Instinct and the Voices in our Heads


“Your mind knows only some things. Your inner voice, your instinct, knows everything. If you listen to what you know instinctively, it will always lead you down the right path.” - Henry WinklerHave you ever had one of those moments when you think you trust your gut, then look back several hours/weeks/months/years later, shake your head and ask ‘What was I thinking?!’Sometimes our instincts aren’t always right.Well, that’s not strictly true - our instincts are usually right, it’s just the stuff that gets in the way of our instincts that can cause problems. It’s the stuff that masquerades as an instinct and says ‘Of course you can trust me, I’m a gut instinct’ that leads us to make less than optimal decisions.This ‘stuff’ is, more specifically, different voices and parts of our personality - in other words, the voices in our heads.We frequently hear jokes that people who hear voices in their heads are slightly mad. I believe that it’s actually the people who don’t hear the voices who are missing out.

What are these voices?

They can be different things. Some voices - especially child-like voices - are stuck in different moments in time, particularly moments when we’ve been really hurt, upset or angry. For instance, if you were called ‘stupid’ as a child, and someone used that same insult as an adult, it might bring back some of the hurt you felt in the past. You would know on a logical level that anyone calling you stupid is totally out of order, but you might also have historical feelings that are stronger than that logic.While some voices are stuck in the past, other voices have been shaped by people we’ve met, especially people who were influential figures in our life. Family, friends, teachers, colleagues, bosses; these people all make a difference. I am very careful who I let into my life, simply because I know that, in one form or another, they will end up in my head.As we grow up, different voices take on different roles, such as comforter, motivator, punisher, manager and problem-solver. Unless we become aware of these voices and their respective roles, we might mistake them for our gut instinct.

When do we hear these voices?

They manifest in our thoughts. The thoughts that say ‘go me!’ when we do something we’re proud of, or get critical when we make a mistake. These are the thoughts that make judgements and evaluations about other people and the thoughts that weigh up each decision we make, from what to eat for breakfast to our next career move.These thoughts can be useful, comforting or, especially in the case of negative, self-attacking thoughts, difficult and distressing to experience. They might not always agree with each other. Sometimes, one thought will be more dominant than other thoughts, other times it will be like a bar fight in our heads, with each voice shouting over the others but no single one audible above the noise of the next.

What are these voices for?

Our self-protection.It might not always feel like it, especially when there’s a voice inside telling you you’re not good enough, you’re lazy, you’re a failure etc. However, if you think about the underlying motives of these voices, they are all working for our self-protection in the best way they know how.For example, if you decide to apply for a certain job vacancy, you might start writing out your personal statement, tailoring your CV and researching the position.... Until that voice comes up, that voice we’ve all heard at one time or another: ‘Do you really think you’re qualified for this position?’ ‘There will be hundreds of other applicants going for it, I’m not sure you’ve got anything more to offer than the next person...’ and so on.At which point, another voice - one that really wants you to go for the job - chimes in and starts arguing. Or, perhaps you become discouraged altogether and sadly close your CV file, thinking maybe you’ll be qualified in two years.Exactly how this voice is helping might not be immediately obvious. However, when you view it from the perspective of self-protection, it becomes clear that this voice feels uncomfortable about you stepping outside your comfort zone and risking rejection. It is trying to protect you by keeping you where you are, in the safety of familiarity.

So if we have all these voices, what is our 'gut instinct'?

The above example shows that although all the voices have your best interests at heart in their own ways, they can lead us to make decisions and take action that, in the long term, isn’t going to help our personal growth or happiness levels.In my experience, my gut instinct is a voice I call my ‘self’. This is the part of me that exists now; it isn’t stuck in the past, it isn’t unconsciously shaped by other people from my past or present - it is just me.Imagine your mind is like a court room. The ‘self‘ is the judge. It listens to what the other voices have to say, weighs up the objective evidence and makes decisions based on that. It takes into account my history, my values, my future goals, and the kind of person I aspire to be. It doesn’t silence the other voices, but rather listens, acknowledges and acts according to reality.This is my gut instinct. It was difficult to distinguish it from the other voices at first, but now I know it’s there, it’s getting stronger every day.Do you have a different view of your gut instinct? What is your relationship with your gut instinct like? Tell me in the comments below!Useful Reading:Internal Family Systems Therapy - Richard SchwartzJournal to the Self - Kathleen AdamsPhoto Credit: HowardLake via Compfight cc