In the weeks leading up to the end of 2017, my older daughter was busy with college applications. She wanted to “go away” to study, and in an impressive display of maturity and planning ahead, she had done her research, selected the schools in North America that she felt fit her requirements, and set about completing the applications. She had some discussions with her dad about school choices, and she asked the family to read and critique her college essays, but other than that she did everything else on her own….while also doing her sixth form work, and a part time job that she started over the summer, and carried over for a few weeks into the Christmas term. I was and still am very impressed with the way she went about the whole process: focused, breaking down the project into smaller manageable steps, and successfully executing each one.
About an hour before midnight on December 31, 2017, she was all done with the submissions for the US colleges, and I thought we were on target to ringing in 2018 in style by watching the fireworks from my mother’s house. As we walked up to my mother’s house, she seemed a little withdrawn and just a tiny bit morose, but I put it down to the fact that none of the friends she had invited to come over to watch fireworks were able to come because they were all still working on their own college applications. I tried to be understanding, and allow her the space to feel a little disappointed if she wanted to. So you can imagine the force with which my jaw hit the ground when she burst into tears in her grandmother’s embrace, minutes after we stepped into the house…
Between sobs and tears, my bright, responsible, organised articulate daughter shares with me that she feels like a failure, can’t get anything right and does not know how she would manage on her own if she did go away to college and had to be responsible for her own food, laundry, shopping etcetera. This from a child who was using words like “toxic” and “stable” (to mean steady, not an equine residence) correctly before age 3 years, and had read the entire Harry Potter series before she reached sixth grade, and was planning and cooking meals for the family by second form, and was the only one of her family to complete the rope challenge at the Suncoast Park, that ended with a zip line ride. This child who pretty much on her own just completed all the many steps required for college applications in the USA, was now, through a Niagara fall of tears and snot, telling me that she thinks she is a failure.
In between hugs, head stroking, vigorous blowing of noses, and tears of my own, I managed to remind her of all the ways in which she was a success, and that she should not be giving those negative voices in her head so much valuable air time. Thankfully, we were able to ring in 2018 in a reasonably dry and tear free state, but the encounter got me thinking about how much our mental health depends on the voices to which we give air time.
None of us can really control the thoughts that pop in and out of our heads. The ones that end up staying for a long visit are the ones that make up the committee of voices that determine our state of mind, and ultimately our mental health. As with most things in life, the loudest voices are the ones that will get heard. One of the things that can affect the volume of our internal voices is the volume of the daily external voices we hear. If from childhood we hear our caregivers say “you are wanted/precious/beautiful/amazing” that will become one of the louder voices in our heads. If what we hear from the caregivers is “you are a burden/unwanted/pure trouble/worthless” then that voice is the one we hear in the background whenever there are decisions to be made. Therefore any adult who has to interact with a child on a regular basis has the enormous power to help that child create a loud positive internal voice. That voice can speak as simply as that of Aibilene (the maid) saying to Mae (the little child) in The Help “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Very young children do not have much control over what they hear from the adults around them, so, it really is more a matter of luck whether those external voices are a force for good or evil. We cannot control what we heard as little children growing up.
By about age 2-3 years and onwards, we all begin to appreciate the concept of choice, and free will. We learn the word “no” and we learn to deliberately express a preference for one option over another. The ultimate recognition of the power of that free will is to appreciate that although we cannot control the thoughts that pop in and out , we do have the free will to choose which ones we invite to become part of our internal voices committee, and sometimes, which ones we have entertained for long enough, and now need to drop from that committee. Exercising our freedom to choose allows us to transform the loud “no you cannot” voices into even more powerful “yes you can” voices. Free will and choice allows us to build on or mitigate the voices that got established in our heads from childhood. The other good thing about free will is that it has no expiry date. You can exercise it at any age, from 7 to 17 to 77 years.
By the time we are teenagers, heading into adulthood, one of the most important life skills to have acquired is how to exercise that power over our thoughts, so that we can establish a constructive, encouraging, self affirming and reassuring collection of voices that remind us that trying our best is as important as succeeding, that we are in fact more capable than we dare imagine, and that we are all good enough. The thoughts you give voice to in your head are in fact the ones that will produce your reality…So you need to choose carefully and consciously.
In days gone by, I too had voices that told me I was responsible for sorrows that were really not of my making, nor in my control to prevent. There were voices that constantly questioned my ability or capability to be a good daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother and a doctor. They made me feel like a failure, even in the face of objective evidence to the contrary. When I drop my guard, these voices try to creep back in, and sometimes I do listen because occasionally they provide some insight into how I might improve myself.
But today, these voices only make brief guest appearances at the voices-in-my-head summits, and are no longer allowed to take over the meeting. Those summits are now controlled by the voices that I have consciously chosen to listen to, such as the voice of my mother telling me that giving up is not an option and the voice of my father saying look deeper than the surface so you can see more than just your reflection. I listen to the voice of my grandmother telling me I am special, and my sister’s voice telling me take time to put on my own oxygen mask before helping others. Also loud and clear is the voice of my husband (who has seen me at my worst, and is not genetically required to love me like my family of birth) telling me that I don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love, and my children’s voices telling me that I am a good mummy even though I get cranky, and say “no” a lot. In addition, I have also given positions on that same committee to the voices of my sistren (from high school days and early work) who remind me daily that “I will survive” and “to live in faith not fear” and that there is nobody else quite like me in this world. There is the voice of my high school biology teacher reminding me to “listen to the dull and ignorant they too have their story ”. Also on the committee is my high school Christian Living teacher’s voice, reminding me to “stand up straight” every time I hear the first notes of our National Anthem, but more importantly, reciting the serenity prayer to guide me in making hard decisions. These are just some of the voices that I have chosen to direct the flow of thoughts that will create the reality I want for myself. It changes everything. What voices will you choose?