The Voices in our Heads
© 2022 Lane Wallace
Aviation for Women magazine, March/April issue, 2022
I was in the supermarket the other day, mulling over choices in the produce section, when I noticed a woman looking at me with a quizzical look on her face. I stopped for a moment, then realized I’d been weighing the pros and cons of various vegetables … out loud. “Sorry!” I said with a laugh. “I talk to myself a lot.”
Truth to tell, we all talk to ourselves a lot, even if we don’t do it out loud. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who berates herself for not getting enough done in a day, or who argues with that ever-critical boss voice in her head. Or the only one to have to talk myself out of some irrational reaction or emotion, reminding myself of all the reasons I’m being ridiculous.
When we do that, however, whose voice are we really hearing? It might sound like our own. But there are actually a lot of voices bouncing around in our heads. And that complicates matters. Sometimes, it’s a good thing. When my airplane cowling broke loose and wrapped itself around the windscreen on takeoff one day, I instantly heard the voice of a pilot who, years earlier, had advised me on how to handle just such an emergency. And my mother’s given me so much wise counsel over the years that when I’m struggling with a tough decision—or when I’m about to do something stupid—I often hear her voice again, repeating useful pieces of that advice.
But sometimes, the fact that we have so many voices advising, scolding, and whispering subtly in our ears makes it hard for us to separate the sound of our own voice from all the others in our heads. When we feel pressure to make things perfect or tell ourselves we can’t miss our kid’s soccer game even though we’re exhausted and overscheduled, is it because we care deeply about those things? Or is that someone else’s voice scolding us for not meeting their standard? Are our ideas about success, or our assumptions about who we are and what we’re capable of, valid truths we’ve figured out for ourselves? Or is the voice we’re hearing really the echo of other people’s beliefs; things we were told or absorbed along the way?
The answer matters, because it drives so much else. If we want to build the core strength we need to navigate the challenges of not only a male-dominated work environment, but life in general, we first have to gain a clear sense of who we are and what matters most to us. Not what everyone else wants us to be or care about, but what’s true for us. That knowledge is what helps us figure out which battles to fight and what career and life choices are most likely to make us happy. It’s also what allows us to become comfortable enough with ourselves that we can see others’ perspectives and build the bridges we need to thrive in a culture not designed by or for people like us.
But we can’t gain that self-awareness if we can’t sort out who’s really doing the talking when we think we’re talking to ourselves. So the first step toward getting a clearer and more grounded sense of ourselves is asking tougher questions about all the messages, assumptions and ideas we carry around inside our heads. Starting with: “Where did I get that idea?” and “Whose voice am I hearing when I have that thought?”
It’s not always immediately obvious where we get our ideas about ourselves, success, money, parenting, or what makes us acceptable women. So one way to get at that answer is to think about those who’ve influenced us. What were their ideas about those things? And why did they hold those beliefs? What was their story?
We can, for example, write down each of our parents’ views on success, career goals, and parenting … for themselves, and for us, and then write down what our own views seem to be. Or write down what messages or standards about appearance, behavior, or life goals we’ve picked up from friends, work colleagues, or influential media sources. Writing things down is important for two reasons. First, it forces us to articulate ideas more clearly. And second, it gives us a little emotional distance from those ideas, which makes it easier to separate what we really want, value and believe from all the other voices in our heads.
Writing down what we tell ourselves and looking more closely at where those messages come from also helps us ask another tough but important question: “Is what I think or believe actually true?”
“I’m not really good at math,” “I’m not a natural leader,” “I do better around women,” “I’m bad at nurturing,” “I don’t think quickly,” “I won’t be okay if I don’t get married” … the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are legion. But that doesn’t mean they’re true. Or that they can’t change. And once we realize that who we think we are isn’t an immutable truth, but really just a story we’ve told ourselves, it frees us up to consider other options. We can revisit the events or experiences that led us to believe certain things about ourselves (or the world) and: a) fact check those memories, b) consider other possible interpretations of those events, or c) think about other experiences that support a different conclusion altogether. And that, in turn, allows us to change those stories to something that’s a truer reflection of who we are, or who we still might become.
We’re all storytellers, whether we realize it or not. But we have control over the stories we tell. And as we get more comfortable identifying, analyzing, and recrafting our inner stories, it gets easier to see events from multiple perspectives and interpretations. It also gets easier to see what our choices and actions reveal about what’s really true or important to us, even if it’s different from what we’ve always said or believed about ourselves.
Granted, storytelling is easier if you can do it with a compassionate and insightful listener who can help you see other perspectives, interpretations, or supporting evidence worth considering. It can also feel scary to start questioning what we believe to be true. But the exhilaration and freedom that comes from realizing that a limiting belief is just a story—not the only story, and perhaps not even a true story—is a prize well worth pushing through a little fear to obtain.
The “truth” of who we really are and what matters most to us may still retain the ability to surprise us, even if we do all that questioning and exploring. But if we get in the habit of asking whose voice we’re hearing, and whether or not the stories we hear or tell are true, we’ll maintain a much better handle on those answers, even as they change. We’ll also have more strength, and more skills, with which to develop the other aspects of core strength we need to navigate our lives with intent, resilience, impact, and joy.