Is Your Inner Monologue Full of Shit?

Sometimes I’m amazed at what we let our brain get away with. In most situations, we are SO protective over what we allow to be absorbed into our head, but when it comes to vetting our own inner monologue, we seem to let anything fly. We read a book or an article with a critical eye, quickly discarding anything that seems amiss. Media headlines are screened for fake news. Even in conversations with friends or family, we’re keen to notice when the other person is off-base or just misinformed.  

Assessing External Information

Take Steven. He’s sitting there, in a board meeting with his managers, supervisors and bosses, reviewing the latest sales campaign. He listens as his coworker waxes on about target numbers and audience reach and in his head he’s thinking “No fucking way. There’s not a chance we can make that happen. He’s way overselling our capabilities right now.”

Or when Kara was sitting around the Zoom thanksgiving table with family, which is a risky proposition in normal election years. She hears her aunt start talking about communists and snowflakes and about how the libtards ruined her ability to sell her house, and immediately Kara tunes everything else out. As it turns out, mute buttons are exactly what Thanksgiving has been missing.

Or how about when Hannah and Jack were having dinner and Hannah pointed out that Jack’s Movember growth is looking downright creepy and Jack just shrugs. The truth is that he’s grown fond of his pornstache.

All day every day we collect data, pass it through our senses onward to our brain where like an overzealous Tindr user, we swipe left, right, left, left, right  indicating whether or not the new information is worth paying attention to. 

Can I really get shredded 6 pack abs in just 7 days by drinking celery juice? No.

Will this 6-figure instagram course really 10x my sales? No

Is COVID just a propaganda stunt? nope

Will the Washington DC area be headed for unprecedented snowfall? Oh god, probably.

Assessing Internal Information

You’re a pretty smart person. No, that’s not fair. You don’t need that qualifier in there. You’re a smart person. You know this. Your friends know this. Your family knows this. You went to good schools, got the good jobs, schmooze in the “right” circles. Of course you know when someone is bullshitting (and/or is just misinformed).

You skim news headlines and think – Jesus! Who could POSSIBLY believe this crap?? How is half our country so stupid! 

You listen to colleagues talk at social gatherings (wait – what are those??). Scratch that, you USED to listen to colleagues talk at social gatherings, babbling on about how this policy or that policy will revolutionize the industry. No it’s not dude. 

You hear your best friend waxing on about her latest beau, who is clearly a womanizer with zero interest in any long-term, committed anything.

It’s not rocket science. You can just read through the lines. The truth just stands out to you in glowing, neon letters.

Yet, taking the words out of a must-have children’s books, you can do all this other great stuff with that brain of yours, yet you can’t filter out the same crap when it happens to originate from inside your head. For whatever reason – THAT shit is infallible. 

You suck. I can’t believe you just said that. Now everyone thinks you’re a moron and you shouldn’t even be here. You’re going to lose out on the promotion to James and James is SUCH a tool! How could you wear your hair like that on Zoom and think you could get away with it? Jesus, man, you’re going to lose this account because you can’t keep it together. Oh my god – did you just let your eyes get watery?? Dammit! Now he’s going to think you’re a basket case! I can’t believe you stayed in bed all weekend – you’re such a POS!

 Oh – and let’s not forget the chapter on COVID. Everything from how you’re going to get it and ruin all the lives of your family members to how your company is going to implode because everyone is stuck on quarantine and can’t properly check their systems. 

Now, if you imagine those lines were spewing out of your favorite love-to-hate media personality – you would be SO quick to point out how ridiculous these assertions are. YOU KNOW NOTHING! 

But, they’re note. They’re coming from YOU. We’ve already established your brilliance, so obviously your own thoughts can’t be wrong. How could such a logical, accurate and precise brain create thoughts that weren’t also logical, accurate and precise?

Bwooohahaha – cue dramatic violin music!

Your Internal Narrator Sucks

Just because you’re smart, doesn’t mean you’re exempt from some straight internal bullshit.

Ever hear of self-talk? Of course you have. You probably think it’s a bunch of psychobabble. And – it is, but it’s useful psychobabble to investigate. It’s that inner monologue you got going on inside your head 24/7, the color of the lenses through which you view the world. 

You may not even be fully aware of your monologue. It usually operates in the background, just under your focused awareness until you pause for  a second and can hear it echoing around in there.

 It’s almost like that movie, Stranger than Fiction where Will Ferrell’s character is walking around while Emma Thompson narrates his life. That basically your inner monologue, speaking softly (or loudly) in the background, commenting and passing judgement on everything you do.

Have you ever stopped to think about your narrator? A narrator is some sort of character or voice who tells us what’s happening in a story. Regardless of who the narrator is, the fact that there IS a narrator will skew how we hear the story. Narrators are biased. They can only see part of the story, they only have access to certain pieces of information, and their perspectives alter whether or not we believe what they say.

How would the story be different if a different narrator were selected? Would a tragedy be turned into a  comedy? Would a drama seem less dramatic?

This conversation came up recently. I’m reading my daughter Harry Potter for the first time. She adores Harry and his friends and loathes those slimy slytherins. What she sees is precisely reflected from the narrator.  But what if we weren’t seeing the story from Harry’s point of view? What if instead, it was from Snape? Or He-who-shall-not-be-named? Or just some random hufflepuff? How would our understanding of hero vs. villain and good vs. evil change? 

Similarly, what would it be like if YOU had a different narrator? If instead of hearing criticism on your attire (OMG, are you wearing THAT?), you heard a warm, encouraging voice, what would that be like? Who would you want to narrate your life?

What’s your narrator saying?

If you want to play around more, try this – take a few minutes and write down every little thought that comes to mind. A stream of consciousness.

For example:

I need to be writing more. This is the last day of the month so the last chance to post in November. Besides, you need to get this done, so you can move on to the next thing. There’s at least 18000 books you still need to read. You need to sign up for that course course you wanted to do. And update your practice policies. Not to mention Christmas preparation. And OH BY THE WAY – It’s cyber Monday. In other words – BUY ALL THE THINGS. But also not buy all the things because you need to save for a car.  Also, have you been a good mother, wife, friend, daughter today? Have you meditated today? Networked? You need to download the new workout plan. Did you drink water recently? (No – big sip of water). What’s for dinner? Have you sent the grocery order in yet?

The wording may look neutral. Nothing particularly malicious in there. No name-calling. But can you sense it? That drum beat? It’s like the pace starts to quicken and the volume gets louder. A background chant of dontforget.dontforget.dontforget. Almost like a really annoying high school coach and it’s sprint day. TWEET. Whistle blows. GO. Again. GO. Again. Faster faster faster.

Scanning for bullshit

Once you’ve written down your inner monologue – read back over it. What stands out?  Are your thoughts equally as ‘go-go-go” as mine were? Or, is there a different theme? The critic who is telling you everything you do sucks? Or the fortune teller who is predicting all sorts of horrible things will happen?  Or maybe it’s your  inner brat, whining and complaining about how life is unfair.  Maybe a little bit of all of these things. Does it sound like anyone? 

If I look back at my life, who was the person who was always beating the drum of ‘do-more’? It’s my Dad, asking what I’ve done to be productive today. Judging me for my adolescent sloth. Where are the grades? Where is the money? Eye rolling if I’m vegging out. Sighing at my messy room. If you’re not doing then you’re not worthwhile.  

That’s my current narrator. The voice who believes I need to always being go-go-go if I want to make anything of myself.  Maybe you have a similar narrator. One who is keeping track of your endless to-dos, always pushing you to do more, be more. Never settling. It’s probably pushed you to success and achievement. But it’s relentless isn’t it? That quest for “enough”. But “enough” doesn’t actually exist. It’s an unquenchable drive.

Change your narrator

The problem with these different narrators is that they don’t necessarily have YOUR best interest in mind. It’s always someone else’s best interest. 

What would happen if you responded to each one of those thoughts with the inner calm of your wise-minded self. 

Mine would look at my endless to-do and question “Do you really need to do all of thee? It seems like a lot. What’s reasonable to work on today? Slow down.  This isn’t a race. Stay with the process of what you’re doing.  If you want to write today – awesome! Write! But if you don’t, that’s okay too. 

Having trouble accessing a wise-minded narrator to respond to that inner monologue? Maybe it’s time to invest in some food old fashioned therapy. I offer free consults, and if I’m not a good fit for you, I’ll help you find someone who is.

Why following through is hard

This week my daughter is out of school on yet another break. I swear she has a full week off of school every other month. Thankfully we’re abroad with this type of schedule because attempting to find childcare or vacation days to cover all of those days would be a nightmare in a place like the US.

Kampala unfortunately does not offer extensive activities for kids to do, so I decided that we would be explorers and set out on a mommy-daughter adventure. We packed our bathing suits and some snacks, downloaded the Frozen 2 soundtrack, booked ourselves in to the ViaVia guesthouse in Entebbe and set off into the great unknown.

This was my vision: We’d arrive at some enchanted forrest, skip through fields of exotic flora and fauna, oo and ah over different bird chirps, chase butterflies, splash through puddles trying to catch lizards, dip ourselves into the pool when the sun got to warm, and obviously end the day with a campfire and some hot cocoa while listening to grasshoppers chirping. Maybe I’d even let her stay up late to look for shooting stars. It was going to be magical.

The reality of this trip, alas, did not quite match the description above. While I do give myself gold stars for doing the trip in the first place AND saying yes to my kiddo more than I said no, I still found myself at my breaking point on more than one occasion.

Like many parents before me, I found myself snapping with an “DO YOU WANT TO GO HOME RIGHT NOW?! WE’LL LEAVE RIGHT NOW IF YOU CAN’T DO WHAT I ASK!!”

Cue face palm and a disappointed sigh. Even when you KNOW what to do, doing the thing doesn’t always come easy.

In my defense, after every snap (in therapy terms – a rupture), we did repair within a few minutes, so on the whole we both had a positive experience. But it happened enough that even my daughter (who is a wizened 5 year old) told me “Mommy, you don’t have to yell. You just need to calm down first and then talk to me”. #kidsoftherapists

A few days ago I wrote about the importance of breath work in battling stress, anxiety, anger and general emotional distress. I am completely and 100% fully on board with using breath as a tool to calm my nervous system. I know the science behind it. I’ve personally experienced improvement in my mood when I do it. It doesn’t even take a long time to incorporate.

And yet, when in the midst of a stress tornado, I let the emotions consume me and I turn into a snarling, grouch monster.

Come on. Do Better.

That’s what I hear in my head after the anger wave has receded. Not only do I allow my emotions to take over, but then my inner critic gets in on the action and throws a few quick jabs. It’s incredibly frustrating, on both fronts.

So what can be done?

In the short term:

  1. Wait til the dust has settled. Sometimes we get hijacked by our emotions and we don’t always feel fully in control. At the first inkling that your hands might be back on the wheel, start taking corrective action.
  2. Breathe breathe breathe. The emotion has likely peaked by this point, so now work on getting yourself back to homeo stasis. Release whatever tensions has been stored up in your muscles.
  3. Scan your thoughts. See if you can reroute any lingering negativity. Now is a great time to practice some CBT thought exercises. Is my daughter REALLY a little demon sent to annoy me? Do I have any evidence that she is doing this on purpose? Or is she just being a 5 year old who has different ideas of what appropriate behavior is? And even if she is intentionally acting like a turd, is it really worth exploding at her? Are there other options for how to react?
  4. Survey the damage/Fix what can be fixed. Take responsibility for your actions. You may be entirely justified in the emotions you’re experiencing, but sometimes actions aren’t always necessary nor are they most conducive to getting what we want. Apologize as needed. I find myself apologizing often to my kiddo and then use the opportunity to explain what was frustrating me about her behavior. She’s usually more receptive to these conversations than if I were to just yell at her and give her the “because I said so” line.

In the long term:

  1. Remind yourself that this is the work. I was listening to a Tim Ferris podcast a couple of years ago of an interview with meditation expert/Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield. Kornfield commented on how the day-to-day living can be just as transformative as doing a 10-day meditation/yoga retreat in some isolate enclave. Kids, family, customer service reps, whomever, can all serve the role of a Zen master teacher, offering you opportunity after opportunity to reflect on how you’re living life.

But what makes it work is that you have that intention, not just to soldier through it, but to say let this be a place where I awaken graciousness, an inner sense of freedom and peace as things come and go, where I awaken the possibility of presence, and pleasure, and pain, and joy, and sorrow, and gain, and loss, and all the changes that I find inviolable, or a timeless place of becoming the loving witness of it all, becoming the loving awareness that says, yeah, now I’m having a family experience. And this is the place to find freedom. Because freedom is not in the Himalayas or in the Amazon. The only place it’s found is in your own heart, exactly where you are.

Jack Kornfield

2. Explore your internal. Behavioral reactions never come out of thin air, regardless of how it may seem. They’re more like the end domino in a long chain of reactions. What was happening internally before your tantrum that may have contributed to your outburst. Were you tired? Hungry? Already feeling stressed out from a morning commute? Did you have negative thoughts about yourself, someone else or the environment bouncing around in your head just prior?

3. Keep practicing. It’s like when you’re learning meditation. Your thoughts wander off and the goal is not to prevent them from wandering off, but just to notice that they’ve gone astray and gently refocus them. When you’re emotions get the best of you, notice what happened that pushed your buttons and gently refocus yourself and nudge yourself back into alignment.

We all have those moments where we act like assholes, but luckily, we aren’t graded on those single moments or single interactions. Instead, we can use these moments to reflect and grow towards a better version of ourselves.

What was a situation in which, despite your best intentions, you let your emotions get away from you? How did you respond?