Monday, January 05, 2009

Taming the Mental Committee

We've all been there. We have all done or said something and immediately a voice in our head said, "That was stupid!" Or how about that wonderful voice that always seems to speak up just as we are about to put knife and fork to work saying, "If you eat that you'll get fat!" My personal favorite is the voice that yells after a mistake, advising "You are absolutely worthless!" With so much love and support in our heads it is no wonder so many suffer from low self-esteem!

In this article I am going to describe some very simple and yet very powerful techniques for working with these voices. However before we can get to that I have to first drop a bit of a bombshell: All that stuff in your head - the voices, the pictures, even the memories - none of it is real.

"But wait", you say. "I was there. I remember it like it was yesterday. When I was 10 years old I set fire to the living room carpet and my father yelled at me for half an hour." Certainly you were there and certainly you remember getting yelled at. But can you really remember 30 minutes of yelling? Of course not. What you remember is a re-telling of a filtered and edited version of the story. A highlights clip, if you will. You see, as amazing as our brains are as computing machines, reality is just too information-rich for us to perceive all of it all the time.

What we perceive around us on a day to day basis is not reality in the absolute sense ("objective reality"). What we perceive at any given moment and then remember later is called "subjective reality." This means that our reality is personal. The world around us is constantly being filtered, evaluated, categorized and filed away and the two mechanisms in charge of this process are our past and our attention. Attention functions like a spotlight focusing on the things that are important to us and our past provides the judgments for how we evaluate those things.

However, just like a computer, data can be stored incorrectly (has your dog ever received a credit card offer?) and programs can be old and out of date. Negative mental voices are an excellent example. Perhaps as a child you had a parent who, in trying to make sure you lived up to your potential, would comment on homework mistakes by calling them stupid and saying you could do better. After hearing that message enough times you now, as an adult, have a "program" that tells you when you've done something "stupid" just like your mother used to. This program probably even has your mother's voice. The thing is, you are an adult now and you do not need the disembodied voice of your mother passing judgment on everything you do. "So what can I do about it," you ask. Good question - let's find out.

Here is an experiment for you:
Find one of those voices - it should be easy enough, just remember the last mistake you made in your life.
As it is listing your character flaws or detailing what you've done wrong notice how you feel as you listen.
Now, add a soundtrack behind the voice. Make it something silly, like circus music or something from a cartoon.
Notice how this simple addition changes your experience of that voice. Odds are the voice and it's words became completely silly.

Whatever you do, don't keep that music behind the voice unless you are completely willing to make a lasting change for the better in your mental state!

Here's another one for you. Many times the voices have power because of who they represent. Admit it, the critical voice your mother used had much more importance to you and some random stranger's. Again, find one of those internal voices and this time make the voice itself something silly. Try a few things like Mickey Mouse, Moe from the Three Stooges, or your best friend after inhaling some helium. Notice again how your relationship to this voice has changed. As an added bonus, add the circus music soundtrack and try to keep yourself from giggling!

In addition to being a person's voice you'll also notice that each distinct voice always comes from the same place - behind you, to the side, whatever. Try moving the voice. If it usually comes from behind and to the left, move it to the right. If it comes from the back, try putting it in front. These voices exist totally and completely within your own mind - figments of your imagination. Take control and imagine something different for a change!

Finally, while the previous techniques are amusing and certainly useful, how much better would it be to turn that critical committee into a cheering section? Imagine for a moment how powerful it would be to have a positive voice that always notices the good things you do and compliments you. How many aspects of your life would suddenly become a thousand times easier?

A very useful assumption is to say that every behavior has some positive intent. The effect of the behavior may feel negative, but the intent will generally be for the good. The trick is to find that intent. Here is a suggestion which I'm sure will shock and amaze many of you - talk to the voice! I think we are all used to yelling at the voices, telling them to shut the #$@! up, but how many times have you actually tried to talk to them in a reasonable manner? I bet none.

Try this - when one of the voices is haranguing you for some supposed mistake, ask it what is its positive intent behind saying the things it is saying. It may take a bit of time to open a meaningful dialogue - if you had been yelled and cursed at for years I imagine you would be a bit sullen as well. However, usually with a bit of apology and interest most voices are willing to talk. Typically the intent behind the voice will be something you are also interested in - eat the proper amount, appear respectable in public, show respect for authority, etc. The intent may come in the form of a negative such as "don't hurt people's feelings." Try turning these into a positive and ask if that says the same thing.

Now, here is the key to the whole process. Ask the voice, "If we could find a way to accomplish this intent that would be positive and uplifting and work even better than what you are doing now, would you be willing to try it for a while?" It may take a bit of reassurance that this would only be a trial, if it does not work things can always go back to the way they used to be.

After you have agreement, the real fun can begin. Start brainstorming with the voice. Try turning things around to a positive as much as possible, for example, "Instead of telling me 'That comment was really stupid!' how about suggesting a different way of saying it next time?" Work with the voice and find things to say and ways to say them that will accomplish the purpose and yet leave you feeling good at the end. Remember, even though these voices sound like other people, they are still a part of you. Treat the voice exactly as you would want to be treated and you will make good progress.

It may take a bit of time and some trial and error but the end result is well worth it.

5 comments:

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