its place. Here’s how:
Sure, you might be convinced that the manuscript you spent two years slaving over will be a publishing sensation. But before you start popping champagne corks in premature celebration, ship your tome off to a few editors.
Do some fact checking, to see if your work truly measures up. Compare it to the work of others. Also, if impartial editors shred your baby, don’t despair. Better to find out early and learn from the experience. Better to keep growing than listen to that lying voice in your head.
The same approach holds for negative self-talk. If you got passed over for a promotion, don’t assume it’s because you suck. It’s possible a more qualified candidate was selected. Try to find out what the winning candidate possesses that you don’t. Then work to develop those skills.
Seek unbiased feedback
Your Mom loves your paintings. So do your friends and family. They don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they lie to you. They do it with benevolent hearts, but never the less, false praise won’t get you where you want to go.
Be wary as well for the opposite side of family/friends’ praise, which is unfair criticism. Sometimes maladjusted people make themselves feel better by tearing down other people.
“Between flattery and admiration there often flows a river of contempt.”- Minna Antrim
Don’t rely on your jealous sister for feedback. Or that buddy who’s always competing with you needlessly. Find outsiders who don’t know you to get unbiased, straightforward feedback about you or your work.
The voice in your head is always running, and it hates change. Status quo is much easier than upsets, changing course and having to learn new things. Learning to accept change rather than fighting it will help calm that internal dialogue.
Toward the end of my law enforcement career, I knew I was ready for a change. I yearned to throw myself into my creative life, but fear made me hesitant about retiring early. The voice in my head said to hold off, but my heart said otherwise. So I accepted that change was inevitable and I retired early. It was the right move for me.
Manage your attention
Don’t be held hostage by your internal conversations, because they’re frequently fueled by insecurity, fear, jealousy, conceit or false bravado. Also, they can distract from paying attention to more important things.
Get your attention off your internal conversations by educating yourself. Seek the council of wise people whom you respect. Tell them your story. Your circumstances. Ask them if you should be feeling insecure or invincible.
When we put our energy into productive problem solving instead of negative self-talk, we correct course more quickly or confirm that we are on course.
As former FBI agent LaRay Quy wrote in TheLadders.com:
“Energy follows attention — wherever your attention is focused, your energy will follow. If your inner critic is beating you up about a failure, your failing will be the one thing you focus on.”
Let go of perfectionism
People don’t succeed because they’re perfect, they succeed because they work around their imperfections. Your unreliable self-talk is like quicksand. It focuses endlessly on your faults, and you get stuck there. You’re no longer able to see your strengths, or how to navigate around your flaws.
I was never strong in math and science. As a police chief, I had a multi-million dollar budget to manage, and complicated computer and communications systems to purchase and maintain.
To combat my shortcomings, I had my systems administrator draw rudimentary maps on my grease board. She simplified our computer and communications systems to help me understand the concepts.
This enabled me to have a working understanding of our systems and needs. But most importantly, I employed experts in these systems that I could rely on to help me make good decisions. Doing so also freed me to focus on other things I was more talented with.
Beauty and humility
No one is perfect at everything. Find support for the areas you are not talented in so that you can put more energy into the areas you’re great at. Doing so will mute that negative self-talk, and allow you to be more successful.
“There is beauty and humility in imperfection.” -Guillermo del Toro
None of us get to escape our internal dialogue. Sometimes, the voice within can helpfully guide us through difficult situations. Unfortunately, that same voice can appeal to our insecurities and shortcomings.
Follow the steps outlined above, and learn to manage your unreliable self-talk. Doing so will bring you more success and happiness, and that’ll be something worth talking about!
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint landscapes and write about life. Thanks for reading!