It can be hard to hear yourself – your thoughts and emotions – and to really accept what it is that you hear them say. There is a cacophonous chorus in everyone’s head, making it so hard to single out that one tiny voice belonging to yourself. Voices merge until we believe they are all our own. And, in a way, they are because they are shaped by our previous experiences and voices we have heard in the past. The chorus is singing from the book of our experiences, unfortunately, each member is not always singing the same line or verse.
It starts early (and with the best of intentions) when we hear our parents tell us you can do it or try a bit more or watch out! The voice gets more worried as we age, CAREFUL!, it shouts. Danger! it frets. I love you it soothes. The duet and the trio sings the same songs because when we’re children research has shown that we don’t really see ourselves as different or separate from our parents.
Then, gradually, we hear our friends’ voices start to overshadow our parents voices just one, they coax. That’s so lame, they warn. You fit in, they promise. We start to realize that we’re separate from our parents and to define ourselves not in relation to them, but in opposition. I’ll never be like you, says the emotion minded teenager, irrationally believing that their parents couldn’t possibly have anything worth emulating about them. We reject their voices and try to drown them out with the chorus of our peers.
The hope of all parents is that the love and the warning that they still repeat in the background (and that they implanted earlier) are strong enough and deep enough to carry through the willful rejection of the teenage years.
That the biology that we’re born with and develop over time allows us to survive all those competing voices to find our own path. The human brain is an amazing organ but I’ve often thought it develops in some unfortunate ways. Just as teenagers are rejecting the moderating voices of their parents, their brain is undergoing a radical renovation – eliminating as many as 50% of the synaptic connections in some parts. Which ones get pruned is influenced by experiences and hormones. At the same time, the speed of information processing is sped up by a process called myelination, which is too complicated to get into here. This biology helps explain why our emotion mind is SO loud and SO unpredictable during adolescence. The emotional synapses are being pruned, but haven’t reached adult levels, while the speed of information is increasing. More stimulus is being taken in rocketing around faster than ever before, but we haven’t pruned enough to reduce our subjectivity to emotions. On top of this, the brain is an immensely complicated organ, governed by the kinds and amounts of hormones that get released at any time, which is again a product of both nature (genetics) and nurture (experiences causing more of one hormone than another over time, developing a habit of release, or lack thereof, of that hormone).
That previous paragraph is a WILDLY simplified description of adolescence from a neurological standpoint. It’s explained in detail in Dr. Linda Patia Spear’s paper, Adolescent Neurodevelopment. J Adolesc Health. 2013 Feb; 52(2 0 2): S7–13.
By the time we’re adults, the pruning and the development have shaped the very structure of our brains in response to the events and relationships we have and the voices we’ve heard throughout our growth. Our very personalities then, are a product of the relationship between our brain’s physical development and our environment while it’s developing. We are literally shaped by the voices we have heard. Our brain has habits of hormone release shaped by experiences and genetics, which further alter its pathways as we age.
The point of this, then is to recognize that your authentic voice, your emotions and your stories are formed in relationship to others and by the very specific individual biological setting in which they are received. We can’t control much of that process and have to make the best of who and where we are at any given time in our life. This is a core tenant of DBT and my work as a therapist. I believe that everyone is doing the best that they can with their given circumstances (biology, experiences, and skills) at any given time.
SO, why the focus on hearing yourself over the other voices if they’re all a part of you? What’s the point of learning, if you’re already doing the best that you can? I think we can always do better. We can always learn new skills to help manage our instinctive responses. We can work to balance our impulses with reason. We can work to distinguish the voices that love us and help us from the voices that urge harmful behaviors or choices. We can find the voices that lead us to feel good and steer away from the ones that urge us to harm.