Hey, Bhouncy -
Will be interested to hear what the voices inside other people's heads have to say about this one, but here is a rather long 'sneak preview' from my new book (at the printer's now!) on the subject:
Meeting the storyteller
"Deep feeling leads to clear thinking.”
Nearly everyone I have ever met or worked with experiences a voice or set of voices in their head that doles out five criticisms for every compliment and seems to have an opinion about everything that we do, don't do, or even think about doing or not doing. (And if you think you don’t, isn’t it a voice inside your head telling you that?)
I call that collection of inner voices ‘the storyteller’. While it may seem at times like we are trapped in the storyteller’s web, we have the choice in every moment as to whether or not we are going to engage with the voice(s) in our heads (and thereby strengthen their hold over us) or re-connect with what is really going on around us and gradually loosen their grip and lessen their impact on our lives.
When my inner storyteller wants to entertain, amuse or even frighten me, one of its favourite stories to tell about me is this one:
I was about to head out to an important meeting. I was feeling incredibly organized, and even a little bit smug about having given myself two hours to get there, which was more than twice as long as it would probably take me. Having carefully gone through my portfolio to make sure I had everything I needed for the meeting, I went out to the car, put my things in the back, sat down in the driver’s seat… and then realized I didn’t have the car keys.
Not a problem. Back into the house I went. For almost an hour. No keys. Anywhere.
Finally, with time running out, it dawned on me that my wife had a spare set of keys to my car in her handbag. Relieved (and a little bit cross with myself for not having thought of that earlier), I ran back out to the car, started it up, and drove off to my meeting.
Before I’d driven more than 100 feet, I began to panic. There was a strange metal clanking noise coming from outside the driver’s side window. Worried that I might have a flat tire, I pulled the car over, got out, and found the source of the noise. It was my original set of car keys, still sitting in the lock of the car door, right where I’d left them more than an hour earlier…
So why did that happen? How was it possible for me to not notice my keys sitting in the door of my car while I searched frantically inside the house?
Whilst some of you might make up a story about attention deficit disorder, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease or just plain stupidity, my story is that I was lost in thought – and that being lost in thought is more than just a metaphor. It’s an actual physical reality which many of us experience on a daily basis.
You may be lost in thought right now as you are reading these words. In fact, if you’re like most people, you went into your head several times while reading my story, visualizing my dilemma or thinking about times where you or someone you know has behaved in a similarly distracted manner.
While there’s nothing wrong with this in theory, in practice those little mental excursions are filled with detour after detour, until by the time we ‘come back to our senses’, ten minutes have passed and we’ve forgotten what it was we went into our heads for in the first place.
In short, we get lost in a morass of our own thoughts and stories – lost to ourselves, lost to our intentions, and lost to the world around us. And when you’re lost in thought, it’s virtually impossible to find what you’re looking for, whether that’s the answer to a question, the next step towards a goal, or a better relationship with the person you’re supposedly listening to while you’re up in your head, figuring out what to say next.
What’s the solution?
Stop driving yourself nuts –
and go out of your mind instead.
When we go ‘out of our minds’ and down into our bodies, good things happen. We become present to our surroundings. We connect with our feelings. Mental chatter diminishes, and we open up the space to hear the still small voice of wisdom within.
We stop ‘listening’ and begin to actually hear what is being said to us. We stop looking and begin to see what is really going on all around us.
And when we unplug ourselves from our mental matrix and wake up to the real world, we are finally able to re-connect with our innate happiness, joy, and well-being in the present moment.
So how do you do it?
In two ways:
1. Learn to quiet your storyteller
2. Learn to question your story
A little piece of quiet
Until I came across the field of NLP, nobody had ever told me you can turn down the volume on the voices in your head. As soon as I found the control knob (mine is about 6” in front of my forehead, slightly to the left, but yours might be positioned somewhere else), I was able to turn the volume right up loud and then all the way down until I was left with the experience of true quiet for the first time.
Later, I came to learn that there are any number of meditation and concentration exercises that enable you to achieve a similar result, and it’s well worth your while to experiment with some of these until you find the one or ones which work best for you.
Here’s one of my favourites you can use any time you want to quiet your mind and re-focus your attention on the task at hand…
The NOW exercise
1. Count ten breaths from one up to ten. A simple way to do this is to silently say the word ‘in’ for each in breath and ‘out’ for each out breath. Follow up each word with the number – for example ‘in(1), out(1);in(2), out (2) etc.
2. If you lose count before you get to ten (and yes, pretty much everyone does the first few times they do this), simply begin again at 1.
3. When you get to ten, smile down into your heart and enjoy the precious present.
I often ask my clients to do this exercise towards the beginning of a session if they seem overwhelmed. They almost never want to do it and they nearly always thank me afterwards. In fact, the first few times you try it for yourself you may find it extraordinary how difficult it actually is to get all the way up to ten.
Once you’re back in the now, here are some simple tools you can use to go out of your mind and lessen the impact of the storyteller on your happiness and wellbeing…
1. Write it down
When I’m working on things which are outside my comfort zone, my inner storyteller kicks into overdrive. What I’ve noticed is that if I stayed engaged in the process long enough, the storyteller goes quiet.
One day, just for fun, I decided to catalogue the many things that voice inside my head had to say about why I should give up on a project I was working on:
Variations on "I want to quit" = 4
Variations on "I can't do this" = 6
Variations on "I hate this (the business, networking, life, myself, etc.)" = 12
Variations on "I'm not good enough/I'm not worthy/I suck/etc." = 16
By simply writing these things down as they came up, I was able to hear each thought without buying in to its message. That gave me the freedom to give myself some better feelings and carry on taking action.
2. Move it around
One technique that works extremely well when your inner storyteller is speaking in 'you' messages instead of 'I' messages (i.e. 'you're a loser', 'you can't do this', 'who do you think you're kidding', etc.) is to change its location.
First, notice where you currently hear it - is it in the back of your head? Whispering in your ear? Screaming in your temples?
Next, experiment with putting it in the very center of your throat, as if you were about to speak whatever it says out loud. People often report that when they do this, the message changes from a 'you' to an 'I' and the voice changes from someone in your past (often a critical parent or teacher) to your own.
Finally, place the voice outside your body where you can dialogue with it from a comfortable distance. (If you ever see me having an animated conversation with my big toe, you'll know why!)
3. Re-dub It
Have you ever noticed that Mickey Mouse always plays the hero?
One of the reasons he has so scrupulously maintained his "squeaky clean" image is that it would be very difficult for anyone to take him seriously as a villain. Imagine Mickey Mouse as Dracula, attempting to terrify the heroine by shouting out in a high-pitched Transylvanian accent, 'I've come to drink your blood!' Or what if Mickey had replaced Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator and had to squeak the immortal words, 'I'll be back!'
One of the reasons that voice inside our heads always sounds so reasonable and compelling is that it sounds almost like us speaking. By re-dubbing our inner dialogue in the voice of our favourite cartoon characters, we can create a completely different experience.
Imagine Sylvester the Cat complaining that 'Nobody understands me!'. Or Elmer Fudd bemoaning the fact that 'I'm sooooo depressed.’ Not only would we not take their stories seriously, we would laugh at how ridiculous they sounded. And in that space of laughter, we would potentially be able to help them change their story!
4. Comfort it
One of my most successful clients swears by telling that voice inside his head to '#%@&! off" at every opportunity. For those of you who like me find that a bit harsh, 'thank you for sharing' works nicely, as does my personal variation - a gentle, soothing 'shhhhh...', like comforting a distraught child.
Here are a few ways of practicing these techniques and integrating them into your day…
Mastering the storyteller
1. Throughout the day today, listen for your inner storyteller – ‘that voice inside your head’. Jot down what you hear as you hear it. At the end of the day, look for any patterns in the kinds of things you've written down. If there’s something which has a strong emotional charge, take the time to dispute it using the ABC’s of happiness exercise in the next section.
2. The next time you go to the cinema (or are watching a movie on TV), alternate between ‘losing yourself’ in the world of the film and ‘coming back to your senses’ and reminding yourself you’re just watching a movie. When you get good at this, try the same thing with your inner thoughts and stories.
3. Experiment with moving your critical self-talk to different locations outside your head. It can also help to externalize it by speaking it out loud.
4. Experiment with turning the volume up and down on the voices inside your head. If you’re not aware of any voices inside your head, notice what happens when you turn down the sound anyways.
5. Which voice does your inner storyteller use when it really wants you to pay attention? Write out a list of positive compliments about yourself and have your story teller read you the list in that tone of voice.
6. Make a list of all the things you know would take you in the direction of your biggest dream. As that voice inside your head begins to scream, practice re-dubbing it with the voice of your favourite cartoon character.
7. Finally, when all else fails, just say 'shhhhh'!