I have an aunt who is battling Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS attacks the brain-muscle pathways, and one of the things that has begun to fail her is her ability to produce speech — there are muscles involved in speech. Sooner or later the day will come where she will be left mute, able to hear us but able to respond only in her own mind.
This impending involuntary silencing of her physical voice leads me to what I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in recent weeks: the voices that we hear in our own heads, those voices that tell us stories that validate what we do, who we are, the choices we make, our behavior. These voices require no muscles to get their message across: these voices just “are.” And I’ve been wondering, where do they come from? Where’d they get their information? Am I supposed to listen to them? Are they right? But if they’re not right, then what?
Do I listen when those voices say things like, “Ugh, you look like you were ridden hard and put away wet. And worse, you look like after they put you away wet you decided to scarf down a dozen donuts and a milkshake while resting and drying off”? Am I supposed to believe that voice? Or do I believe the one that catches sight of me in a mirror and says, “Damn girl, that’s a good color on you….and what’s going on with your hair? It looks AWESOME!”
Which voice do I believe?
I have a voice that says, “Yikes! Math! I’m terrible at math. Please God, don’t let the kids require my help with anything more difficult than x+6=12, because if it’s up to me to figure out slope, rise, and run, we’re in trouble.” Is that voice true? Because I’ve also got a voice that says, “You are really smart. You can do just about anything, and if you can’t do it I’m sure you can figure it out. You’ve got it together, sister.”
How can they both be true? I better believe the more “realistic” voice (which is obviously the negative one, because who likes a girl that self-centered?).
We’ve all got these voices. They tell us stories about how our kids need us so much that they’d be lost without us and so of course we can’t go away with the husband for a weekend — the kids need us! They tell us stories about how our parents are getting older (not you, Mom) and can’t manage the bills/the shopping/the getting out the way they used to, and so it’s a real shame but we can’t volunteer for that organization because we’re needed elsewhere. These voices have whispered that our child’s teacher is picking on her for being unable to read fluently or write legibly but it’s because she’s a lefty and not because she needs to be evaluated. That teacher doesn’t understand the gifts of our child. The teacher is the issue, not our baby.
If we choose to question those voices, we question our very selves. And if we question ourselves, what if we don’t like what we find? What if it’s not precisely true that the kids would be miserable with a babysitter or grandma or a friend for the weekend? (What if they actually have a blast without you?) What if it’s not entirely accurate that Dad can’t pay bills without you operating the computer for him — did you ever let him do it himself? What if that little girl who’s struggling to be literate would benefit from an intervention of some kind….then what? Are you a neglectful parent? Or just blindly naïve?
How scary is it to think that my version of “me” isn’t entirely accurate?
I don’t want to lay blame for my inner voices at someone else’s feet. There’s too much dodging of responsibility going around these days anyway. It’s not Grandma’s fault or Dad’s fault or Sister Mary Angelica’s fault or my grade school best friend’s fault that I feel stupid or ugly or indespensible or controlling or naïve. Somewhere I heard a voice whisper something like that and I believed it. And lo, these many years later, I can show you evidence to support all of those things that my voices have me believe.
Shouldn’t I be able to believe the “nicer” voices? The ones that say I’ve got my act together, that I am intelligent, that my children are fine without me, that I’m wise to operate in the world with an assumption that I don’t have to control it all?
I don’t have the answer; this is something that I’ve been thinking about more and more. Is there a way that I can model my inner voice so that my children can understand the kinds of messages we get from our own selves? So that they can see that we can choose to accept or reject the message? That our behavior isn’t justified by any one story we’ve told ourselves? Can I make my “innie” an “outie?” (Or is this one more thing they’ll pretend to listen to and then say, “What? I didn’t hear what you said,” 25 seconds after I’ve said it four times over.) As my children grow and they become more independent every day, I have to be content that we’ve laid the appropriate groundwork for good decision making — and we have to be hopeful that the voices they hear are accurate and insightful and wise. (And until they start therapy, I guess we won’t know how truly well or poorly we did.)