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The Voices in My Head

Making CBT Fun Again

Sometimes I have some pretty interesting conversations with the voices in my head. No, not audible voices. I’m not that crazy yet. Just thought voices, the kind that everybody has. You know, the little bully in your head going, That was dumb.  You shouldn’t have done that.  You’re not worth anything. Or the mother always trying to comfort you, saying, “It’s not that big of a deal.  At least you tried.  It’ll be better next time."  Or the ridiculously horny 12 year old girl who won’t shut up about the guy sitting next to you in church when you’re trying to think about Jesus, dammit. Whatever it is for you, we all have those parts of ourselves that don’t quite feel like US. A visitor from the subconscious peeping up to say hello, or maybe a volcano that’s been buried for too long and is ready to burst out and wreak havoc on the life you’ve so painstakingly been building. My therapist taught me about a technique called externalization—you give those voices a name, visualize an appearance for them, and suddenly you see that you can talk back to them, that they don’t have to control your life. I’ve been working on it but it’s been a rough ride. Some of the voices have gotten louder. I’ll be reliving a painful memory, and the bully will come out, shooting his poison darts: No one will ever love you.  You’ll never be good enough. You’re broken.  It’s as if the emotions roiling around in my heart have decided to package themselves up neatly into words to send to my brain, in simple language so that it can understand. In some ways it’s a relief, hearing those thoughts in actual words, instead of struggling with a vague feeling that something’s not quite right. I know what I’m feeling now, and I know what I’ve been believing. Putting the thoughts into words relieves some of the pain.

But anyway, the voices aren’t always bad. Sometimes they even make me laugh, when they get to piddling back and forth while I’m not watching too closely. Today I went rock climbing with a group of people from church. I have social anxiety and am a little bit scared of heights and learning new things in general, so it was scary in a lot of ways. But I had gone rock climbing once before and loved it—the strategy of placing your hands and feet in just the right way, the tremble in my arms and legs when I thought I couldn’t go one step farther but did, the thrill of letting go and falling slowly to the floor when everything in me was begging me to hang on to that wall for dear life. And I’m trying to socialize more. So I sucked it up and went.

It really wasn’t too bad. I’ve been working on cognitive behavioral therapy in counseling too—catching automatic negative thoughts and replacing them with more realistic and helpful ones. Since I’ve started doing this I’ve been amazed at the number of automatic thoughts that I have. That person’s watching me. They think I’m being awkward. Oh, I shouldn’t have said that, it was rude. I’ve also been amazed at how easy it can be to let the thoughts go, once I realize how unnecessary and damaging they are. Yoga and meditation have helped me a lot with that. Sometimes I don’t even have to replace the thought, just acknowledge it for the silly little beast it is and then shift my attention to the task at hand. It’s a beautiful release.

Anyways, I was using this technique the whole time I was at the climbing gym, catching thoughts and letting go of tension. It was like a kind of game I played in my head, a secret adventure going on inside as I continued to operate in the real world. And what better setting to practice in? I mean, can you think of a better metaphor? Pushing past your comfort zone, trusting the process, realizing that you are capable of so much more than you thought. Falling, getting scraped, and finding with a shock of giddy relief that it wasn’t so bad after all. And finding that balance between rest, reflection and effort that is so important to learning any skill.

So I have been trying to work on my social skills. I’ve downloaded a program called Fearless Flow, and one of the exercises that they suggest is to talk about everyday topics. That has always been a little difficult for me- I have always been more of a deep thinker. Not to be arrogant or anything. Sometimes I wish that I wasn’t. But I’m learning to embrace who I am, while acknowledging that the differences between people are important and valuable and that developing an interest in the things other people like to talk about is healthy, kind and expected.

Anyways, with this in mind, I was walking up to the bouldering floor with a girl from my church named Marcy who I didn’t know very well. She’s a super nice person. My church is kind of the type of church that’s like a giant support group. They value vulnerability and authenticity, so everyone sort of knows each other’s deepest darkest secrets. That can be nice when you’re having deep conversations about God, but it gets a little awkward when you’re just hanging out rock climbing or something. So anyways, I was like, “How long have you been rock climbing?” 

“A year,” she answered, and then said something else that I don’t remember because I wasn’t listening very well (Another thing I'm working on). 

“Oh, that’s cool. How did you learn about it?” I asked.  And then she suddenly seemed super disinterested in the conversation and started to answer but then stopped mid-sentence to say hi to someone else, and then never got back to it. The old me would have been super hurt and offended, but I used my good old cognitive behavioral therapy to tell myself she probably just had something else on her mind and really wanted to talk to that friend. So anyways then we went on to the bouldering room and I started climbing and it was a jolly good time. The others left after a while but I stayed a little longer because I had paid more than I’d expected and was determined to use up every last minute. I used one of the automatic belayors. That was terrifying. It let you fall so much more quickly than a person would, especially at first. It was enthralling though, once I got used to it, just to turn that reflexive part of my brain off and force myself to jump off the wall. It felt almost like flying. I climbed up the kid’s wall because I was getting too tired to climb the more challenging ones. There was a flat surface at the top to sit on, and when I got there I laid back and closed my eyes and just rested. The thoughts started coming in, as they always do when I’m trying to chill. But I listened to the music and felt the ache in my arms and the dizziness of being so high up and let the stupid thoughts fade away. It was a bit of a spiritual experience.

When it was finally time to leave, I got in the car and started reviewing the conversation with Marcy. My teacher voice came out, saying, “Now, what did we learn from this?” and right away one of the voices piped up, “We learned that Marcy is a little bitch.” For some reason that struck me as the funniest thing. I sat in the car and giggled to myself like an idiot. I’ve always sort of been embarrassed about that voice. She’s kind of the judgmental part of me, the overly sensitive one who always thinks everything is someone else’s fault. But at that moment I loved her. I know Marcy’s not a little bitch, but sometimes it’s nice to acknowledge, yes, I’m a little bit butt hurt right now. And that’s what this whole mental health thing is all about, isn’t it? Learning how to listen to the voices in your head. Getting them to talk to each other, and learning to love all of them, with all their quirks and weaknesses.  

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The Voices in My Head
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