Since moving into the city, I’ve spent more time alone than I have for many years — in part because I’m just so busy and don’t have time to meet friends. But it’s created an interesting situation: I can hear my own inner dialog more clearly, and more often, than I’ve been able to in the past.
You probably know what I mean. I was wondering whether to call it an internal monologue, but I think there are two voices. One is the internalized voice of society, by which I mean everyone outside yourself. The voices of your parents figure in it prominently, but there are also the voices of friends, teachers and others in authority, and of course the media. That voice speaks as one, but it’s made up of all those different voices: it exists where they intersect. So if your mother told you that you are overweight, and that’s the message you received from your friends, and the images in magazines imply the same thing, guess what that voice is going to tell you? That you’re overweight, of course.
I’ll call it the Critical Voice, because what we internalize most often is criticism. The voice speaking in response is the Responsive Voice. It’s our inner self responding to that voice. It usually responds, rather than speaking on its own initiative, although I’m beginning to think it should.
I’ll tell you about a conversation I once had with my mother, which will indicate what sort of Critical Voice I have. The conversation took place about three years ago, in a train from Budapest to the town of Szántód, by Lake Balaton. It was a rickety old train, moving along old tracks through farmland. My mother was sitting on one side of the compartment, and I was sitting on the other. Ophelia was asleep, I think on my lap. My mother looked at her and said, “Ophelia looks like me.” She paused a minute and then added, “She’s a pretty girl. Sometimes these things skip a generation.”
I laughed and said to her, “Do you realize you just implied that I’m not pretty?” I laughed because that was of course the message I’d gotten most of my childhood. It was a deliberate message: my mother made clear to me, years later, that she had wanted to make sure I did not think being pretty was important, that I learned to rely on my brains and education. She did not believe in telling girls that they were pretty. It was bad for them. This, by the way, is something I find very Eastern European. There is a belief, among Eastern European parents, that praising children is bad for them. Notice that my mother only remarked on Ophelia’s prettiness while she was asleep.
Sitting in the train, she replied, “You’re pretty in a different way. You look like your father.” Which again made my laugh, since at that point she had not spoken to my father in twenty years. I took after that side of the family.
The things we hear, particularly from parents but also from society as a whole, forms the Critical Voice. Even when we don’t hear it, it’s there, telling us what it thinks of us, our plans, our ambitions. I can hear it more clearly now, and you know what? It’s wrong.
I think what I need to do is turn my Responsive Voice into something stronger. I need to let it speak first, let it indicate what my inner self needs and desires. Then the Critical Voice can respond, but the Responsive Voice (which I should perhaps call the Desiring Voice) can dismiss its criticism. It can say, you’re too late. I’ve already decided what I want to do. (Maybe it can become a Decisive Voice. Whatever I call it, I want it to speak — not just respond.)
Being able to hear that Critical Voice has made me so much more conscious of how much it’s there, and how much it says about what I am not and what I should not do. I want to start talking about what I am and what I should do instead. (Maybe I should call that inner voice the Affirming Voice.) It will continue to be a dialog: both voice will always be there. It’s just a matter of which one I listen to, which one I take more seriously.