How To Talk To Yourself: Healthy Internal Discussions

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…where thought supplements intuition,

reason supplements understanding,

will supplements intellect,

and the whole is one eternally valid structure of the human mind.


- Marjorie Grene


here is not a school of psychological thought that does not hypothesize about an internalized voice of guidance that directs our lives. Further, these psychological theories all maintain that emotional distress is created when this voice is flawed. Much of therapy, therefore, is the excavation, evaluation and correction of this voice.

We move into true adulthood only when we are able to reject the supremacy and infallibility of our original parental unit and believe instead in our internal sovereignty around and responsibility for creating vital, contemporary and customized parental voices within.

That sentence contains some of my favorite psychobabble and my most trusted beliefs. I wish it would fit on a t-shirt.

There are two monumental truths about growing up that are embedded in that heavy sentence. One – even if they were great – our parents made significant mistakes in our upbringing because all parents make mistakes and all parental mistakes are significant. And two, they are no longer on duty. Yes. All childhood training contained errors and it’s now up to us to find them and correct them. We can no longer look to others to design our life for us, nor seek to make others responsible for our actions. We must accept the fact that we are now on parental duty with respect to creating our unique essence.

The previous article described the five basic tasks that need to be attended to if we are to successfully self-parent, and this article describes the voices we need to use to address ourselves as we implement this five-faceted job. (Just to remind you, the five tasks are: take your job as parent seriously, hold yourself accountable for how you parent, find the child(ren) delightful, live your life authentically and make your own friends.)

Step One

The first step in taking over our parents’ roles is the unequivocal acknowledgment that we were shortchanged by our parents. This can be surprisingly difficult. As described in the article Pricked: The Cinderella Effect of a Poor Childhood, unless our parents were outright abusive (and sometimes not even then) it can be very painful to spend the necessary time in the seemingly disloyal position of hardnosed critic of the family history.

Our growing dissatisfaction with our family of origin, however, doesn’t have to create upheaval within the family. I find it is easier for clients to tolerate what they see as disloyalty to the family if they see it as a temporary experience that does not have to be shared with anyone and that leads to the possibility of a more genuine connection with and affection for the parents. We can privately, internally explore the disappointments of our youth and contain inside our minds (or with a therapist) any ranting and raving this insight might befittingly provoke. And if these disappointments create distance between our family and us, it doesn’t have to last forever. We can choose to put our family members back into our affections in new, but perhaps more limited, ways. The classic self-help book Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner expands on this concept.

But temporary does not mean rushed.

We cannot critique the family mythos created by our parents without standing categorically in self-loyalty long enough to fully replace dated, harmful or mismatched parental messages with constructive statements expressing nonshaming expectation and customized support.

Another dense sentence rich with psychological truth.

We must resist the temptation to bolt out of this step when either the first signs of improvement appear or strains start to build within us. We have to commit to staying disgruntled until the majority of our complaints with our upbringing have been identified and our internal sovereignty fully affirmed.

It has been my experience as a clinician that this step cannot be overvalued nor can it be avoided. Unless you feel entitled to take back your life from the limitations of your upbringing, there will remain a part of you always in thrall to the lies of your childhood. Loyalty to yourself, to your potential and to your needs must be seen as a nonnegotiable first step toward maturity.

Because this is a sticking point for so many people, I want to belabor it a bit.

You have to believe that you were a fresh, new person when you came into this existence, that you were fully deserving of excellent training in how to proceed with life and that the project of becoming yourself is a worthy and interesting one. To believe anything else is to corrupt your ability to lead yourself loyally into a bright future.

Self-loyalty, in existential terms, represents an appropriate devotion to the concepts of freedom and opportunity. We exert our freedom when we seek out opportunities that are meaningful to us in particular. This is the process of free will and it requires a well-developed sense of entitlement because we must believe that we have the right to those opportunities that we seek. So you can see that self-loyalty creates the sense of entitlement that is required to power a life of free will.

It is important to note that self-loyalty is not a partitionable characteristic. It is all or nothing. We must wholly believe in our right to flourish if we are to be a self-assured leader in our personal existence.

Nor is self-loyalty inappropriately selfish. It does not exclude loyalty to and respect for others. It simply reflects a state where we privilege our attention to ourselves with the belief that it is only with the best version of ourselves that we can best serve our selves and our world. The great existential thinkers were quite clear on this topic. All good comes from true self-love.

We must move from blind loyalty to the childhood we had to self-loyalty relative to the life we’re planning to create. When we come to value loyalty to ourselves we will start to do what we are designed to do whenever we value something - we will attend to it. Specifically, we will start to watch for ways we stray from devotion to our best interests and work to reinstate faithful attention to what will best serve our efforts to manifest our unique gifts.

The following are examples of how people make a shift in focus from accepting poor treatment from their parents to prioritizing self-loyalty.

Someone we’ll call Randy was, at the age of 33, still receiving disdainful e-mails from his parents outlining all the ways his life was a disappointment to them. In actuality, his life was quite successful and he was currently designing new and exciting possibilities for the next chapter of it. Although the disdain he was receiving from his parents was subtle, its very consistency was demoralizing Randy and distracting him from following through on his decisions regarding his future. After much study of the communications from his parents, he was able to recognize the pattern of their belittling comments, the harsh comparisons to his peers and the tendency of his parents to ignore his considerable accomplishments. No longer would comments such as “We’d like to come visit you, but our schedules are just so unforgiving.” or “You should see the marvelous house your friend Philip and his wife just bought.” or “I thought you told us that you were going to try to lose some weight.” slip by unnoticed. With much practice, Randy became quite skilled at recognizing the barbs in his parents’ communication and deflecting them. When his father chastised him for considering a risky career move, Randy could translate that to the more accurate message that his father probably wished he had had Randy’s courage early in his own career. When his mother would interrupt Randy’s description of an important decision in his life with a story about someone else’s situation, he would simply listen for a moment and then cut the conversation short. Randy was able to hypothesize about the insecurity that led to the stingy and negative attitude his parents had toward him, and he decided to maintain pleasant discourse with them even if that meant significantly lowering his expectations of them. He felt that his energy was best spent in moving his life forward and he would postpone any attempts to reconfigure his relationship with his parents.

A bright, thoughtful and attractive woman, let’s say Carol, was quite clear that her parents had routinely and cruelly shamed her. It was not unusual for her to be told that she was ugly, stupid and a waste of their time. Nothing Carol did was ever met with approval and most things she accomplished were picked apart and minimized. After many unilateral attempts over several years to engage her parents in healing their relationship, it became clear that they were not interested in treating her any differently. She decided she needed to exclude them from her life. Despite her emancipation from these cruel people, however, Carol was still not clear on her entitlement to good self-parenting. It took her quite some time to understand that she was a perfectly wonderful person and deserved to be well parented. Carol was finally able to catch herself treating herself as cruelly as had her parents. She learned to be alert to the old pattern and was able to gently replace most of her loathsome self-talk with accurate and positive feedback. “I misunderstood that person’s comment and that proves I’m stupid” became “I wonder why I misunderstood that person’s comment. I usually catch people’s meanings quite easily.” And “I didn’t go to the gym on the way home from work because I’m so lazy.” became “Of course it’s hard to go to the gym after a long day at work. I’ll have to try again tomorrow.” Once Carol recovered her self-loyalty, she worked to reject disrespect from all sources – but most especially from within herself.

To summarize the first step in creating a healthy internalized parental unit: Self-loyalty creates the space for self-love, which makes all good things happen. Because the shift away from self-loathing can be a very difficult one to take, it must begin with the categorical rejection of the belief that our upbringing was perfect or that we deserved the poor upbringing we did have. And as we get in touch with the myriad ways we were underserved (perhaps incalculably) by our parents growing up, it is important to acknowledge and grieve over the ways our particular childhood may have handicapped us.

As always, I want to acknowledge that some people have been so profoundly wounded by their parents that much time and perhaps professional support is necessary to effect healing. Nonetheless, everyone, at some point, needs to provide for themselves their own parental unit. In fact, one sure sign of stepping toward mental health and recovery in people with an abusive childhood is their willingness to approach the self-parenting role.

Step Two

The second step is actually creating a sound internal parental unit.

With so few examples of good-enough parents, however, not many of us can answer the question: what does good parenting look like?

Actually, a better question is: what does good parenting sound like?

 

Dance of Intimacy

- Harriet Lerner

Mother Daughter Revolution: From Betrayal to Power

- Elizabeth Debold, Marie WIlson and Idelisse Malave

Masculinity Reconstructed

- Ronald Levant

Raising Cain

- Dan Kindlon, Ph.D. and Michael Thompson

Reviving Ophelia

-Mary Pipher

Novels

The Art of Mending

- Elizabeth Berg.

 

 

Wouldn't it be unsettling for a child to hear the uncertainty with which parents discuss the issues pertaining to that child? Isn't it better, in other words, to provide children with assurance that mom and dad know what they are doing?

As with truth telling, being transparent when discussing issues pertaining to a child will need to be done carefully. Kids tend to be much more capable of handling uncertainty than we think, but it is usually wise to be cautious...

 

As described in the article A Good Childhood: How It Was Supposed to Go, in the best of all possible worlds, we would each grow up surrounded by an extended and diverse adult community that carried on fairly transparently all around us, exposing us to the sounds of life. Unintelligible to us at first, these sounds would eventually clarify into discussions about, among other things, us. If they were discussions based in love, they would exemplify the act of parenting: the discussion of the wellbeing of each child across the difference represented by two separate people with a common goal - the training and happiness of the child.

So, in a nutshell, good parenting sounds like two voices respectfully discussing serious issues.

To be good parents to ourselves, then, we need to internalize two voices. But which two?

We need one voice that speaks of support and one that speaks of expectation. Let me describe each position first and then the manner in which they should interact. (To avoid cumbersome euphemisms, I’m going to succumb to culture-bound stereotypes and use the terms “mother voice” and “father voice”. Although I’ve used the traditional gender pronouns in these descriptions, it is important to remember that both voices reside in bodies of both sexes.) For the ease of understanding, the mother voice will manifest the support and the father voice the expectations.

Back in the 1950s, in The Art of Loving, social psychologist Erich Fromm distinguished between what he called “mother love” and “father love” this way:

“Mother love says: You are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, and I will always love you no matter what. Nothing you ever do or fail to do will make me stop loving you. Father love says: I will love you if you earn my love and respect, if you get good grades, if you make the team, if you get into a good college, earn a good salary.”

The concepts of mother voice and father voice reflect these disparate loving styles.

Mother Voice

The effective mother voice within us speaks from an orientation of acceptance, anticipation, provisioning and reward, and is supportive, intuitive and personal. The support addresses our need to be compassionate toward ourselves, well supplied and aware of potential dangers. We can hear this message from our female parent and/or our male parent. This voice would say: “Do it, but do it carefully…and take a jacket, and a flashlight and some water.” If you fail, the mother voice is still proud of you. “Good for you for trying,” she’ll say. And she will want you to rest, eat dinner and consult with someone before you try again – and only if you want to try again. “If you choose to give it another try, I’ll support you. What can I do to help?” The personal, intuitive aspect of the voice manifests in offerings of provisioning specific to your needs. “Can I get you a tutor? Let’s see if we can find a backpack that fits you. How are you feeling? How long has it been since you’ve eaten? What do you need to take the next step?”

The mother voice will have an empathic connection with you that can detect and value your level of intention and effort. It does not have a need for you to prove yourself. It tends to focus on your developing personality (reflected in a detailed and running commentary about who you are becoming) and relationships (reflected in a willingness to discuss relationships of all types, including hers with others and hers with you).

This voice will agree with Maya Angelou on both success and courage: Success is liking who you are, what you do and how you do it. Courage allows the successful woman to fail – and to learn powerful lessons from the failure – so that in the end, she didn’t fail at all.

The mother voice pulls for connectedness by both demanding it of us and by modeling it for us. The modeling that is the most powerful shows up in the courage she determinedly displays when she endures the anguish that always accompanies deep love. She worries over you and that worry is painful, but her overall message is that you are worth worrying over and caring for. She demonstrates that worrying is part of her job and that she can handle it. You are to be aware of her worry but not responsible for it.

She is also willing and eager to provide you with rewards and parties. Her enthusiasm for the acknowledgement of back-to-school nights, piano recitals, plays, poetry readings, birthday parties, sports banquets, graduations, report cards, etc. teaches us to relish the thrill and appropriateness of accolades and celebrations. The overall message is that we matter to her and that message teaches us that we can matter to ourselves. She leaves us no doubt that our life is beyond precious. Finally, the mother voice speaks in the same way to sons and daughters.

Father Voice

The effective father voice speaks from the place of critique, expectations, competition and exhortation, and would sound the challenges that all kids must face. These challenges would address our need to be willing to face danger, to take risks, to fall down, to dare. Again, this message can originate from either parent. This voice sounds like, “You can do it! I’ve done it, so you can, too. Give it a try! You’ll be okay! You’ve done it before, remember? I believe in you. You can handle the consequences. What do you have to lose?” If you fall down, the father voice encourages you to get up. “Come on. Try it again. You’re doing better. You’ll get it next time.” The tone is caring but demanding. It is challenging.

The father voice has expectations and wants you to earn his respect. It tends to focus on the strengths you have to foster and the weaknesses you have to overcome. He may appear almost ruthless in his wish for us to hold ourselves accountable. But because he holds himself to equally high standards of responsibility, we feel eager to meet his expectations and join him at his level. And we believe that he wouldn’t ask more of us than we can handle. This translates subtly and consistently into a belief in our own abilities.

The father voice will pull for courage. Similar to the connectedness that the mother voice demonstrates, the father voice extracts the best from us by both demanding it of us and by modeling it for us. The modeling that is the most powerful is the courage he quietly displays when he tolerates (without flinching) the fear of watching us at risk. His overall message is that we are up to the challenges of life. He also believes that the tests and trials of life are important developmental steps. He will agree with Nietzsche

One has to test oneself to see that one is destined for independence and command – and do it at the right time. One should not dodge one’s tests, though they may be the most dangerous game one could play and are tests that are taken in the end before no witness or judge but ourselves.

and with Yeats

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds.

These aggressive metaphors of tests and war serve to illustrate the father’s conviction in the need for experiences that will prove to us that our self-confidence is justified. He believes that life is a battle and our job is to bravely engage. He may even make the case that there are some things worse than death. Finally, these beliefs should be expressed to children of both genders.

The dialectic tension

As is obvious, these two voices come from different orientations toward your wellbeing. Both are committed to love you and to facilitate your success. They just have different ways of going about it. If we go back to our optimal community for learning, we will hear these two voices consulting with each other and struggling with the difference between their perspectives. The mother voice will press for you to not drive home in the rain with worn tires. The father voice will be concerned with you testing yourself against the elements.

There is no sense that there is a right answer, there is only the sense that their job is to take the discussion seriously. In this example, they may agree that since your tires are worn, you should wait the storm out (with a little dad-guilt thrown in for letting your car maintenance slide). They could just as easily agree that, if you can get new tires put on, you can be supported in tackling the driving challenge (with a little mom-guilt for worrying her, expressed as a request to call as soon as you arrive home). There is, however, less the need for conclusion than for caring. They could passionately agree to disagree about whether or not you should drive home in the storm, regardless of the condition of your tires. We hear their devotion and mutual respect, and we internalize the style of dialogue that represents good parenting.

So it isn’t critical for parents to agree about everything or to present a united front. It is important only that they show the determination to carefully discuss issues between them. And, when appropriate, they hold these discussions in front of us so we can learn from them.

There are four key aspects of the discussions that will determine if the children will experience the dialectic process between these voices as effective.

First, shame cannot be a part of the parents’ vocabulary. Ever. They are both entitled to try to evoke guilt – even tons of guilt – when they feel concern about our thoughts, behaviors, or feelings, but never shame. As an aside: while it is very appropriate to evoke guilt as a parent, the evocation needs to be upfront and open, with ownership for the values clearly coming from the parents. An example of appropriate feedback would be, “Your mother and I are disappointed to see that you haven’t arranged to get your recycle system put in place. We are hoping that recycling will be as important to you as it is to us.” Inappropriate “guilting” would sound like “I thought we raised you better than that. I can’t believe you don’t recycle your plastic bottles.” Or, of course, the old classic “Don’t worry about me. I’ll just get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and come over and dig the plastic bottles out of your garbage can!”

Second, these two voices cannot be hierarchical. In other words, neither the mother voice nor the father voice is heard as superior to the other. They are equally involved, equally concerned and equally fallible. They need to discuss their opinions from a state of egalitarianism, acknowledging that neither has a lock on the truth. If the father voice gets elevated, then expectations for us will be too high. That can cause us to see ourselves as never being good enough or, ironically, too cool for school. In the former case, our tendency will be to avoid effort due to our lack of confidence. In the latter, we will avoid effort due to our overblown entitlement. If the mother voice gets elevated, our appreciation for support can become exaggerated. We can come to define our lives by the concept of nurturing. If this is the case, we run the risk of either becoming too accommodating of others or too self-indulgent. Two equally powerful adult voices need to act to balance our lives between appropriate expectation and appropriate support. As always, orthogonality rules! (If you just went “Huh??” see the article – What to Change About Yourself: It Is Not At All What You Think.)

Third, it is essential that these two voices remain constant in their level of commitment to participating in our lives. Neither voice moves in too closely or pulls away. The father voice doesn’t remove itself if disappointed (“I’ll love and respect you if you succeed, otherwise, I’m out of here.”) or move in to take over the risks for you (“Here, just let me do it!”). The mother voice doesn’t threaten to withdraw if you reject some of her caring (“Well, if that’s the way you feel, I’ll just mind my own business…sigh.”), nor does she offer to take over your life if overly concerned (“I love you so much, son, I’ll decorate your house for you.”).

Finally, both voices must be an authentic fit with our unique set of personal traits, talents, appetites and principles. In other words, in order to speak well to us, they need to know how to speak well for us. To that end, a healthy version of these voices will not automatically demand conformity from us if our values legitimately conflict with the values of those around us. For example, the voices will believe with us that our talents and passions are best served in pursuit of the career that is most significant to us. If we need to go to clown school in order to pursue our dreams, then clown school is more valuable to us than is medical school, and their voices will support us in finding the best, most demanding clown school to be had, never mind that both our parents are physicians.

In sum, in order to be effective, parental voices must remain nonshaming, equal to each other, equidistant from you, constant and able to see you as a uniquely valuable person. Both voices are loyal and respectful but the father voice wants you to learn to take on the world and the mother voice wants you to learn to be compassionate toward yourself.

Having said all that, I want to reiterate that the distinctions I’ve made between the mother and father voice are artificial and are for clarification purposes only. In actuality, each good parent will demonstrate both expectations and nurturance, and these will be based on their individual perspective on life, not their gender. But because it is easier to create a healthier internal version of the parental unit using this oversimplified model, I recommend personifying your voices into two, distinct characters.

An example of this process that I use frequently with clients is the dialogue that pops up in my head when I’m ambivalent about going running. One side is fairly impatient with my attempt to put off running and sounds like “Oh, come on. She tried this twice last week. She’s not sick, she has plenty of time this morning and she always feels better after she runs.” The other side responds with “Yes, but she usually doesn’t whine this much unless she’s legitimately tired. I think we should trust her on this and give her a break.” Sometimes they agree to focus on how good I’ll feel when I’m finished. Sometimes they agree that I probably am too tired and I should either rest or just take a walk. And sometimes they agree to compromise and tell me to get out and try running, and if, after a little while I still don’t want to run, I can come home. I have to say, I have come to deeply respect and appreciate this discussion within. Among the three of us, we usually get my morning off to a thoughtful start.

We will need to first copy, and then customize a set of wise parental voices to carry inside to provide the guidance of challenge and support. We can find models for the tones of tenderness and strength from extended family, teachers, therapists, friends, parents of friends, leaders or fictional characters. There are many, many fine books that address this process and provide excellent models of the sounds of good parenting. Some examples are: Mother Daughter Revolution: From Betrayal to Power, Masculinity Reconstructed, Raising Cain, Reviving Ophelia, Motherless Daughters and the lovely novel The Art of Mending.

At its most basic, parenting is the process of discussing the wellbeing of a child from two different standpoints: one of expectation, the other of support. In order to do this for ourselves, we learn to discuss the elements of our life project across the dialectic created by the need to set out into our day safely accoutered and the need to step out further than we have ever gone before.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.