Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Tone of the Voices in Your Head

So how kind are the voices in your head?

I'm serious. One of the most interesting concepts I learned while reading How People Grow by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend centers around the idea that a harsh internal critic ... a mean conscience ... can actually inhibit spiritual growth.

Cloud and Townsend, whom many know from their excellent book "Boundaries," talk about how external relationships become internalized as "voices."  A woman in one of their groups slept with an abusive old boyfriend, causing her to berate herself in front of her group. The author made a wise observation to her that, while she knew internally that the action was a bad idea, she did it anyway in part because "The voices in her head that correct her and warn her are meaner than her boyfriend's." So she didn't listen to the mean voices and moved toward the boyfriend, who became abusive again shortly thereafter.

The point? Building relationships with caring people who correct you lovingly is an important part of stilling the harsh voice in your head. Your conscience is there to guide, but it should be a loving, kind voice. If it's not, it would be good to find a loving small group to be supportive as you deal with your problems.

Eventually, Cloud and Townsend say, a caring voice will replace the harsh one.  And maybe you'll listen to that voice before you get yourself in a bad situation. The authors report that the woman in their group actually said, in another encounter with the old boyfriend, "I was getting into him ... and then ... it sounds strange ... I could hear you talking to me saying, 'Don't do it! He will hurt you. ... We will be here for you.' " And she went home without Mr. Bad News.

Now, if that's true for the worried well, it's also probably true for the mentally ill.  None of us want to be one of the harsh voices of criticism and derision that they hear, particularly if they are dealing with auditory hallucinations (voices in the head) anyway.

Dealing with a person who has a mental illness may often feel like dealing with a person who is willingly being difficult and defiant. But our behavior actually should be the same toward both: Move toward grace. Encourage with love. And go vent in your journal. You can always destroy a written entry, but never can you take back a harsh word.

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