The Negative Voice In Your Head
Whether he goes by the name of doubt, fear, or some other moniker, we all have a negative voice burrowed in our head that reminds us of our limitations, be it intellectual, emotional, or physical.
The deceiving voice may present itself as a soft voice that whispers with the voice of a mother; or, boom, like the gravely voice of a foreman which grasps with his hand a bullhorn and shouts at us telling us what we are incapable of achieving.
But first, a story. Bear with me, it is indeed relevant to the topic. Secondly, if you can make it to the end of this post, it is worth it. There’s even an audio track of a questionably psychotic woodpecker.
My Son Urinated On a Toilet Seat and It Got Me Thinking
This morning my son began a lifelong journey of urinating on toilet seats. Today, it was a private residence. Tomorrow the world is his oyster, the public sphere—perhaps at a sports arena or at a convenience store bathroom on the side of Rt. 29. Wherever it will be, it will be a place where another human being, perhaps even his wife one day in the year 2040, sits their unsuspecting bare bottom on his cold urine, and says, “Son of a b–––h!”
The day started off like any other day. My wife woke really early, went downstairs, meditated, journaled, read a little, and drank coffee. I laid in bed, hitting the snooze button on my alarm over and again, woke late, had the nerve to get mad at myself, and then declared as I do every morning: Tomorrow, I’ll do better.
This is what the alarm looks like on my phone.
My daughter ate oatmeal. My son asked for a waffle. My wife put the waffle in the toaster, then my son says, “I don’t want a waffle,” and asks for eggs. So I warm up the frying pan and make the boy some eggs. I get it. I’m a protein-for-breakfast kind of guy myself.
Henry finishes his eggs, goes upstairs, and starts playing with his trucks. My daughter stays downstairs and draws.
By this time, my wife has now left for work.
I am in my bedroom getting dressed when my son announces to the house, “I need to go potty.”
SIDE NOTE: I have tried this, too, but when I do, my wife says, “We don’t need to know that.”
A few minutes later Henry declares loudly, “I’m done.”
I walk into the bathroom and notice that the water in the toilet is mostly clear, save for the back of the toilet as well as the toilet seat itself which is splotched yellow.
“Did you stand up and pee?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says proudly.
That’s the thing about kids. And, that’s the big difference between kids and adults.
What Kids Do — Try, Try, Try Again
Kids try new things. They might not even do a very good job, but they try. Even if they only partially succeed, they oftentimes give themselves kudos.
My son, for example. He stood up and peed — all over the toilet, probably even a little on his shoe and on the floor around the toilet. But he stood up and peed, like a big boy, and he couldn’t have been more proud of himself and this accomplishment.
What Adults Do — Try, Fail, Throw in the Towel
Then there’s what adults oftentimes do. We try, fail, contemplate trying again, maybe, maybe not, then throw in the towel. Then we repeat the process again eight months later.
Think about it: you want to eat healthier; exercise; run a 5K; get stronger; spend more time with your spouse; spend more time with your kids; plan a weekend adventure with old friends; read a book; write a book; play an instrument; learn to sew; take a hot yoga class; learn to meditate; read the Bible; read Moby Dick; read War and Peace; read Infinite Jest; take a Facebook sabbatical; volunteer at the children’s hospital; start a blog; build a raised garden bed to grow your own herbs and vegetables; take over the world; and declutter your home once and for all.
Yet, in many cases, you find an excuse. A lot of excuses. Excuses become the norm of everyday life.
So what is holding you back? To quote the Dalai Lama: “The enemy is a very good teacher.”
RELATED: Read Joshua Becker’s essay “A Positive, Encouraging Guide to Overcome Failure“
The Voice — Not the Reality TV Show, But Almost as Terrible
At the start of this post, I mentioned how we all have a voice burrowed in our brains which reminds us of what we are incapable of achieving, what our limitations are.
This voice, no matter what form it reveals itself to us, whether gentle or thunderous, monotone or with damning intonation, tells us we aren’t good enough, we aren’t talented enough, skilled enough, young enough, old enough, strong enough, fast enough — we aren’t enough.
It warns us of unknown consequences, perhaps even dire, or that which may mire us in foolishness if we proceed. It will tell us anything to stall us, to defeat us.
Resistance is the Enemy Within
Steven Pressfield is the author of numerous critically acclaimed works of fiction, most notably The Legend of Bagger Vance. Even with this success, Pressfield felt the need to slay a dragon that he knows breathes fire not just at others but also at him. Despite the voice urging him not to, Pressfield wrote The War of Art. He gave the voice a name: Resistance.
“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole . . . It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned . . . Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.”
Pressfield goes on:
“When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn’t be exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly; rather, I should incorporate them metaphorically into a novel. That’s a pretty damn subtle and convincing argument.”
RELATED: Buy The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
How do you calm the negative voice?
First, you have to be aware of it.
When the voice presents its rationale, pause and propose an alternate response. I call this response the reality, meaning: the reality of the situation. Because that’s what it is. There’s what we think and then there’s the reality.
Take exercise as an example
Perhaps you want to be in better shape and think running may be just the remedy you need to shed extra weight or help you quit smoking — whatever your reason may be.
The voice may resort to name calling. You’re too old, too fat. Good luck Mr. Black Lung. The reality: you’re never too old or out of shape to take up good habits. Ever. If you ever feel that way, that is the exact moment you start.
The voice will lie to you. People will laugh under their breath at you if you try to run. The reality: If you’re out of shape and start exercising, people aren’t laughing at you — you are an inspiration. You’re doing it. When I run, it’s not healthy people that inspire me to keep going back day after day. It’s the 90+ year old man wearing the short sleeve plaid button up and khaki shorts who is out there on the trail. It’s the 215 lb. man who was 330 lbs. three years ago when we both started our life transformations. It’s the mom pushing the stroller who may very well be suffering from postpartum depression and this moment of exercise is creating happy chemicals in her brain called dopamine that will continue even once the sweating stops.
Case in point: I am 40 lbs. lighter than I was when I started running. Forty pounds of unhealthy weight in my face and belly which doesn’t exist anymore — and because of my lifestyle changes, I’m headed toward 35 years old and in the best shape of my life. I could run laps around my 20 year old self. That’s just the physical. The mental positives from running are even greater. I’ll tell anyone the same. In a bad mood? Go for a run. If you’re a newbie, you won’t be mad after about a 1/4 of a mile. Stressed or can’t get your brain to quiet down? Running will melt the stress like an ice cube in the sun. If you really want to quiet the noise, run harder, faster.
It’ll reason with you. (1) You’re too busy. There’s not enough time in the day. The reality: Evaluate your time. We humans BS more time down the drain than we do anything. Prioritize what is most important in your life and you’ll find time at least four days a week. Family and health should be at the top of your list. (2) Diet is most important. Start with diet. Once you’ve lost a few pounds, then you can start running. The reality: Diet is vitally important, but you know what will make you want to eat healthier than anything? Getting in shape. You’ll think twice about that bag of Doritos or eating a box of donuts once you start running. Diet and exercise should be coupled together, not separate from one another. Confession: Sometimes running makes me crave donuts, which I do indeed run to the store and buy and consume hastily.
It’ll offer medical advice. Your heart might not be able to take it. Your knees. Your back. The reality: Worried about your health? Talk to your doctor. Tell your doc you want him or her to write up an exercise plan, not just a prescription. They have a database for this type of thing. You’d be surprised. And just about every major insurance company has an online wellness portal for its members that will allow you to create a meal and exercise plan. Plus, your knees and back likely hurt because you are sitting and/or idle the large majority of your day. Moving gets the blood pumping. As someone with a severely herniated disc in my lower back, I can tell you this: it’s when I don’t run I have the most problems.
It’ll let you win a little and then it’ll try to crush you. The voice will ask you to take a day off, then two, and why not three? All of a sudden, a week has passed. You fell off the horse. Better to stay out of the saddle. And the voice has claimed yet another victim. The reality: Forming a habit is about repetition. For the first three months of exercise, never take more than one day off unless you’re sick as a dog. Even then, if you can walk — walk. It’s fresh air and it boosts your immune system. Don’t think about exercising, just exercise. Make like Nike, and just do it. Once you give your brain enough time to think about it, the voice will take up residence immediately. Don’t think, just do.
Hear the voice. Listen to the reality.
RELATED: Read Leo Babauta’s essay “Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide“
Exercise is just one example. There are many
Perhaps you find yourself in a new relationship. You’ve been burned in the past, so you’re understandably reluctant or cautious. Perhaps you desire a new job in a new field. Whatever it is, ask yourself the question: what’s keeping you back? Is it resistance?
Perhaps the next great American novel resides in your head and wants to escape. The voice will tell you that you don’t have what it takes. You don’t even know where to begin. How do you structure a novel? When will I find time to write with a full-time job, a wife, and kids? I’m not good enough. What I just wrote is terrible. What a stupid idea.
Perhaps you’ve even written a novel and it’s just sitting there on your hard drive as the years pass. Perhaps you’ve submitted it to an agency and gotten a partial read, and then nothing from there. The voice will remind you that you don’t have what it takes. No need to revise the draft again. No need to write another novel. Just let the one you wrote sit there and collect dust. If you want, you can self-publish it one day. Yeah, that’s it. Give up and self-publish even if you have no desire to go down that route.
The reality: most authors fail over and over and over before any morsel of success comes their way, and you know what, some never see the success of their work until they are dead. Some never see even a morsel of success at all. That could be depressing or it could not. It depends on why you do what you do. Why do you write? Remember the answer to that.
Big deal if your novel doesn’t go anywhere. Write another one. Then another. When you started running did you win the Boston Marathon within a year — would you even qualify now, years later? No. Keep running anyway. Again, it depends on why you do what you do.
Hear the voice. Listen to the reality.
Second, Think Like a Kid
The next time the voice starts flapping its gums at you, think like a kid. It’s not that kids don’t get frustrated or think they aren’t good enough at times. It’s more that they don’t see a setback as an immovable obstacle to success. They see it as an obstacle to clear on the path to success.
Kids have a voice in their head, too. They just don’t believe him most of the time. They haven’t let the voice grow to such a height as we adults have let him grow. He’s in the same car. He’s just not behind the wheel driving as far as a kid is concerned.
“Oh, I can’t do that?” a kids says back to the voice. “Watch.”
Third, Be The Determined Woodpecker
Another example — and really, this has more to do with the fact I am a huge Woody Woodpecker fan, have a boxed DVD collection, and am trying to insert a woodpecker reference into this post.
There’s a metal turbine roof vent on the top of my neighbor’s house. Every day I sit outside on my back patio and listen to this determined woodpecker pecking at this metal turbine roof vent as if he is going to get whatever he thinks is inside. There’s the sound of metal being jackhammered by his beak, followed by his crazy laugh.
Have a listen:
I’m not saying to beat your head against the wall Monday, and repeat the process Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and expect a different result. Well, I guess that is sort of what the woodpecker is doing.
So scratch that. Just have his determination. Be determined like the woodpecker.
In other words, piss on the toilet seat. The voice hates when the toilet seat is down and you have at it.
Just lose the crazy laugh.