One of the worst things I ever heard happened during my last year at university when I was 24. I was living with Tony and Beth, a couple, in a two-bedroom apartment and had fallen asleep on the couch. The lights were off and the sleep function of the TV had turned it off so I was in almost complete darkness. Tony has a great sense of humor. He will say almost anything and make it funny.
Initially I thought he was playing a joke on me because I was woken up to hear someone saying “you are a loser, you will never make anything out of your life, you’re worthless.” It was dark, so when I sat up and turned around to tell him to piss off, it took me a while to notice that I was alone. In fact, I could still hear the voice telling me that I was a failure as it dawned on me that there wasn’t anyone else in the room. I was completely alone and all I could hear was this voice reminding me of my shortcomings as a human being and my complete lack of worth as a person.
It was rather disturbing to realize that the voice was coming from inside my head. First off, what it was saying bothered me because I felt that it was probably true. Secondly, why am I hearing voices and finally, why is the voice telling me that I am so pathetic? I sat their scared and angry until I was fully awake. Once I calmed down I went to bed and hoped I would sleep it off.
The next morning was very different. The voice was still there but it wasn’t telling me that I was useless. Instead it was telling me that I needed to get up, that I needed to go to school, that last night I had woken up last night hearing a weird voice dictating negativity at me, that I needed to do laundry, etc…. It seemed to be saying all the things that I was thinking. I dressed, ate breakfast and left to catch a bus to school. I recall feeling kind of weird, that I was out of place somehow. It wasn’t a bad feeling other than making me feel a little uneasy, but things weren’t wrong.
Looking back now I know exactly what was happening. I had an experience that would lead to an epiphany and one that created an awareness of who I was and why I was the way I was. The voice had been there for a long time. I’m not entirely sure just how long, but it years, probably since 12 or 13. That night was the first time that I became aware that it existed. Up until them it would do its thing without me even being aware that it was there. Becoming aware of the voice was the experience.
The voice is an internal monolog that is the literal representation of my immediate emotional state. It allows you to think literally about an emotional experience. In many ways it allows you to engage your emotions in a logical way because it makes them something that you can think about in tangible terms – it’s hard to capture the essence of grief on paper unless you have the vocabulary to describe what the experience is like, once you do, you can reference the feelings with words that will allow you some access to the emotion itself.
I say that the voice had been there since I was 12 or 13 because that was the first time I started to feel shame. In order to manufacture shame, you need to have some understanding that you are an individual within a community of other individuals. This type of abstract thought does not develop until 12 or 13 years of age. I may be wrong with this, but so far no one I’ve talked to about this recalls hearing the voice before their mid to late teens and most become aware of it in their early twenties.
Leading up to that night when I heard the voice, I had been playing around with mediation. I had never been very good at it because my mind was always very active and all over the place. Any time I felt that I was getting close to having a meditative experience I would be drawn away from it by some thought. It never made sense to me how I could think something when my eyes were closed and it was quiet. Up until that point I believed that I thought in images and not in words – it’s weird to write this now because of course I can think in words, but back then I didn’t realize it was the case. After I heard the voice, the source of my distraction was obvious, random words or phrase would pop into my head or I would begin to narrate my immediate emotional state e.g. “I want to go to a rave” or “oh, this is starting to feel like I’m mediating” or “I want to have sex with my girlfriend.” You can’t achieve nirvana with all that stuff floating around in your head.
Anyway, that day at school was interesting. I noticed that the voice would paint a darker picture of what was really going on. It would put a negative spin on stuff that happened, particularly when it dealt with other people; it seemed to come alive when I was interacting with other people. Usually making guess about what people thought about my actions or about me. It threw out a lot of judgment and hearing it made me think that maybe this was why I felt lousy around people most of the time. In fact, it didn’t seem to ever say anything that was positive, at best it was neutral, but mostly it was just negative.
Over the next few weeks, while the experience was still fresh in my mind, I paid a lot of attention to what it said and how it made me feel. The strangest part was how easily I would accept the conclusions or observations that it drew. To not do so felt completely pointless because the voice was coming from me. If I didn’t accept what it said, it would mean that I was wrong or that there was some part of me that was trying to sabotage my fortune. There was definitely a relationship between what the voice said and how I felt, but the relationship was a two way interaction – sometimes the voice would say something that would make me feel bad, other times I would feel bad and the voice would say something about it. It seemed that it would either dictate how I should feel or it would observe what I was feeling.
The experience faded and after a while I stopped thinking about it. I accepted that the voice was there and that there wasn’t very much that I could do to stop it. In time, however, I learned to talk back to it and to question it. After a lot of work it became easy to discredit it. I realized that since it came from me, it knew exactly as much as I did, so it didn’t have any special powers. Once it became evident to me that it was a reflection of my immediate emotional state and that that was within my control, what the voice said must also be under my control, if not completely, at least in terms of tone. For a while, it became something that was there that I tired to ignore and not let affect me. I think it took about 5 or 6 years before it stopped making me feel anything.
About 2 years ago, I was having pho with my brother and he started talking to me about sociobiology / evolutionary psychology. When I mentioned the voice and the experience that I had years before it was cause for us to stop and reflect on the reason for the voice. The part of evolutionary psychology I like is the fact that if a trait exists within an individual, there is a survival reason for it. The challenge was for us to come up with the survival reason for it. It turned out that he has the voice as well and that it does basically the same thing for him that it does for me. He gained power over it the same way I did, by challenging it and the observations it comes up with.
Not that there are any hard and true answers with things like this, but we came to the conclusion that the natural tendency towards the negative interpretation of others perceptions of us makes us work harder to gain their approval because if we have the approval of others in our social group, we will be able to remain part of that group and will have an improved chance of surviving. It’s an antiquated approach because all you need to survive in today’s society is money, but with millions of years of evolution behind it, getting rid of this trait isn’t going to happen any time soon. If you are able to isolate the voice and observe it without reacting to what it is saying, you will find that it does alert you to a lot of odd things. When something isn’t right, this is usually the first way you’ll realize it. It will say something that lets you know that something is going on or that you feel a particular way about something.
At worst you are not aware of the voice as it dictates negative observation and social pessimism un-molested into your conscious awareness making you feel guilt and shame. Maybe it isn’t that bad. Maybe you realize that it is there and that you have learned to ignore it, remaining more or less unaffected by it. Or maybe you are lucky and you have challenged the voice and found out that it is full of crap most of the time. Maybe you have found out what it is good for and are able to use it as a perceptive tool to help you uncover the truth of the world. I’m somewhere between ignoring it and knowing what it’s good for but every now and then I still have to tell myself to wise up and stop reacting to what the voices inside my head are saying.