How many versions of you are there, inside your head?
Christmas, with its demands and stresses, is a time when we do battle with our internal voices
Most of us don’t talk to ourselves out loud except under stress – more than one reader will hear a muttered “God give me patience” during the season of peace and goodwill as the speaker’s stress escapes from inside his or her head. Photograph: iStock
How many versions of you are there, inside your head? It’s a safe bet that, psychologically, there are more than one and Christmas, with its demands and stresses, provides an opportunity to observe some of them.
Suppose you’re pushing your way through the crowds on Christmas Eve, desperately seeking a present for that hard-to-buy-for person in your life. It would have been a great idea to have done all this back in October but here you are, surrounded by choirs, drunks, pickpockets and other desperate procrastinators.
“You said this was never going to happen again,” you tell yourself. “But here you are, same thing every year, last-minute, out of time, complete mess. When are you going to learn?”
Who is talking? And who is being spoken to? It’s like listening to one version of yourself – an angry parent perhaps – berating another version of yourself, an errant child.
Suppose you say in response, “Look, there’s no point going on about it. What you need to do right now is get in there and don’t come out without a present for X.”
Now a new version of yourself it talking: a reasonable adult who wants to solve the problem with the least hurt to all concerned.
These are just two of the differing voices in your head while you’re busy doing the last-minute Christmas shopping. If you’re aware of them, and if you don’t take them too seriously, you can sometimes imagine yourself turning them down, like lowering the volume on the radio. This enables you to get some peace while you get on with what you need to do. (I acknowledge that when people “hear voices” in the traditional sense it isn’t as easy to control them – many learn to ignore them or to deal with them in other ways. Check out the Hearing Voices Network for more on this).
Most of us don’t talk to ourselves out loud except under stress – more than one reader will hear a muttered “God give me patience” during the season of peace and goodwill as the speaker’s stress escapes from inside his or her head.
Talking to ourselves begins when we are small children. You can see this when a child is absorbed in a game with a toy. At a later stage in the child’s development, this kind of speech becomes internal.
So talking to yourself is part of being human. Because we can talk fast in our heads (up to 10 times faster than out loud) and because nobody else is listening, we get carried way and say unhelpful things.
For instance, we catastrophise: “This is terrible she’s going to hate it you let her down again remember that time you bought her the toaster? Did that work out? No this is going to be the toaster Christmas all over again, only worse etc etc.”
In my experience, the mind, when catastrophising, is a poor forecaster and it can help to step back and ask yourself what you really think is actually likely to happen. The answer will normally be far less dramatic than the dire predictions your mind has been making.
Another common kind of self-talk is rehashing past events, which can sometimes be pleasurable, but which can also destroy your quality of life if it brings you down a dark alley of regrets and resentments about things you can’t fix anymore. Better to step back into whatever you need to be getting on with in the present moment than following that path.
If you can tap into an awareness now and then of what it is you’re saying to yourself and if you find you’re doing a lot of that catastrophising and self-attacking or mulling over an unfixable past, consider taking a step back from the speechifying. You do that by bringing your attention to whatever you need to be getting on with in the present moment – outflanking that laden shopper to get ahead of her in the queue, for instance. However dull the present moment may be, it’s often a better place.
– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org)