Our minds have a private soundtrack running all the time. It's the soundtrack of our inner voice, the one that we often converse with. It's hard to keep track of these conversations. We don't know when they start and end, who's doing the talking and who's listening. The inner voice is powerful, though, both in good and bad ways. While the voices in our heads can spark creativity and decision-making, they can also be ruminating and keep us from growing.
I've been on a fair share of long-haul flights in my life, primarily to meet up with family on the other side of the world. Let's say I'm not a fan of sitting in cramped airplane seats for hours on end.
On one such flight, I was traveling solo—a fact my neighbor in seat 17A—let's call her Sarah—tried really hard to make me forget.
Sarah had a lot to say. About everything. She wasn't dissuaded when I reached for my headphones. Then, I pulled out a library copy of Introduction to Metaphysics by Martin Heidegger—a formidable-looking book that screams "leave me alone" and has the potential to scare the weakhearted. But not Sarah.
As if the flight duration wasn't bad enough, I was forced to listen to Sarah talk at length about her high school prom and the latest celebrity gossip—two subjects I couldn't care less about. My aisle-mate was a true talkaholic, subjecting not just me to her endless spiel but engaging in conversations with everyone in her ear's reach, including passersby.
After we landed, as I went to collect my bags, I couldn't stop being judgmental. I felt sorry for those in Sarah's daily orbit—the ones who had to endure her constant chattiness. That's when the smugness of it all struck me.
I hadn't stopped talking either.
The overtalker inside us
Ever since Sarah introduced herself to me, I had begun rambling too. The only difference was that Sarah's chatter was audible. Sounds were coming out of her mouth. My words, on the other hand, were silent, but I, too, was babbling.
I was conversing with my inner voice—a voice that constantly editorializes all my thoughts and actions, mostly unsolicited.
I hadn't hesitated in labeling Sarah a chatterbox. A term used to describe (somewhat offensively) someone who never shuts up; who jabbers about random stuff that makes no sense.
However, the truth is that every one of us is a chatterbox, or, at least, we house one within us.
"A solitary mind is actually a chorus," says author Charles Fernyhough in his book The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves.
I couldn't agree more. We are never truly alone because our inner voice is always on, like a 24-hour non-stop radio station. We may dial it down or turn it up, but the voice in our head continues to broadcast.
The inner voice referenced in this post is the generic, run-of-the-mill voice in our heads. I'm not qualified to discuss or even understand severe disorders such as the auditory hallucinations heard by people with schizophrenia.
The Inner Voice
I hate when my inner voices argue with one another like I'm not in the room – Internet quote
Our inner voice (or sometimes our many inner voices) is often chaotic, disjointed, and noisy, like a middle school band for whom the key signature seems not to matter (been there, heard that!) Worse, the voice in our head, with its barrage of negative and critical opinions, can be outright detrimental to our well-being.
Yet, the same inner voice also has the power to create and perform magical symphonies. It can point us to the right path when we are confused or give us the courage to hold our ground when we are right. It can unleash profound creativity and novel ways of thinking, sometimes even good enough to win the Nobel Prize.
From gut feeling to Nobel prize
Two Australians, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005 for their discovery that a bacterium (H.Pylori) was responsible for peptic ulcer and gastritis.
Marshall and Warren's discovery of the sickness-inducing bacterium is an almost legendary tale. The pair of scientists had a gut feeling (after all, they were gastroenterologists—pardon the pun) about potential bacterial involvement when they observed an anomaly in samples they were studying.
In suggesting that bacteria were responsible for gastritis and ulcers, the duo overturned decades, if not centuries, of conventional wisdom. Scientists, at that time, were entrenched in the belief that gastritis and ulcers were lifestyle diseases exacerbated by stress and anxiety. (To this day, we allude to how stressful situations can be ulcer-causing!)
To convince their skeptics, Dr.Marshall gulped down the bacterial culture himself—a la-Marie Curie style self-experiment—to prove that an average, healthy person, when infected with the bacterium, could develop a case of acute gastritis. Their intuition led them to research their findings and ultimately to a Nobel-prize-winning discovery.
When the rest of the world was convinced of one thing (stress causes ulcer), the scientists relied on their inner voice to prove otherwise (duh-it's the bacteria and not the stress).
Not always intuitive
Creative intuition, of course, is an example of an ideal inner voice. However, sometimes our inner voice doesn't give us positive life-altering advice. Instead, it shows up as two misfit cousins of intuition—random noise and fear.
So, how do we know if our inner voice is sage intuition, and when should we ignore it because it's just random noise brought on by fear?
Let's unpack each of these for a moment.
Intuition is often a mythical phenomenon that's hard to define.
I don't know why, but I just know is often how we refer to intuition.
But this may not be intuition at all. We could be dead wrong about the things we just know. It's a little like saying, "You need to do things a certain way because I said so." Ego trips are not be confused with intuition.
Intuition is how we come to quick decisions without laborious reasoning. The why isn't immediately apparent, but the most important thing about intuition is that it feels right and not constrictive.
We all know and have experienced fear. It is easy to recognize fear physically too. It can be a tight and restrictive feeling around our chest or gut. The "what if" component of a fear materializing can lead us into overthinking and analysis-paralysis.
Not sure about you, but of all three forms of inner voice, random noise is the one most active in my brain.
The best way to describe this kind of inner voice is that it often engages with you in weird out-of-context conversations.
One minute you are at a basketball game cheering your teenager when out of the blue, your inner voice asks if you remembered to close your garage door. You try to shush it with, "Of course I did," and move on. But then, it has already sown seeds of doubt in your mind. Before you know it, you are not watching the game anymore. Instead, you are texting a neighbor, asking them to check on your garage door.
How can we tell if our gut feeling is intuition, fear, or just random noise?
All three forms of inner voice can feel similar—a sort of gut feeling that comes from out-of-the-blue. But with practice, we can tell the difference between them to know if the voice is helpful or a hindrance.
Why do we need to differentiate, you ask?
More often than not, we are what we think. If our inner voice is engaged in constant rumination and cycling negative thoughts over and over, it can be challenging to get on with life.
Ever notice how you struggle with yourself and have trouble focusing on tasks after an argument with someone? It's because your inner voice can ruminate and replay the scenario over and over, with generous sprinklings of what you should've, could've, would've done.
In other words, your brain's prefrontal cortex is now busily engaged in small talk instead of using those neurons to help you finish that overdue library book.
In an ideal world, our inner voice will be positive and encouraging. But since that's not always the case, we need to find a way to listen to intuition, tell random noise to scram and be aware when fear gets a hold on us.
So how do we recognize the inner voice we ideally want more of—intuition? Here are three hallmarks of intuitive thinking.
1. No experience. No intuition.
The number one distinguishing factor between a random thought and intuition is that the latter is usually honed through experience in an area. If you've spent a lot of time analyzing a problem and understanding its ins and outs, there is a high likelihood for you to stumble into an intuitive solution.
Newton did not discover gravity because an apple fell on his head. He had been contemplating the subject for years. When the apple fell on his head, it merely helped him connect the dots that already existed in his brain.
If an apple were to fall on my head, I could assure you—with a hundred percent certainty—I won't be conjuring laws of physics. Instead, I may do one of two things. Move away to sit where there is less risk of skull damage or try to find low-hanging fruit (literally) to pick.
Intuition, like chance, favors the prepared mind. And only the prepared mind.
2. Intuition gets you out of your comfort zone
Fear keeps us firmly grounded in our comfort zones. On the other hand, intuition gently suggests a path out of our comfort zone without causing undue panic.
Intuition is a gentle coach. Fear is a harsh critic. You can tell the difference if you carefully listen to your inner voice.
3. Intuition can turn into fear
We are creatures of habit and masters of pattern recognition.
Sometimes though, our intuitions may simply stem from old patterns.
Let's say you dropped everything and ran to help a friend in need because she needed urgent help with childcare and was stuck at work. Now, this may be okay a couple of times. After all, emergencies happen. But, if you receive a text notification from said friend again at 4:45 p.m. on Friday, chances are your inner voice is going to tell you to ignore the text. Learning from history and all that.
Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me.
But, intuition from pattern recognition sometimes can turn into fear. You're afraid to start a business because your last business partner flaked on you, or you hold back and are hesitant about relationships because your previous two boyfriends were nutcases.
In such cases, the expert's advice is to be fully aware of the present circumstances and, more importantly, to add context to the inner voice. Blindly following decision-making patterns without adjusting for context can quickly turn an intuitive inner voice into a fear-mongering monster.
Context matters. Always.
I once read this quote online
"I'm sorry" and "my bad" mean the same thing. Unless you are at a funeral.
From harsh critic to gentle coach
So, how do we train our inner voice to be a gentle coach instead of a harsh critic? To listen to us instead of always telling us what can and can't be done? To work with us collaboratively instead of against us?
1. Take your own medicine
In his book, Chatter, author and psychologist Ethan Kross encourages us to adopt a third-person perspective when our inner voice is overly pessimistic and not fall victim to Solomon's Paradox.
Solomon, a Jewish monarch, was regarded for his wisdom. But although Solomon's wise counseling helped settle others' affairs, paradoxically, he lacked the same insight in making personal decisions.
I get it. Advice is easy to give but hard to take. I'm Exhibit A.
But distancing from the problem can help us get some perspective and cause the endless ruminations to stop.
2. Practice self-compassion
Your conscience would step in and stop you from ripping into someone for a genuine mistake on their part. Give yourself the same compassion.
You have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn't worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens. Louise L. Hay
3. Admit you're human
Even the world's foremost expert on these biases, Dr. Daniel Kahneman says he falls victim to these biases, i.e., just knowing cognitive biases exist does not prevent you from succumbing to them.
Kahneman, in his groundbreaking book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, explains how we have two decision-making systems—System 1 and System 2. System 1 operates quickly and makes snap decisions using available stimuli. System 2 is the more complex, computational rational decision-making system. They both have their places in decision-making.
Our negative inner voice can use system 2 logic to give us grief for our decision based on system 1. Yes, we could've and should've, but we didn't. Period. The only way to quieten the voice then is to acknowledge we're human and move on.
A study showed how people are prepared to face electric shocks instead of being alone with their thoughts. Running away is not an option. After all, it is your inner voice giving the speech, not a professor whose lecture you can skip because he simply reads from a textbook.
Instead, face your inner voice. Be introspective. Without judgment.
It is idle to dread what you cannot avoid – Publius Syrus
5. Feel free to end conversations
In real life, you wouldn't tolerate anyone who arbitrarily keeps interrupting your conversations, right? So, why do we give our inner voice so much leeway?
Just like how you'd treat others with respect as long as they are respectful, feel comfortable showing the door to a discourteous inner voice.
For those that don't live Stateside, the State of the Union (SOTU is an annual speech delivered by the US President to the US Congress reflecting on the nation's condition. As political speeches go, this one is typically long. And can get tedious. Fast. People struggle to listen to one SOTU a year.
Ethan Kross, in his book, Chatter says, "If we're awake for sixteen hours on any given day, our inner voice is active about half of that time, we can theoretically be treated to about 320 State of the Union addresses each day."
Digest that for a minute. Even my inner voice finds it tiring to comprehend.
Our inner voice can be cacophonous and confusing. But it has the potential to offer invaluable advice too. It is up to us to transform the voice in our head from being a severe critic to a compassionate coach.
I shall lose my usefulness the moment I stifle the still small voice within – Mahatma Gandhi