Defeating the critical inner voice.
Defeating the critical inner voice.
“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.
Is this what your inner voice sounds like?
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.
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.
The voice can seem friendly or hostile, but is never working for what you know are your best interests.
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.
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.
You graduated from basic training. Why is this guy still in your mind? Time to evict.
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:
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.