Dear Self, Please Shut Up

I think it’s time we talk about the voices in your head. Everyone has a voice in their head. If you think you’re the exception, then a little voice in your head probably just said something like, “Pfffff. I do not have a voice in my head. Only crazy people have voices in their heads.”

See? Everyone has one.

It’s important to acknowledge the voice in your head. Give it a name if it’s helpful. Arianna Huffington refers to hers as her “noisy roommate.” Sometimes I call mine Debbie Downer or my bitch radio. 

I love the term Debbie Downer because the voice can be such a buzzkill. It’s a second-guessing, critical, backseat-driving, constant companion who analyzes every decision I make and action I take—past, present, and future. It’s relentless, judgmental, competitive, what-if-ing and worst-case-scenario-ing. 

All day, every day.

Sure, sometimes the voice is nice (“Good job redecorating the family room!”), but my research shows that 78 percent of the time, the voice in a mother’s head is very critical and cruel, judging her every move.

Thankfully, most people’s Debbie Downer doesn’t berate them at the same volume throughout the day. The voice might be an annoying whisper on some occasions, but a loud, grating whine at others.

It turns up the sound in scenarios where you feel the least confident or the most unworthy.

Perhaps your mean inner voice shows up more frequently when you’re at work: How can you not figure out this project? Most people could do it in their sleep. Maybe it lingers when you’re with your children: You were late to the field trip? Again? Or maybe Debbie Downer has become a third wheel in your marriage: every other wife makes her husband dinner, and lets him play golf on the weekend. You’ll be lucky if you’re still married to this man six months from now.

It’s cruel and unusual punishment, if you ask me.

I’m intimately familiar with little Miss Debbie. Her voice has ebbed and flowed throughout my life. At different points in time, she has not-so-subtly suggested that I’m a terrible mother, wife, friend, sister, daughter, employee, boss, exerciser, pen pal, organizer, etc.

Okay, that last one is not true. I’m a fantastic organizer—a real neat freak. And she knows it.

Anyway, right now, my Debbie Downer loves to shut me down on the tennis court. When my opponent walks onto the court, Debbie pipes up: good luck beating her. She looks like a player—unlike you. And she certainly doesn’t have a muffin top hanging over her skirt.

And when I make a mistake, Debbie is just plain ugly: nice one. It’s a miracle the club lets you keep your membership. Even when I play well, she’s cruelly sarcastic: oh, wow. Look at you playing tennis.

I’ve been playing competitive tennis for a few years, and I’ve never been able to shut Debbie up. She’s just so quick. She starts insulting me, before I even start playing. Pre-match, without fail, when my opponent politely asks, “Would you like to back up to the baseline and warm up?” Debbie Downer pipes up and says, no, I’m not ready, because I don’t know how to play tennis.

Nothing says, “I’m ready to win” like, “I can’t play.”

All this horrible self-talk rages in my head like a wrecking ball on steroids, preventing me from paying attention to the match, which I made time to accommodate.

Sometimes the self-talk gets so loud and distracting that I can’t remember the match’s score, which I’m supposed to call out before I serve.

Opponent: What’s the score?

Me: Huh?

Opponent: The score?

Me: I have no idea.

Opponent: Awesome.

This dynamic has brought a whole new meaning to “not having your head in the game.”

When do you find your inner Debbie Downer to be the meanest? Is it at work, in the carpool loop, at church? Or during your morning commute, while you’re getting ready for date night, when you’re exhausted? Or when you’re with your exercise buddies, boss, or sister-in-law? 

Awareness is half the battle. The other half is choosing whether to listen to her or not.

When Debbie Downer is the meanest, we don’t tell her to shut the hell up. We listen. We believe and trust her. 

I spent 20 years not only listening to the voice in my head, but kneeling at her altar. I hung onto her every word, believed every sentiment. I even trusted the voice. Eventually, I lived in fear of disappointing her.

While I haven’t gotten my own Debbie Downer to completely shut up, I have managed to teach her some manners and put her in her place. A few tips have helped tremendously; here are a few of them:

  1. Remember that you are not the voice in your head. The voice in your head is a dramatic interpretation of what’s going on in your life—as told by your fragile ego. It’s not you. It’s a story with a plot created in your mind, overdramatized by ego, and fueled by high expectations.
  2. Set more realistic expectations. The reason your inner voice is attacking you, is because you’ve set sky-high expectations for yourself. So when you inevitably fall short, she starts in, saying I told you so. The end result of having more realistic expectations will be a happier you. And a much quieter Debbie Downer.
  3. When you hear it, simply acknowledge it. When you hear the voice in your head adding toxic color commentary to whatever you’re doing, pause for a second and in the most neutral, least judgmental tone you can muster—simply acknowledge it’s happening. Not, here we go again! Just, It’s happening. If you’re aware of the voice in your head, when you acknowledge that it’s there, separate from you, then it can’t control you.
  4. Imagine the voice is a real person. Imagine a flesh-and-blood woman named Debbie saying the degrading things your inner Debbie Downer says to you: The Johnsons hosted you at their beach house a month ago and you still haven’t written a thank-you note? Great job. You’d never tolerate someone talking to you that way!

Nobody can solve this problem for you, because nobody hears the voice except you.

Deep down, you know that what Debbie’s saying isn’t true. You’re just having a hard time remembering it, because the mean voice has been so vocal for so long. After hearing my own inner voice for 20 years and having heard thousands of mothers discuss their own, there’s one thing I know for sure: just because you can hear the voice, doesn’t mean you have to listen.

Katherine Wintsch