Do you relate with the sensation of excitedly treating yourself to ice cream while simultaneously feeling guilty for it? Or maybe you know what it’s like to say no to a family obligation while also feeling irresponsible about it. Maybe you put your whole self into being competent at your job but you also experience self doubt about whether you’re doing enough.
These are completely normal and human experiences.
One key element of human experience that is rarely acknowledged in daily interaction is the inner dialogue constantly occurring in each of our minds.
Typically in our culture we presume that each human has a singular thought at any given moment. We are one person, and therefore our thoughts must sound like a monologue in our mind.
However, with a bit of self-awareness it becomes apparent that our mind has several sub-personalities represented within it, and they are constantly interacting with each other. In therapy, we refer to these various sub-personalities as “parts” of ourselves.
What does this mean?
Often when clients first become aware of various voices participating in their minds, they can grow alarmed that this may be unhealthy or abnormal. I’ve heard people express concern that this may be a sign of a serious mental health diagnosis.
To differentiate: when we are aware of various voices in our minds that clearly originate within ourselves, this is part of healthy human experience. In contrast, when we experience some of those voices as originating from outside of ourselves, then it’s important to seek evaluation for what physical, psychological, or potentially substance-induced factors may be contributing to this type of disconnection from reality.
Our internal dialogues can become unhealthy
There’s a lot of power in simply observing the various parts of ourselves that participate in our internal dialogue. By normalizing this internal process, the lines of communication within ourselves and with others can really open up. When a loved one asks if we want to get ice cream, we can share a fuller experience: “Part of me really wants to enjoy the ice cream while another part of me really wants to prioritize my health.”
The parts of ourselves co-existing within our minds are subject to all of the same relationship dynamics that can play out between two people or groups of people. Though it’s possible for the various parts of ourselves to get along with each other, it’s also not uncommon for people to experience their internal dialogue as harmful or even abusive.
As a therapist, whenever a client says they experience self-doubt, self-hatred, or other harmful thoughts towards themselves, I’m usually quick to seek out what kinds of voices are playing out in their minds. This isn’t very different than if someone came into therapy saying they had difficulty trusting their partner or interacting with their unruly child. I want to know more about what the individual’s loved ones are like and how they experience them. It’s for this reason that therapists who work with these internal parts of the self refer to this type of work as Internal Family Systems – it’s family therapy for the little family living in our brain!
Integrating our internal voices into a whole self
So what do you do to help all these voices in your mind get along better?
First, it’s helpful to observe what primary voices you’re aware of within your mind. There are often quite a few, but there are usually about two to four distinct voices that are most prominent. When you feel tension or self-doubt, try to observe who may contributing to your internal conversation.
Once you observe the main parts of you that are present, it can be helpful to name them according to their “personality.” There may be a “nurturer,” a “parent,” an “inner child,” etc. Some of the internal voices may sound similar to someone you know in real life. Feel free to name these internal parts according to how you best connect with them. If one of them sounds like your mom, you can call it the “mom” voice. Pick names that make sense to you, while avoiding anything that may sound like put-downs such as “weak.”
Once we know these main voices and have named them, it’s important to note that none of these voices are inherently bad. There may be an imbalance or an unhealthy dynamic at play, but we ultimately want to help all of these voices get along. If we tried to get rid of a voice, we would be getting rid of a part of you, and that would only be more harmful.
Next, the journey towards growth can expand beyond the scope of this post. You may need help from others to help you identify what kinds of internal dynamics are potentially harmful. Often we are so used to what our internal dialogue sounds like that we don’t even notice when things are harmful to us. It’s also possible that some important parts of you have gotten shoved far enough into a corner that you didn’t even realize they were there. For those experiencing harmful thoughts towards themselves, it’s not uncommon that a more loving or nurturing part of themselves has been practically silenced and needs to be invited back into the conversation – sometimes for the first time in a while.
Of course, as you get to know your internal dialogue better you may encounter difficulties or pain. You may even encounter abusive thoughts towards yourself. If this comes up for you, please don’t attempt to navigate this on your own. Find loved ones to support you and seek professional help if you need to.
You may also appreciate my video on an internal family systems practice to help you be more at peace:
This blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.
Until next time, have fun getting to know the different parts of yourself!