“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
One of my favorite books from high school was The Old Man and the Sea. What struck me at the time about the book was about how the Old Man talked to himself — he used talking to think out loud, and ponder his situation. He talked to the enormous marlin he was trying to land, too. At the time, I thought the Old Man was seriously odd. But over the years, and especially as I do executive coaching, I’ve come to appreciate the value of talking to oneself. Wait — I know what you are thinking! Let me explain.
A piece of my mind, for example, is often turning to what could go wrong in a situation, and I call it Fear. I often get value from inquiring with it to understand exactly what it’s afraid of. Once I’ve done that, I say, wordlessly, “Thank you, Fear. I’ll take it from here.” It’s my way of saying to the part of me that is afraid, to thank it, that it’s done it’s job; it’s alerted my conscious mind to an issue. The neat thing is, when I do it right, I can feel a physical response: a lessening of the pit in my stomach, a relaxing of the shoulder muscles.
That bit of internal talk helps because the fearful part of the brain (the limbic system and the amygdala) needs management. It evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago to help us deal with immediate physical threats to our survival — such as an attack by a predator or hostile tribe. When the fear system senses a threat, it readies our bodies for physical exertion — fight or flight — and skips over and partly disables the conscious part of our brains (we literally become a bit more like dumb brutes when this happens, with lower IQ).
But this fear system is not the right decision maker for 99% of issues we face in modern life. Our challenges are usually interpersonal interactions where we need to use a careful combination of thoughts, words, and emotions to get the result we want — not something where physical strength is useful. That’s why I thank it, and tell it that I (the conscious part of me that is) will take it from here.
My Approach to Executive Coaching
As it turns out, the art and science and talking to those internal voices we all have has something of a following in the world of executive coaching. There’s even a method called “Internal Family Systems theory” dedicated to discerning and benefiting from the different voices we have. (The “internal family” in the name refers to the those internal voices we have.) This theory makes total sense, and I put it to work in my coaching.
My fear circuitry is one of those voices. Creative people are familiar with another voice they hear: a harsh inner critic or judge that never likes their work and discourages their efforts. Successful writers and artists know how to manage it or silence it. Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art does a particularly good job of exploring and defanging this monster. He calls this part of our minds “resistance.”
Bottom line: it’s possible to discern different voices in your head, and sharpen your ability to hear what they are saying. And as you become more able to do this, you will be able to move forward faster.