Whose (nasty) voices live inside your head?

By Caitlin Kelly

She was pretty, in an elegant black dress, nylons and shoes. Her hair was carefully highlighted, her gold jewelry tasteful. Likely in her late 50s or early 60s, she radiated elegance and confidence.

But, as she turned the corner the wrong way to head to the five-star hotel dining room, I heard her mutter: “Pathetic!”

To herself.

Who was living inside her head and why were they — still — so cruel?

I later saw an interaction with her husband, a soft-spoken and highly-educated retiree, as she made another meaningless and minor error anyone could make — and he immediately chastised her.

It was painful to watch, both his attitude and her reaction.

Don't stay trapped!
Don’t stay trapped!

Here’s a smart and helpful piece from Alternet via Salon:

Loser! You messed this up again! You should have known better!

Sound familiar?

It’s that know-it-all, bullying, mean-spirited committee in your head. Don’t you wish they would just shut up already?

We all have voices inside our heads commenting on our moment-to-moment experiences, the quality of our past decisions, mistakes we could have avoided, and what we should have done differently. For some people, these voices are really mean and make a bad situation infinitely worse. Rather than empathize with our suffering, they criticize, disparage and beat us down even more. The voices are often very salient, have a familiar ring to them and convey an emotional urgency that demands our attention. These voices are automatic, fear-based “rules for living” that act like inner bullies, keeping us stuck in the same old cycles and hampering our spontaneous enjoyment of life and our ability to live and love freely.

Some psychologists believe these are residues of childhood experiences—automatic patterns of neural firing stored in our brains that are dissociated from the memory of the events they are trying to protect us from. While having fear-based self-protective and self-disciplining rules probably made sense and helped us to survive when we were helpless kids at the mercy of our parents’ moods, whims and psychological conflicts, they may no longer be appropriate to our lives as adults.

One therapist I know calls them “old tapes” — possibly a meaningless phrase to anyone under the age of 30: “Tapes?” (As in: tape recordings on cassette or [gasp] reel-to-reel. Things we keep re-playing and listening to, even if they’re toxic.)

I felt so badly for this woman, whose external appearance and life of ease — retired, dividing her time between two homes in lovely areas of the country — initially might have intimidated me.

Because I know all too well what it’s like to have a nasty voice, or several, echoing in your head.

Some of us try to drown them out with alcohol or drugs or food or shopping, costly ways to self-soothe.

Some of us spend a lot of time and money in therapists’ offices, trying to make sense of why these voices still resonate so loudly, sometimes decades after we first heard them.

They can carry such power and pollute or destroy so many other relationships, whether with friends, lovers, our spouse, co-workers, a boss…

Is there an unwelcome and nasty voice inside your head?

What are you doing to silence or exorcise it?


36 thoughts on “Whose (nasty) voices live inside your head?

  1. I used to call ‘the voices’ the nasty. Writing about it helped me recognise it. But im no closer to figuring out how to silence the nasty 🙂 i think thats a lifelong battle with most people.

  2. Great post! Every so often, I do what I call a brain binge. For one evening, for a couple of hours, I do nothing but listen to the thoughts in my brain and type exactly what I hear. It sounds crazy but what we perceive our thoughts to be, may not be accurate at all. It is only later, when you re-read your thoughts – free of judgment – that you actually hear the negative [or positive, or just plain dumb] things our brain says to us every day. Once you accurately identify what’s been said, you can then change the story your brain is telling you. In some ways, it has a mind of its own. 🙂

  3. i completely understand this and the ‘old tapes’ that play in our heads. as my mother got older and i became her conservator, by default, and we continued to fall into our old roles easily, negative as they were. it took time, reflection, and lots of sheer will, to learn to respond to her in a new way, as a strong and autonomous adult, no matter how negative she could be, and to understand my role in this. i finally understood that i couldn’t change her, only my reactions to her, and to let things go.

      1. i think many of us have these challenges. they are hard to overcome and i consider the whole process a work in progress. my mother has passed away, so this challenge is now over on most levels, though some things still remain. best of luck to you, caitlin –

    1. Sorry to hear this. The only way out I know of that can help is a smart and tough therapist — who sits and witnesses the voices — and is able to offer a competing, sane narrative.

  4. A very wise therapist once told me it was not the situations I was finding myself in that were painful, it was the stories I told myself about them while experiencing them. And that has made all the difference. Change your story–or better yet, eliminate the story and be in the moment–and those voices shut up. They can’t stand the present.

    1. Amazing insight. Thanks very much for sharing that…It’s sad and a little shocking to me how much we can cling to “old tapes” and, as you point out, let the past dictate the present, or future.

      I have had to fully distance myself from a few people to find some sense of calm and objectivity.

  5. So thrilled to understand this: “Some psychologists believe these are residues of childhood experiences—automatic patterns of neural firing stored in our brains that are dissociated from the memory of the events they are trying to protect us from.” What do you do to purge those “old tapes?” Friends and therapists work at times for me.

    1. I found that really interesting…there are times I can feel my brain settling back into an old (bad) groove (ahhh, yes, like a vinyl record) when I am decades past the BS that got in there initially.

      Therapy has been very helpful for me. It recently allowed me a quite different way to process some fear during bad turbulence on my flight into Managua. It’s hard work to re-program your tapes but well worth it.

  6. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail

  7. mommytransformations

    Yoga and meditation have helped me learn to silence the inner critic and have love and compassion for myself.

  8. This was so beautifully written. Thanks for the reminder.
    Years ago, someone mentioned – If someone is talking and gets interrupted, what does the speaker usually do? They stop talking. The more interrupted the speaker gets, the more they will most likely not speak–at least not with the one interrupting them, and at least not for a while.
    In addition to that, I echo in concurrence to what was said about music; it will not only soothe savage beasts but it’s known to exorcise them as well (of course we don’t mean music that is depressing or written by one who was depressed at the time and the spirit of the song holds no ability to uplift and push forward).

  9. davidjrogersftw

    Whenever I find myself going off on one of those critical mental monologues–whether critical of myself or of other people– I catch myself and remind myself of Vivekenanda’s words, “Go beyond the trifles of the world,” and then I breath deeply and am at peace.

  10. Pingback: The guy you don’t want to date: 2) the temper trap | What's love got to do with it?

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