As we pursue the hard work of wrestling deeply with our own stories, we come face to face with internal voices of condemnation and shame. Here, Charlie Howell, a third-year MA in Counseling Psychology student, writes about his own recent confrontation with those voices, and his deepening understanding of how they developed and how they impact him today.
Barn’s burnt down
I can see the moon.
A few months ago I surprised myself. I was sitting around the living room watching football with my roommate, Beau, when I said something in response to the TV. I have no idea now what it is that I said—though it was probably something vulgar.
To be honest, the actual words seem to matter little, rather, I was surprised because the words I’d just spoken didn’t sound like my own. Like the syllables were somehow separate from my body.
Through some soul searching, I’ve come to believe that in this moment I was speaking with something other than my own voice. My words felt separate because they were. They were the voice of another.
I could probably spend hours processing whose voice had replaced my own that day. But what seems more important is acknowledging how often it is our stories, our attachment figures, and our greatest trauma that give rise to our loudest voices—voices that overcome the voice that is our own.
For unrelated reasons, in the weeks following I found myself in a swirl of brutal, annihilating self-talk. It felt as though my brain was trying to destroy itself with words of self doubt and utter disdain. And then I began to see, here was another voice, this time internal, that spoke in my tone but sounded nothing like me.
Who could this be screaming out with such anger and contempt?
In the aftermath of this epiphany, I’ve become certain of the importance of acknowledging the voices that are not our own. Far too often those voices are not kind and they are not tender. Too often, those voices do not know us but have still come to define us.
I see it all the time in my work with clients at my internship site. I hear the cruel, painful voice of anger and shame and I wonder, who has spoken to you this way that you have come to speak of yourself and others like this? I wonder, who is it that has hurt you so?
What makes combating such voices of hostility so difficult is there is something inherently safe in a story we know well. Anger or disgust helps us order our existence in a way that brings some sense of control in a scary, dangerous world. It’s easier to speak out with brutality before someone else can do it for us.
Yet, so much is lost when we speak to and of ourselves with inauthentic voices. In my own life, I’ve discovered that my natural excitability and goofiness become muted when the voices of my past speak at their loudest.
Something of my tenderness is lost when my voice is not my own.
The reason I love the Masahide poem above (other than it so succinctly describes the experience of being a Seattle School student) is because it simultaneously acknowledges all that is lost when old forms of being are torn down and all that is gained when a new perspective is allowed to shine through. Because there is something lost, something risked, when we live into a voice that is truly our own.
What is burned down must be acknowledged even as the fire gives way to something new.
This is why I think the work we do as pastors and counselors and leaders is so important—because there are so many who need help witnessing and releasing the internal voices bent on harming the self. They need someone to walk with them during the painful process of discovering the true voice within.
And this is why we battle on: because the voices of shame and self-contempt cannot win if the suffering ones are to be redeemed—if we are all to be redeemed.