I have so much to do … Why have I been so lazy? This situation is the worst thing ever—no good can come of it. Why did I say that stupid thing to that new colleague? She looked so uncomfortable after I spoke to her! Why can’t I ever remember people’s names? Did the dog get fed? I wonder what my boss will need today. I hope it isn’t raining out because my hair will be a mess. I can be such an idiot. Did I pay the electric bill? Sometimes—and perhaps all day long—thoughts like these can stream nonstop through your mind. This loud internal dialogue can become a larger part of your experience than whom you’re with, what you’re doing, and what your senses are delivering to you.
For decades, my internal chatterbox showed up as a bully hurling insults. It’s a wonder I actually functioned out in the world. It took tremendous energy to present myself as a competent, confident person while I carried around this unrelenting internal bully, and I was exhausted. I feared that at any moment someone would discover just how messed up I was underneath the smiling and kind person I worked to be on the outside. I lived anxiously and on guard, trying to place the bully in the basement storage locker of my psyche. Yet because I was so cautious and fearful, what I actually stuffed in there were my hopes, wishes, and deepest desires. Meanwhile, the bully ran wild inside me.
Maybe you also have an internal bully who makes you feel like you aren’t good enough, or maybe in your case, it’s a chatterbox who nags you about every little thing?
The bothersome inner voice might be an anxious worrier, who reminds you of every bad thing that could happen in even the happiest situation, or this voice may be self-pitying or martyr-like. For some of you, it’s an over-thinker who must explore everything from multiple angles, even if you’re trying to sleep or complete a task. For many people, the inner voice is a mix of many of these. Maybe you wish, as I did, that there was a way to take a vacation from the activity in your mind that makes it difficult to focus on things you need to do.
What if, instead, our inner voice could just be noticed, like we lightly notice the sound of popcorn popping? What if we could cultivate a “fly on the wall”?
Usually, we use this phrase in reference to the fly watching someone else’s life. For example, we might say, “I wish I could be a fly on the wall when the coach talks to the team at halftime.” Imagine if the fly on the wall could be that voyeur inside of you who gets to watch all that you are doing and thinking, such as the chattering voice inside your head bothering you about thank-you notes when you’re trying to listen to a friend, or shaming you even as you make people laugh and break tension in a room.
Your fly on the wall could begin to watch you and your life like a movie, observing you silently and without judgment to see what unfolds and what might happen next. This fly on the wall could lay the groundwork for self-awareness. Sometimes the first realization the fly on the wall lends us is that our internal bully or chattering mind has a whole lot to say—and often we are responding more to those nasty or relentless thoughts than to what’s unfolding right in front of us.
In graduate school, my internal bully became powerful and mean. I began therapy and found that it helped immensely to repeat the words of my bully to the therapist, who helped me recognize that these were other people’s hurtful and cruel words, many of which I had heard in an abusive home while I was young, being recycled in my psyche. Separating these voices in my mind from my own voice became a long-term journey. I was young and just beginning the process of dealing with my internal bully; over the years, various life events and personal actions would cause it to get louder and more persistent.
You may be able to trace some of your toxic chatter back to interactions with people who weren’t kind to you, or who had their own problematic ways of thinking that they said out loud. You may have internalized their words and begun thinking them yourself. It can help you to listen to your thoughts and ask yourself whether these thoughts are actually yours and where the words or the underlying beliefs might have originated.
Being a parent of young children activated even deeper issues for me. I found myself caught in an anger-shame cycle that I needed to interrupt. I began bodywork therapy to help release the chattering bully and the traumas of my past. When I felt especially frustrated, I learned to place myself in a “time out” to let myself experience the pain in a safe way that did not harm my children. Eventually, over several months of therapeutic work and practices, the cruel bully went silent. The chatter in my mind continued on, mostly in the form of an anxious worrier.
When my son started kindergarten, I began taking yoga classes and dabbled with different types of meditation. Yoga helped me focus on my body sensations and my senses. I also loved listening to the sweet and soothing voice of our yoga teacher. I found that guided meditations also supported me because I could focus on the voice of the person speaking. After years of practicing both yoga and meditation, I can now find quiet in my mind and drop into a state of mental silence for a few moments.
During this time period, inner calmness began to be a place I could access relatively easily and stick with longer. I could be fully in the moment, actively listening to my children, feeling the water on my hands as I washed dishes, smelling the soap, and seeing the suds as fluffy beautiful clouds. When I slipped out of the moment, my children were wonderful at interrupting my stream of thoughts. I remember a car ride with my daughter when she was talking to me from the back seat. “Mom, are you actually listening to me or are you listening to the thoughts in your head?” That pulled me right into the moment because I had not, in fact, been listening to her. “No, I wasn’t listening to you. I’m sorry. Yes. I was listening to the blabbering chatter in my head. I can listen now.” It can be useful to find ways to interrupt our patterns of getting swept away by our internal voices, as well as to give others permission to be honest with us if they don’t think we are listening.