Did you know no one is born with the fear of spiders or snakes? We learn to fear them by seeing fear reflected in the faces of others, or hearing fear in their voices.
However, research has shown that there is a genetic component. We are biased towards learning to fear spiders and snakes, and we are not biased towards learning to fear flowers or frogs. So we learn to fear snakes faster, and the fear goes deeper.
But it’s actually possible to grow up without a fear of snakes or spiders if you never learn it from others. (I did.) And it’s certainly possible to learn to be unafraid of spiders or snakes as an adult.
Fear isn’t the only thing that gets passed down through the generations. Trauma, sickness and other emotional responses can also get passed down. And of course, we are biased to react more strongly to some types of trauma or sickness than others. Unfortunately, those biases reflect a world that human beings evolved into over thousands of years, but we haven’t lived in that ancient world for the last several generations.
And there is a further problem. You might not even be aware that the trauma, the sickness got passed down, and the person who passed it down to you might not be aware either. I mean, do you remember when you learned to fear snakes? Probably not. I doubt you remember how you learned to talk, either. You just kind of picked it up.
In the same way, you just kind of pick up your ancestors’ traumas and sicknesses. And to you, it just seems “normal.”
Until it doesn’t.
Until you start having nightmares and you can’t figure out where they are coming from. Until the anxiety attacks start. Until you are depressed all the time and you have no idea why.
Yes, sometimes you can locate the cause in your own life or even your own genetic makeup. But other times, no matter how hard you look, you don’t find it.
When you can’t find the cause, consider the possibility that it’s been passed down to you, just like the fear of snakes has. And what then?
Here is what I did. It worked for me. Maybe it will work for you.
I don’t know how else to phrase this. I had to turn my “ghosts” into “ancestors.” And the way I did that was, first, to recognize that all of the various voices in my head represent real people. Second, I had to learn the stories behind those voices. And finally, I had to speak directly with the real people behind those voices, even if they were dead.
Here is an interesting example. I do prison ministry, and I also have a dance church, “Fear No Evil”. One time when I ministered at the women’s prison, they asked me to dance after finding out about Fear No Evil. I said no. But I promised that I’d do it next time. (Then, I promptly forgot that I ever made that promise.)
The next time I showed up at the prison, they asked me to dance again. I said no, I’d do it next time. Well, I had forgotten my promise, but they hadn’t. They reminded me. One of them said, “No Lauren, you said…” in a very memorable tone of voice.
A few months later, I was deciding whether to play video games or get some work done. I promised myself that if I got everything done I could play video games tomorrow. When tomorrow came, I tried to make the same promise again. And then I heard that voice in my head, “No Lauren, you said…”
It was the same words. And it was the same tone of voice. It was her. The woman from the prison.
So that’s how easy it is for someone else’s voice to be added to the group of voices you hear in your head when you think about things, when you talk to yourself, when you try to make decisions. And one of the most important things I’ve accomplished in the last few years has been learning to distinguish who all of these voices are.
Because bluntly, not all of them are helpful. Many of them come from people who were self-sabotaging, emotionally stunted, or outright abusive. And continuing to listen to those voices was not helping me.
However, just like real people don’t like to be shunned or shamed, and just like real people want mostly to be heard, I found that the voices in my head would not tolerate my attempts to simply silence them.
At first, interrupting the voices you don’t like, or shutting them down in extreme cases, might work. I’m not opposed to people trying out that strategy. And in individual instances, it did work. But as a long-term strategy, it failed for me. It was just fake healing.
The more I tried to interrupt or shut down the negative voices, the more powerful and devious they became. They became less conscious but more influential. They apparently decided that if they couldn’t influence me directly they’d do it some other way.
What I had to do was learn the stories behind the voices. I had to find out why my parents acted the way they did, and their parents, and their parents’ parents. Because remember, just like I carry my mother’s voice with me, she carries hers with her. And so on, back through the generations. So I could be hearing an ancestor’s voice in my head that I never actually met.
I also had to learn the stories of my old classmates, my old musician friends, my friends in business, the people who have come and gone through my church. It was only through hearing these stories that I learned to really listen to each of the voices in my head. And of course, I also had to learn to hear my own past selves’ voices.
Only by really listening did I find out why the voices were saying what they were saying. Only then could I truly listen. And only when they felt heard did those negative voices become willing to pack up and leave, and be replaced by better, healthier speakers.
Yes, in each case where I could determine whose voice was speaking, I had to talk to that person directly. And I had to talk directly to them even if they were dead. I had to tell them how I really felt, no matter how awful, how vulnerable or how beautiful it was. I had to draw boundaries with them.
You have to talk directly to people, even if they’re dead. People think I’m being creepy, or woo, or using hyperbole when I say that. No. I mean it. Your dead grandmother’s voice that you hear in your head is really your dead grandmother. And if she’s shaming you (even if it got passed down through your mother’s shame), you’ve got to talk directly to her or the voice won’t leave you alone.
Like real people, the voices in your head want to be heard. And just like real people, it’s more productive to figure out what’s behind their stories than it is to try to argue with them, silence them or shame them.