How to Begin (Really) Hearing Yourself
Four Kinds of Inner Voices
As we begin the journey of self-awareness, a crucial step is learning what our inner voices sound like, who they really are. The voices of our minds, which always chatter inside our heads.
I’ve learned that your inner style of speaking matters much more in shaping your life than your accomplishments, hopes, dreams, or even your aptitudes. Your inner voice shapes, defines, and limits all those, right? So in my little coaching practice, I distinguish many kinds. Here are just four, and why they matter.
The critic. The inner critic says: “you should have done that!”, “you should be doing this!”, “they do this, and you should too”. Or else. You are small, unworthy, belittled. An inner critic is always saying “should”. Its emphasis is on what you are not. It is always idealizing, is it not? It thinks the “should” is better than the “is”. So it produces anger, anxiety, and frustration. There is a sense that nothing is ever good enough. Not just in one’s self, but also in one’s life. The inner critic produces a life where people are always failing to live up to expectations, beginning with you.
The cynic. The inner cynic says: “you will never be able to do that”, “you will never be that”, “you can’t accomplish that”. It’s tone isn’t even often strident. It is just resigned, apathetic, fatalistic. It always says “can’t”. Its emphasis is on what you cannot be, do, become. So it produces sadness, depression, even grief. There is a sense of impossibility, of ineffectuality. Not just in one’s own self, but in everything. So nothing is really seen for what it is, only for what it isn’t. The inner cynic produces a life that can’t really see beauty, truth, or goodness in much, because it has already all struggle off as meaningless.
The teacher. The inner teacher says: “this is the only way to do it”, “that is the best thing to have”, “this is how to be”. It’s tone is stern, paternalistic. It seeks obedience and supplication above all, because it thinks there is only one right way, action, idea, way to be. So it produces rigidity, narrowness, anxiety, and fear. Instead of simply living our lives, we usually end up preaching, commanding, and dictating to everyone else how to live theirs instead. They are not the same thing, are they? So we fail to really develop intimacy, trust, closeness.
The optimist. The inner optimist says: “isn’t this wonderful, amazing, great, and so on”. While you might think this is healthy, it is — but in small doses. As a relentless way of inner speaking, it is as damaging as bottomless pessimism. Optimism becomes an escape into a pleasant daydream, instead of an engagement with what really is. The fake smile keeps reality hidden from the self. But suffering isn’t really healed that way, is it? So the optimist lives with an abiding sense of superficiality. Their relationships, work, ideas, and so on, never seem to hold much meaning or purpose. Because, in truth, they don’t. Too much optimism produces in us a refusal to struggle, rebel, defy, create. If everything is great, why bother attempting to paint outside the lines? The result is a life that feels false, empty, missing.
Everybody has a different inner voice. And everybody’s inner voice is never quite exactly one thing or the other. But there are distinct themes and tones and styles that can be identified, aren’t there? You can probably begin seeing yours a little bit in the partial list above.
The first step in self-awareness is simple. But not easy. Just sit and listen. Really listen.
Most of us spend most of our lives reacting, responding to, obeying our inner voices. That’s the only way we know to silence them for a moment, right? Otherwise, they’re always there, commanding, bugging, pleading, nagging, begging, condemning. So we just do what they say. At least that way, they stop for a moment. We feel relief, maybe pleasure, if we’re lucky, a tiny moment of happiness.
But there’s a better way. Instead of reacting, responding, obeying, just listen. Really listen. What are they really trying to say? Why are they saying it? What do they really mean? Just listen. Really listen. Not for the words. But for the meaning, context, feeling, emotions, sense, history, ideas behind the words. The wounds and suffering in the words.
That’s what your inner voice really wants. Not for you to obey it. But to listen to it. To recognize it, understand it, know it, respect it, as a living, breathing part of you. It is really the voice of your suffering. And the only way that you can heal that suffering is to hear your inner voice.
By obeying it, you are just hearing it — but you are not really listening to it, are you? You are just trying to mollify it and appease it. But you are not recognizing it. If I said to you, over and over again, “I need this! I need that! Get it now!”, after a while, you’d probably stop and ask: “what’s really going on here? What’s really troubling you?”, right? The great irony is that most of us don’t do it with ourselves. We’re just appeasing our inner voices, but we cannot understand anyone, including ourselves, that way, can we?
Everybody wants to be heard, don’t they? That’s as true for the people you love as it is for the inner voice of your mind. Be still. Just listen. And you will begin to know who you really are.