The Enemy of My Transition Was Not My Friend
“You are scum.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“You can’t do anything right.”
“You don’t even have the simple discipline to get out of bed on time.”
“You’d be better off dead, and your family would be better off with you dead, too.”
Who is this cruel voice in my mind that constantly attacks and wears me down? Why do I feel like I’m being assaulted by myself? And why do I feel so aggressive about my own shortcomings?
I suffered for decades from an internal monologue constantly undermining my every effort at life and transition. It seemed that no matter what I did, there it was to tell me I wasn’t good enough. Any minor setback was cause for intense self-attack, and any success was qualified by a voice telling me that I was actually a failure because I should have done better.
I separated from the Army in 2013 to go to graduate school in Texas. I honestly thought that the transition would be relatively simple. I was resilient, intelligent, and knew that I could weather whatever changes life threw at me. I had served in the Army Special Forces; what could the world possibly throw at me that was harder than that? After a few months of serious suicidal thoughts, however, I knew that I needed help.
Making the choice to get help took some mental gymnastics. Those who have been seriously depressed know that in the deepest parts of distress, there’s literally nothing anyone can say that would make you think that any solution is going to be better than suicide. There’s a part of you that keeps going back to “Plan B”, even when (or especially when) things start to get better.
I’m not sure exactly how to explain how I made the choice. At some point, I had an intuition that the internal voice telling me “You are scum” or “You can’t do this” had to be something separate from me. If there is something internally pointing at me and rendering judgment, that meant to me that that something can’t be me. So then the goal became trying to figure out what the voice was, how to keep the best parts of myself separate from it, and how to keep it quiet.
Who is this?
It took a few years of therapy and research to figure out what that voice was and what it meant. Everybody has an internal voice casting doubt on their ability, the quality of their relationships, or even their worth as a person. Nobody escapes it because the source is common to everyone.
First, it’s useful to understand why it happens. The mind uses defense mechanisms to prevent potentially harmful attacks on the fragile egos of children. These defense mechanisms are usually reinforced heavily throughout adolescence as a person learns about death and are further reinforced in the first few years after separating from their family of origin. That’s relevant to veterans because it is during this period that most people join the military.
Dr Robert Firestone, an early pioneer in understanding this mechanism in the mind, called the hostile and alien voice that arises in our minds the Voice Process in his book The Self Under Siege. According to him, the Voice Process first forms as a very young person witnesses intense aggression or frustration, particularly when it is directed towards them. When that aggression comes from a caregiver, the mind separates that behavior from the otherwise loving and caring behavior of the adult. It then incorporates that aggression into the mind, installing a hostile entity to keep us company forever.
Nobody escapes the Voice Process because every person is raised by flawed humans who lose their temper at some point and exhibit aggression. It is reinforced by other hostile voices throughout a person’s life, fusing into their personality so seamlessly that the voice eventually speaks with that person’s own voice.
Veterans like us especially suffer through the Voice Process during transition. Throughout military service, they are presented with life-or-death situations and consequences. The high stakes make it imperative that the military instills high consideration into everything service members do. Consequently, the military rightfully shows tremendous and consistent aggressive behavior to instill that sense of urgency and attention to detail that is so critical to surviving the battlefield.
We’ve all had experiences where, in the midst of a critical mission or operation, we speak to ourselves internally with the same words and tone of the people who trained us. This is a relatively benign example of the Voice Process at work. When we separate from service, however, very aggressive voices come out of the woodwork, fused with our personalities to tell us just how much we have failed.
Overcoming the Voice
Take Back Your Mind
I do not criticize the military and it’s methods. I firmly believe that those things not only serve to save lives and win battles, but ultimately help to make us better people. The Voice Process, on the other hand, is an unfortunate side effect that must be addressed to fully enjoy life.
So how can a veteran who recognizes this alien aspect of their personality deal with the Voice Process? There are a few simple habits that can help you to reclaim your mind:
- Recognize the voice as something other than you. You have two different voices in your mind: the positive one, that reaffirms your worth, successes, and positive qualities; and the negative, alien voice that undermines and criticizes your every behavior. This second voice is not the “real you”; it is the fusion of other people’s criticisms into your personality and can be silenced.
- Give actual voice to those voices. It may seem counter-intuitive, but writing down or actually vocalizing those voices can help you to understand where they first came from, whether it was an angry parent, a jealous peer or sibling, a hostile drill instructor, or an over stressed spouse. Knowing where the voice came will help you to separate it from the true core of your mind. Use the second person, such that you say things like “You are scum!” out loud or written. I should point out that oftentimes the voice will sound soothing or comforting, trying to coax you into behavior that doesn’t really support your goals. Then, as soon as you start to listen to it, it turns aggressive again, criticizing the things it just described.
- Contradict the voice. Once you’ve put the criticisms or accusations into words, vocalize the opposite of what they say. Reaffirm your value, your efforts, and your humanity. This isn’t just “positive self-talk” Stuart Smalley-style. This is an active attack against the voice that seeks to destroy you. Simply saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gonnit, people like me” isn’t enough. It’s better to say, “That’s something my dad would say. But he didn’t know what he was talking about! I’m obviously good enough to be here, or I wouldn’t be. He was bitter that I didn’t just hang around my old town. I made something of myself, and neither he nor anyone else can take that away.” It’s important to be specific about who the voice sounds like and why they are wrong. Otherwise you’re not really dealing with the heart of the issue. You’re just talking to yourself.
- Alter your behavior. Knowing that the critical voice 1) isn’t really you, and 2) never has your best interests at heart, it should be easier to ignore it. Commit yourself regularly to actions that improve your life, your relationships, and your health, regardless of what that internal asshole has to say. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to combat this is to pay immediate attention to where I am right then, and then find something to do that improves it. That could be going for a walk, calling a friend, getting a drink of water, or really anything that makes you feel better.
Of course, while qualified help from a licensed therapist or social worker will be the most effective way to deal with these negative thought patterns, breaking their hold will require you to practice and develop regular habits to combat negative self-talk. But you can do yourself a world of good simply by recognizing that they aren’t really you and taking steps to diminish their influence.
As we separate from the military, we expose ourselves to financial and psychological instability. The last thing we need is to take ourselves down internally. As you separate, take active steps to reduce the effects of this kind of self-talk. Take back your mind from the enemy of transition.