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The voices in our head - to listen or not to listen?

Tags: Self-talk

The old saying goes 'Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness' - but we all have voices in our head and that certainly doesn't mean we're mad.

These voices tell us to 'do this' or 'do that' or 'don't forget this' or 'you're fat'. This is perfectly normal.

It only becomes abnormal when the voices are external (auditory hallucinations) or obsessive (we feel we can't stop them and they play over and over again in a compulsive way).

The voices I'm referring to here are involuntary or automatic thoughts (as opposed to deliberate/conscious thoughts).

Some voices are positive, for example:

  • The problem solving voice (I know what I'll do!)
  • The voice of reason ('Come on now – be reasonable')
  • The creative voice ('That's a good idea!')
  • The Philosopher - that transcendent/reflective voice that wants us to believe there really is a God/afterlife.

Some are negative, such as:

  • The worrier (You have to/should/ought to')
  • The imp (that leads us astray – 'Go on – have that cigarette')
  • The critic/the judge – can be harsh and unforgiving – making us constantly doubt ourselves and put ourselves down ('You're wrong'/' they're wrong').

They're not always as black and white as this though. The worrier can be a positive thing, reminding us what we need to do and where we need to be. Similarly the critic (the judge) can help us to choose wisely and appreciate quality; the imp can help us to be spontaneous and have fun when we could otherwise overthink ourselves into stodginess and predictability; and the philosopher can keep us in a reflective state of brain, out of touch with reality.

Worry voice versus wise voice

I like to think of voices that have a negative tone being the 'worry voice' and the voices that have a positive tone as being the 'wise voice'.

The worry voice more often than not makes us feel bad whereas the wise voice mostly makes us feel good.

We can think of inner voices that have a negative tone or effect as often being involved with our survival brain – we have to: eat that food, avoid that stressor, fight that stressor, fit in (hence the critical 'you're fat'). The survival brain works at its peak when we are truly threatened and it magnificently reacts to make us jump out of the way of the speeding car, but there is no voice in our head at that moment (see this for more of my thoughts on the survival brain).

The voice in our head that has a positive tone or effect could be thought of as coming from the 'new brain' (the Neo Cortex) – that smart self that separates us from every other living thing (self-awareness, consciousness - our higher cognitive functioning). These thoughts can be lightning fast on occasion and this is often called intuition. Again, there's no voice as such, we just 'know'.

Actions that are spontaneous or knee-jerk reactions to the voice are great when the outcome is positive (a good idea), but not so good when the result is bad (a distressing worry may result in dysfunctional coping actions such as drinking or drugs).

We still need to consider the words the voice is saying though. If the tone is positive but it's telling us to commit a crime – then we might consider not doing what it says!

When we can hear our inner voice, how much we listen to it and to what extent we respond (not react) can be governed by our mind. We have evolved to be self-aware and so have the ability to choose whether the voice is something we want, or don't want – leaving us to take the necessary action.

'Choose-ability' involves engaging the mind to discern what thoughts we want, or don't want to have and how we act on them.

How to choose wise voice over worry voice

Here are some things to consider:

  1. What is the voice in my head saying? (Is what it is saying acceptable, constructive and legal, or negative, destructive and illegal?)
  2. Does it have a positive or negative tone/effect? Does it make me feel good or bad?
  3. Can I identify it? – e.g. as the critic/judge – or the creative/philosopher?
  4. If it's a wise voice – do I choose to accept it/do what it says?
  5. If it's a worry voice – is the worry timely/relevant? If it is then I may choose to do what it says, if it isn't then I can choose to reject it (you can see how to do that in this article 'Can worrying ever be good for you?').

Of course you can deliberately put a voice in your head to counter worries and negative thoughts but that is not what we are talking about here. Pro-actively positive and encouraging self-talk is very desirable.

If the voice is extreme – for example telling you to something negative, destructive and illegal – or an auditory hallucination that sounds as though it is outside your head, then you need to see a professional and/or call one of the numbers below.

Otherwise, identifying the voice in your head as one of worry versus wisdom could help you to have more choice over your thoughts and make them more constructive.

Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
Mensline Australia - 1300 78 99 78
Beyondblue - 1300 224 636
Suicideline Victoria - 1300 651 251
Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline - 1800 551 800
Griefline Community and Family Services - 1300 845 745