Recently, I came to a startling recognition: I have a somewhat inconsistent view about life choices. On the one hand, I have railed against succumbing to the voice in one’s head so many times that I cannot account for them all. Yet, on the other, I have also said that my life transformed and became much happier when I started to listen to that little whisper inside that told me to try something new. A few weeks ago, it came to me in a flash that perhaps I was speaking out of both sides of my mouth on this one. How could one both ditch the voice in one’s head and yet feel compelled to listen to it to follow one’s bliss?
For me, this flash revealed a paradox more than a cognitive dissonance. I knew from experience that both things were true. The trouble was, though, that I couldn’t quite distill the factors that made them both true. So, I left the question open for a while and sat with it for a few weeks. Ultimately, I concluded that the answer had been staring me in the face all along: life experience was the only real way to tell the difference between the voices in one’s head because experience tells us not just how those voices manifest and feel but also shows us the results of heeding them.
Experience has told me that I have more than one kind of inner voice: the doubt voice and the childlike urge to explore. My doubt voice usually appears in the form of words. It is like a parent that comes to keep me safe and in line. It tries to present itself as the voice of reason but can quickly become abusive at the slightest hint that I may ignore it. The other voice, however, usually isn’t a voice at all. It rarely manifests for me as anything so organized as a sentence. At most, I might get a single word that echoes in my mind for too long. More often, though, I get a sense—just a sense—that I want to try something. It’s like the urge to touch a soft fuzzy blanket just to see what it feels like. If it lasts long enough, my mind may start to offer scenes and imaginings of how this newfangled idea might work. Sometimes my doubt voice may push the idea away as irrational or impractical, but the most powerful ideas come back to me repeatedly when my mind relaxes when I am driving, or exercising, or meditating.
Following the divergent paths my inner voices have offered has produced insights too. The doubt voice invariably tells me to take the road more traveled. In some cases, there is an initial sense of relief when I have decided to let an idea go. What ultimately caused me to stop listening to this voice every time, however, was the recognition that listening to it often led me not to feel safe, but instead cloistered and stuck. Where the voice told me staying with the familiar would help me feel secure, it regularly left me feeling insecure because I kept failing to trust myself. On the other hand, following the childlike urge to explore usually felt more like play. Most of the time I have followed this voice, I would think “I have no idea what I’m doing or why I’m doing it.” I can’t say that this necessarily felt good. In many cases, it felt bad as I worked to create or try something new while my doubt voice stormed in the background of my mind. But the thing was that I didn’t care. It was like I knew I would be proud of myself just for trying even if whatever I did was a total failure and a waste of time.
Unfortunately, I can’t offer anyone a line in the sand that can tell you which inner voice to listen to at any given moment in your life. I can say, however, that awareness of those voices, including how they feel and where they lead, can provide the experience needed to distinguish between the two (or more) inner voices for yourself. A sense of balance and proportion may also serve as a guiding principle for many of us. Lawyers often find themselves guided by the voice of doubt since it is so closely associated with the logic that is our stock and trade. We may, therefore, benefit from time to time in letting another part of our selves take the reins and following those less rational and teleological notions to explore, experiment, and create.
Ultimately, though, the desire to really know the difference between the voices in our head and to have unshakable confidence that we are listening to “the right one” may point to something more fundamental: the reality that we can’t predict the future or totally control our lives. Noting the differences between our inner voices may give us signs to help us make decisions in life, but eventually we just have to let go and give ourselves the grace to make mistakes. Thus, while it may be a challenge to have these competing voices in our heads pulling us in opposite directions, it is not entirely a bad thing.
When we listen to our childlike voice and seek adventure, we may find challenges and a life we never imagined. When those choices lead to mistakes and mishaps, and you can bet that they will, our inner voice of reason may offer us a path to safety and security so that we can heal and recover until we are ready for adventure once again. Perhaps, then, these varying inner voices don’t represent a cognitive dissonance or a fracturing of our psyche at all. Instead, they may just represent the fact that a complete life has many facets and many seasons. In the end, it may not be so important to know which inner voice to listen to in any given moment, as much as it matters that we listen to our inner voices at all.