Bob Wentworth - Blog - March 1, 2017

Relating to harsh voices inside us

[This essay originated as an answer to a question on the website Quora.com. While the questioner's experience might seem unusual in some ways, the phenomenon is one that relates to how most people function. Addressing our inner voices is both an application of NVC, and a way of preparing ourselves to be better able to practice NVC.]

Question:  It seems like there are 2 people inside me, we have conversations and we argue 24/7 and I don’t know why. Why is this happening? The other person is like evil and always tells me to kill myself and tells me other things like “you’re ugly”. We tell each other that “your stupid” but end up saying “but I’m you”. We always swear at each other in any conversation and i don’t think I'm mentally stable. It stresses me out.

What you are describing is, in some ways, not surprising. Most people, if they pay careful attention, can notice different voices inside themselves, different parts of their psyche, which seem to have different ideas and personalities. And, tragically, most people have at least one voice that can be very harsh in what it expresses towards other parts of us.

Your experience is less common, in that you’re so aware of the distinct voices, and in that those parts of yourself have gotten into a pattern of relating to one another with such open hostility.

Your situation sounds difficult, and painful. I don’t know how severe or debilitating what is going on is for you. I have no way of knowing whether there is something going on that might benefit from medical attention, and you might want to check that out, to be safe.  Yet, I want to normalize your experience somewhat by saying that the type of thing you describe is, at least in some ways, part of the spectrum of what many people experience.

Unfortunately, even if your experience is in some ways similar to what is going on “under the covers” inside many or even most people, it is an aspect of experience which most people don’t seem to have much understanding about. So, it would be understandable if you were afraid of being alone in your dilemma. If so, I hope that what I share here might help you might offer a bit of hope and companionship.

Why is this happening?

The most convincing story I’ve heard about why we develop distinct “parts” (or “sub-personalities”) in our psyche goes something like this…

Parts can split off (become no longer fully integrated with the rest of “us”) when we experience trauma.

Psychological trauma happens when: we experience something that we are afraid we might not survive, our coping abilities get overwhelmed, and we don’t experience the conditions needed to support the operation of our natural capacities for recovering from extreme events. Because children’s lives depend so totally on the support of their parents, and because humans are social animals whose survival depends on belonging to their tribe, things that disrupt our connections with other people, especially parents, can qualify as triggering a fear for our survival. So, trauma can involve big, obvious things, like physical or sexual abuse or neglect. But it can also result from subtler experiences — which might seem like “nothing” or “no big deal” to other people — but, which for that particular person, in that situation, constituted a horrifying experience of danger or loss or disconnection from other people.

If you are interested in the brain science, what happens seems to be something like this: The amygdala and the hippocampus are parts of the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for much of our emotional life, and plays a role in memory formation. When our brain perceives extreme danger, the amygdala becomes highly activated. If we are able to successfully deal with the emergency, the amygdala calms down and the memory of the experience is transferred to the hippocampus, where the memory becomes associated with a particular time and context, and normal function resumes. However, when there is trauma, the memory remains associated with the amygdala. The amygdala has no sense of any time other than “now.” So, in some sense, part of our psyche ends up believing that we are still in the middle of that unresolved emergency, even though many, many years may have gone by in the real world. Being in a life threatening emergency is very distressing, and “parts” often seem to emerge as one of our mind’s strategies for protecting ourselves from constantly being aware of that distress.

It’s possible that people may have “parts” for reasons other than trauma, but the trauma hypothesis seems to explain a lot of what is commonly encountered when people work with inner parts. The parts that are first encountered often turn out to be protecting other, less visible parts, that seem to carry old unhealed pain.

Those who work a lot with “parts” of our psyche have noticed that there seem to be different categories of parts, which have somewhat different characteristics. I won’t go into all the details about that here, except to share a guess that different types of parts might be associated with different regions of the brain. For example, some parts may be focused on wanting to do things, but seem capable of acting only by convincing other parts to do things, and may have limited sensitivity to emotions; it’s possible that these parts might be associated with the left hemisphere of the brain. Other parts may be less prone to using words, but instead drive us to act impulsively to try to protect us from feeling painful emotions; these parts might be associated with the right hemisphere of the brain. (Sometimes parts associated with different categories team up to form an alliance, and you might think they’re just one part, until you spend more time with them and notice the distinct sub-parts.)

Another aspect of how parts work is that the way our parts relate to one another often reflects some aspect of the ways that we experienced people relating to one another when we were growing up. Since most children experience some people criticizing them to try to get them to behave differently, we tend to develop one or more inner voices that have adopted this strategy of criticizing us to try to influence what we do.

Just like people have relationships with one another, our parts have relationships with one another. Those relationships can be friendly and trusting, or suspicious and hostile. And, the way that parts interact can lead to those inner relationships getting better or worse over time.

So, if you experience parts that are arguing with one another, it might be that there was an inner split that started with some unpleasant experiences you had as a child, and that the ways the parts have interacted have led to a steadily deteriorating relationship between these parts, and as the strain between the has led to more awareness of the parts.

What can you do about it, conceptually?

I’ve heard of an least two general approaches to dealing with an inner voice that is “troublesome.”

In one type of approach, you take on the belief that “That voice isn’t the real me,” you try not to pay attention to the unwanted voice, and focus on what other parts of you know would be healthy for you to do. Or, you may even try to “exorcise” or “banish” the voice that seems harmful. I believe some psychological interventions, and some change modalities and shamanistic practices, reflect this sort of perspective. I don’t have experience with this type of approach, so can’t vouch for it. But, maybe something like this might work for some people, in some situations, with the right support.

In the other type of approach, you start from the assumption that “This voice is a part of me, not something I can get rid of, and trying to get rid of it only makes things worse. There is something valuable about this part. It developed because its behavior was helpful for my survival at one point in time. There is something honorable about what it means to do for me, even if I think that currently what it is doing is more harmful than helpful in practice. Things can get better if I work on developing a better relationship with this part of me.” I am familiar with a variety of personal change modalities that are based on this perspective. With the right support to do inner work based on this premise, battling parts start to quiet down and can learn to cooperate or even become integrated with the whole, leading to a sense of more inner harmony, self-trust, wholeness, and vitality.

Honorable intentions

In might seem kind of far-fetched to believe that a part which is insulting you, or telling you to kill yourself, could have started out as something life-serving, and in some sense has deeply honorable intentions. But, my experience is that, when someone who knows what to look for supports a person in talking to their inner voices in a respectful, caring way, that sort of result is what always eventually emerges.

One thing that’s important to understand is that many of our parts are kind of lost in time, having formed when we were children, reflecting what we understood and could do as a child, and may have very little ability to understand the actual consequences of their actions in the present. In particular, it’s hard for them to perceive the negative effects they may have on other parts, and on the whole self.

In some ways of working with parts, we might ask them if they have a name. Perhaps Sam has a part that likes to be called “Pat.” What might Pat be hoping to achieve when they call Sam “ugly” or “stupid”? Here are some possibilities:

  • Maybe Pat is trying to divert attention away from something else going on inside (an unhealed trauma) that seems terrifyingly painful. In this case, Pat wants to protect Sam from experiencing pain that seems potentially unbearable. (Pat is using the same behavior that might be used with another child, and doesn’t get the degree to which the insults are increasing the amount of pain in the whole system, in the long run.)
  • Maybe Pat isn’t really speaking to Sam, but to another part called “Lee,” and Pat is trying to get Lee to change what Lee is doing, out of a hope that doing something different (trying to care more for appearance, or paying better attention, or magically becoming more attractive or smarter) would support Sam in being better accepted by other people, increasing Sam’s belonging and safety. (People often criticize people out of a misguided belief that this will motivate them to take steps to better themselves. It hardly ever works, but people do it anyway, and children internalize this habit from the people around them. Our parts don’t get the degree to which this demotivates us in practice.)

While Pat’s strategies don’t work very well in the present day, perhaps they worked to some somewhat initially, in childhood. And, the intentions are beautiful: to protect Sam from experiencing unbearable pain, or to help Sam experience more belonging and social safety.

What might be behind Pat telling Sam to kill themselves? Likely, this is Pat’s way of saying to Lee, “I really don’t like something you’re doing, and I want you to know how much pain Sam is in and how extreme my disapproval is, so you’ll get how important it is that you change things to make Sam’s life better!!!” (Pat cares about Sam and is desperately trying to strongly motivate a change for the better, by expressing extreme disapproval of how things are now, and just doesn’t get how thoroughly ineffective this strategy is in supporting positive motivation.)

Understanding the positive motivations of our parts is just one part of the work that is needed to create a more wholesome relationship between our parts. But, it’s an important step. It can support us in treating our parts with more respect and appreciation. Over time, treating parts with care and respect can help them open up to hearing about what is going on for the rest of us, and being willing to try out new, more life-serving, strategies for caring for what they are trying to care for. Instead of being experienced as a hindrance or an enemy, parts can become partners, helping the whole person in useful ways.

What can you do about your situation, practically?

It may be helpful to learn about some of the practices for working with your inner parts. If you’re sufficiently motivated, you might be able to start improving the relationship between your parts on your own.

Most people find it easier to do this sort of work with the help of other people. Some practices can be done with a supportive peer, once you’ve both learned how. Other types of work can be done with a therapist, or a coach or guide who is skilled in a particular practice.

It’s likely to be helpful to find a way to connect with a community of people who have had similar experiences, and are on a similar journey to finding peace and well-being.

I wish you companionship, empowerment, relief and enjoyment as you cultivate peace between your parts.

Resources

The following resources might be helpful:

Send feedback (b o b AT DOMAIN nwcompass~org?subject=Feedback%20on%20your%20NCC%20post%3A%20Relating%20to%20harsh%20voices%20inside%20us)