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How do I really feel? Turning off the inner voices.

Sometimes words are difficult to find, especially when it comes to explaining how you feel. And sometimes, the feeling comes before - and rises above - the words.

I am very guilty of listening to my internal voices, most of them critical. I let them through when I have an idea or make an assertion about myself. I just want to be my own sounding board but I end up criticising myself without being aware of it..

An easy example would be that my hair was looking nice this week. My first thought was to remind myself if I used good quality shampoo, it would always look nice. If I took more time to get ready, it would always look better. If I just generally cared more about my outer appearance, then having nice hair wouldn't be rare.

Do you see it? A flood of little barbs, all aimed at myself. I realised I was far too ready to accept these as truth: I immediately portrayed myself as a lazy woman who wasn't willing to spend time on her appearance. In reality, I am always careful with how I look, even if the look turns out to be rainbow socks and blue shoes.

As for the criticisms, I can't always afford the good shampoo or I use the yucky stuff and let the kids have the nice one. If I took more time to get ready? Well, spending time on myself, it's just not a priority.

And if I cared more about my appearance? There is the crux of this argument. I do care, but it's only appearance. I care more about getting the latest book finished or walking the dog than I care about looking a certain way.

If you dissect your own internal voices you also pull apart some of the reasons why you criticise yourself. It's not easy, though. If you have those voices to begin with then they are well set in place, comfortable in their surroundings; it takes an extra leap to even question what they say. Why should you think of criticising a voice which has always been there?

Except it hasn't always been there, has it? Do you think your five year old self looked in the mirror and said, 'You should try to mix more with the other children, it's your own fault you get left out'? Or did she whisper, from the edge of the door, 'You should be a nicer person and then you wouldn't be afraid to go in the room'.

No, your child self didn't have the same voices but this is where it starts. The little me wanted princess hair when she looked in the mirror but the inner voices were too small to put into words the feelings of being left out in the school playground. The little me wanted to live in a world of magical creatures and spell books, but she couldn't have told you why this was so far removed from the feelings of being hurt and upset by people she loved.

Children learn how to feel before they learn how to explain. They feel sad or bad or upset and then think of what they can do to stop it happening: be nicer, more friendly, quiet, loud, funny - whatever works. They have the feeling and then the action follows the feeling: it's only later that definite thoughts bind the two together.

With age and experience you learn to blame yourself for things which go wrong because what you did seemed to make them wrong and then what you did to fix it had no effect. Children don't automatically consider other people might be to blame for bad feelings or events because children haven't yet considered that other people aren't the same as them.

Once grown, some of the lessons about other people remain only partially learnt: we know they have separate feelings and motivations but these are often inexplicable and knowing something isn't the same as feeling it. So if we know someone has had a horrible day we might sympathise but if that same person verbally slaps us up the side of the head (because of the horrible day) we immediately think they are verbally slapping us upside of the head. Because they are.

We can't process the hard day part along with what happened to us. Mainly because they were just plain old nasty with us so why should we care about their horrible day? Maybe if they were nicer to people instead of verbally slapping, then they wouldn't have such a horrible day in the first place!

On a positive note, if you can learn to question your inner voices and accepted internal statements, you reach a stage where the feelings come first again, without any interruptions. Emotions, good or bad, are freed and by being able to experience them without critical background noise, it becomes possible to untangle those emotions from an adult perspective. Logically, diligently, lovingly, pick apart your feelings and lead yourself back to where they come from. It takes time but it can be done.

If necessary, ask someone else to help you pry them open so you can see what is inside your unexplained emotions. Someone who knows you well but isn't likely to criticise you - very important!

Above all, re-learn the sheer uncomplicated rush of feeling which used to flood through your body when you were small, before you tried to fix things and be the 'right' kind of person. Go back a few steps, see things in a fresh, yet old-fashioned way and give yourself permission to simply feel before you react to the feeling.

It works, readers. And though it can be confusing to allow this feeling without immediately needing to explain or dismiss it, it is a vital step on the road to accepting yourself and demanding that other people do so too.


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