Learning to distinguish between different types of inner and outer voices is a key skill in learning how to think strategically and get better at making decisions. What are these thoughts that bubble up? Whose are these opinions that are floating around in my consciousness? Are these voices actually wise, or even correct? Which voice is truly my own voice?
What’s left of this identity known as “me” if I remove all of the anxiety, worry, received wisdom, memes, quotes, naysaying, and other external opinions?
My people tend to be almost unbelievably reluctant to make decisions. Sure, everyone can hesitate over the truly big stuff like whether to marry someone, have a child, or go in for surgery. I’m talking about whether it’s okay to throw away a receipt for a single bottle of water or whether it’s okay to delete a junk email. Utterly trivial non-decisions! This hesitation comes from total lack of trust of one’s own intuition, feeling that making personal choices is not permitted, absence of future vision, and emotional overwhelm. The ability to distinguish between the various types of inner voices can help with this.
First, let’s identify some external voices.
Family naysayers. The closer someone is, the longer they’ve known you, the more negative they are likely to be and the harder they’ll try to quash your every dream and wish. What makes them experts? What credentials do they have? What outcomes and results are they living?
Pop culture. News articles, blog posts, memes, posters, t-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, fortune cookies, and basically anything with writing on it will peddle generic pedestrian beliefs. Anything that commonplace is probably more valuable as a basis for “Do the Opposite” thinking exercises, because that’s the only way any original thought can be extracted from them.
“Authorities.” Interestingly, a Realtor will advise you to buy the house, a stylist will talk you into a shorter haircut that requires more visits, an orthopedist will recommend one more MRI, et cetera. Consider whether the person advising you has a vested financial, professional, or reputational interest in that advice. Get a second opinion, preferably from someone in a different field.
Note: Just because advice comes from a parent, authority figure, or a poster with a kitten on it doesn’t necessarily rule it out or make it wrong. Please first spend some time using your powers of discernment before relying on a single source.
Now let’s talk about inner voices.
Professional expertise. People who work in different fields tend to look at every problem through the lens of their professional expertise, which may be excellent most of the time and disastrous part of the time. Many great jokes are based on this problem. We want to pause and remind ourselves that in any given situation, an engineer, a lawyer, an accountant, and an astrologer will probably give predictably specific advice. It’s important to trust your own professional expertise over that of unqualified outsiders WHEN it’s your own field. When it isn’t, don’t let yourself be distracted by your own feelings of certainty and competence, which may be fallacious.
Anxiety. Anxiety correlates with intelligence. This means that the smarter you are, and/or the more educated you are, the more likely you are to talk yourself out of anything that feels risky. Where you identify risk depends on your personal temperament. For some people it’s romance, for others it’s finance, for others it’s physical. For my people, the voice of anxiety very firmly orders them to hoard material objects, avoid leaving the house, manipulate their emotions with food, and obsess over rejection and criticism. If the message is “stay awake far into the night perseverating” then it’s the voice of Anxiety that you’re hearing.
Legacy. “If you can read, you can do anything” is a bit of legacy wisdom that I carry from a great-grandparent. Legacy is neutral. Sometimes it’s incredibly toxic, sometimes it’s obsolete, sometimes it’s harmless, sometimes it’s like rocket fuel that can propel you to the heights of happiness and accomplishment. Sometimes legacy voices can compete and give contrary, mutually exclusive advice. (After all, decisions are choices and strategy is guesswork. There are no correct answers).
Conscience. Attending to the voice of conscience will serve to increase conscientiousness, which is one of the Big Five poles of personality. (The others are openness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism). Conscience asks us to be more thoughtful and considerate, to care for others, to contribute, to apologize, to give more than we take, to act with integrity, to avoid regret. My fascination is when someone reports that the voice of conscience is asking more in a certain situation than the voice of legacy would.
Desire. Desire, like legacy, is neutral. Following your bliss is usually harmless, totally fair, fun, and ultimately in service of the greater good. Desire, though, does not always lead to bliss in either the short or the long term. An example would be the massive YES that I felt toward a rental house when my husband and I first got engaged. It cost 25% more per month than the house we moved into. But I waaaaaaaaaant it! Inside of many people is a spoiled wannabe celebrity whose demands will lead to chaos and disaster, no bliss in sight. The voice of desire often pops up as “my body wants.”
The Id. The voice of the id is selfish, narcissistic, greedy, restless, jealous, and destructive. The id is obsessed with “respect,” attention, and procuring shiny objects. I saw a gannet bird pick up a slice of pizza on the sidewalk in Iceland one day, and try to swallow it whole, pointy end first. That’s a pretty solid image of what happens when the voice of the id takes over.
Certainty. Oooh, poison. The inner sense of certainty is what we want the most when we try to foist our decisions onto others. My students, clients, friends, and occasionally family members try to abdicate decisions onto me all the time. Probably half of my text messages and DMs are of this nature. TELL ME THE RIGHT ANSWER! People absolutely stone-cold hate having to make their own decisions and live with the consequences because we hate the idea that we’re choosing our own future outcomes. It’s a rejection of the gift of free will. Certainty tends to equal stubbornness, stasis, stonewalling, fixed mindset, and, well, simply being inaccurate and incorrect. The only way to predict the future is to create it.
The Muse. Many artists of different fields talk about being in a creative state in which the work seems to produce itself. The book writes itself, the painting paints itself, the character takes over while the actor is merely the vessel. I suspect that this is the pre-verbal right brain being tapped. It doesn’t speak in text. Sometimes people refer to receiving this voice as “being in the zone” and I think it also relates to System II thinking.
Spirit. Here is where I talk a bit about what I call ‘woo-woo.’ The voice of Spirit speaks infrequently and usually in a baffling, unpredictable way. Spirit tends to demand things of us that are uncomfortable, confusing, challenging, and inconvenient. For instance, I knew it wasn’t Spirit encouraging me to pressure my newlywed husband into a house we really couldn’t afford; it was just desire. Spirit has pushed me to befriend people when I wasn’t in the mood, give money when I felt stingy and broke, and go out for errands at odd hours that then led to weirdly serendipitous meetings. The last time this happened, I went for a walk at 10 PM, gave someone directions, and then found a $20 bill in a bush five minutes later.
For the curious, there are perhaps other varieties of inner voices out there. The daimon, as referenced by Steven Pressfield. A tulpa. Ancestors reaching out from the other side. Maybe all of those things at once, in the craziest multi-dimensional cocktail party of all time! It could be fun to pretend, anyway.
Ultimately, no matter what inner or external voices someone might be hearing, what matters is how we react. What choices do we take? What actions do we make? Just because a random thought crosses your mind doesn’t mean it’s necessarily your thought, or what I refer to as your “final answer.” It’s unlikely that every possible voice will suggest the same course of action. This is why it’s sound policy (see what I did there) to distinguish between them. Give them names, draw pictures of them, assign them theme songs or mental ring tones. With experience and practice, your own true inner voice will start to speak more clearly and project more volume.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.