Getting a handle on the voices inside my head

Getting a handle on the voices inside my head

“My work is going OK, but I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing my best stuff.”

“It kinda feels like I’ve plateaued.”

“I’m being asked to be more productive today than nearly any other point in my career…and I don’t know if I’m up to it.”

“This new approach is never gonna work!”

“I know I need to be more innovative, but I can’t seem to think of any new ways of approaching my work.”

“I feel like I’m going to be found out soon.”

“I’m feeling stuck—maybe even a bit victimized by the environment around me. How can I be expected to change if I’m left reacting to the environment I’m in?”

Oh, the incessant voices in my head leave little room (or energy) for lift and innovation, for creativity, for celebration. It just feels like…work!

Here’s hoping that you read those comments and feel they are truly foreign to your experience. Too often, they are just a sampling of the voices constantly at work in our heads.1 Three of those “voices” cause us the most heartache and, in turn, contribute to us thinking and interacting in ways that limit our effectiveness and damage relationship trust.2

The voice of judgment – Charles Darwin observed that the human mind tends to quickly forget what does not fit into its familiar frameworks. Our common parlance reflects this as we refer to being “creatures of habit;” feeling most comfortable hanging “with my peeps;” and wanting things that “align with my point of view.” Things that fall outside those lines are (subconsciously perhaps) viewed as easily rejected. Psychologists call this confirmation bias: when we have a preference (even unconsciously) we seek out information supporting it, and overlook information that challenges it.

The voice of cynicism – This is the voice of emotional distancing and disconnection. Sometimes dressed as “the devil’s advocate,” the cynic projects doubt, skepticism, and distrust…usually of someone else and/or of the surrounding situation, distancing himself from his actions by claiming that the context is so compromised that his actions don’t really matter. This goes well beyond the “I have to see it to believe it” stance. The voice of cynicism expresses arrogance and can turn to callousness. Conjuring the visual metaphor of the affects of acid on any surface, Parker Palmer refers to it as “corrosive cynicism.” 

The voice of fear – Equally a powerful barrier, our voice of fear seeks to prevent us from losing what we have and who we are, from letting go and going forth, fear of the unknown, unfamiliar; a fear of dying (literally and figuratively). Alone or combined with the two earlier voices, the voice of fear is a powerful block.

What’s a person to do?

Many of the world’s wisdom traditions invite us to let these fears go; to turn them over to a higher power; to let go of attachment; to be present in this moment (neither replaying the past of rehearsing the future). 

Scharmer (and other organizational theorists) invite us to be still. To observe. To listen. To be in a new posture. Meditators are taught to come back to the breath as a disciplined form of single-pointed mind. 

Years ago, when asking my older brother for help to navigate these voices inside my head, he would go on at length, ending with the reminder, “this is your work.” I didn’t realize at the time that he was describing a lifelong practice. Initially, it felt like a very foreign concept to me. Yet, every lesson we learn from evolution and from the study of all systems is that life (and all living systems) is a story of adaptation—of constantly shedding some of the old and welcoming some of the new. 

“Only in the suspension of judgment can we open ourselves up to a new sense of wonder” (Scharmer, p. 90). While I love the notion of “suspending” bad practices and habits, I find that they tend to remain until they are eclipsed by the new—a new narrative, new practices, new habits. Scharmer suggests we employ the tool of curiosity when we become aware of  bumping into our old judgments.

I think that’s one of the reasons why the science of appreciative inquiry has such a captivating hold on me. I can use my natural curiosity to break through my judgmental patterns of thought and I can turn my attention, energy, resources, and action to recalling times in my life when I was doing what was most life affirming and deeply sustainable in and around me.

That all-important and interconnected narrative (which Harvard’s Marshall Ganz calls the story of me, the story of us, and the story of now) gets a boost in the direction of lift and innovation when I focus my inquiry on the best of what is (in me and around me). In so doing, I become immediately aware of getting beyond my usual pattern of linear thinking (what Scharmer calls “downloading the past”). I get a fresh look at the root conditions of success, the core essence of that which is good, right, and just. 

From that posture, it feels much more likely that I can successfully employ the second tool Scharmer suggests, blunting my voice of cynicism with compassion. You see, ever single time I’ve been invited to tell a story of a high point moment in my life AND to identify the factors that made it so, only part of those factors come from me. An equal number result from what has been contributed by those around me and my embracing “the other” without separation. Compassion, it turns out, is not something that I need to “do” or “provide.” It is in me and of me…if illuminated and released. Again, the power of inquiring about times when it has been present—and doing so through an appreciative lens—seems to have the effect of reinforcing the felt compassion just in the retelling of the story, thereby making it even closer to the surface and more immediately accessible.

Scharmer adds additional counsel to help us overcome our voice of fear: allow and trust your innate courage to open your will and resolve more fully. “Easier said than done,” was my first response to Scharmer as I read his advice years ago. Yet now, having recognized the great value of appreciative inquiry, an unexpected benefit has been the growth of my confidence and a deeper trust in my ability. Why? Largely because of the residual power of having resurfaced and explored high point moments from my own lived experience. It leads me to confront uncertainty remembering that I’ve been faced with many prior times of fearful uncertainty. I’m still here; still standing. I can do this! That renewed confidence fosters creativity…and invitation to possibility.

During my leadership workshops/retreats (which I call Conversation), I create an experiential learning (or rediscovery) environment for participants. I’ve grown convinced over the years that all the best thinking about tools, tips, and techniques is lost without it being grounded in one’s own rediscovered strengths.

Then, when those rediscovered strengths are coupled with an aspiration to do something good in the world, anything is possible. 


1I must acknowledge my unearned privilege from simply being born into the dominant social culture. I recognize that because of this, it makes contemplation of these voices (this self-talk) a bit abstract. While the voices are limiting, they are not life-threatening. For others without dominant culture privilege, these voices may be painfully real and present every day.

2See Otto Scharmer’s Theory U (and subsequent allied writing) for significant description of these three voices, which are barriers to us opening fully to the changes that we most seek within and around us.