Our brains display tremendous complexity. They are more elaborate than the greatest computers ever produced. One of the behavioral patterns contributing to this complexity is the habits we develop. Every time we learn something new, we engage in a process that turns this learning into a habit. We call this “procedural memory,” a series of connected behavioral units attached to nervous system circuits that become automatic. In other words, we don’t have to think about them in order to perform them.
Here’s a simple example of what I’m referring to. An infant learns to stand and then to walk. In this process, exquisite attention is focused on each muscle and movement, and how to organize them into a coordinated process of standing, taking one step and then another. But within a very short time, the baby masters this process and then performs without even thinking about it. This is a good thing. Creating habits and procedural memory frees up our attention and brain power to tackle more complex aspects of life and continue the developmental process.
While helpful, habit patterns also contribute to our struggles staying focused and paying attention. Habits, by definition, are performed outside of our awareness. Therefore, our most persistent habits—the ones that deal with how we talk to ourselves and treat ourselves—are less accessible. They might include a tendency to put ourselves down, to find fault with whatever we do, or to worry about the judgment of others.
In my model of resilience, I afford the number one spot—my first of nine pillars of resilience—to your relationship with yourself. The lessons and habits of our childhood create a blueprint for future development and behavior. The long tentacles of those lessons reach into our adult life through the development of our internal parent, the voice we hear 24/7.
Much of the time we don’t question this voice because it’s been our constant companion and has become a persistent habit pattern. But if the messages you give yourself every moment of every day are harmful and not supportive, they will interfere with your success.
And here is the dilemma: if our internal voice is giving us negative or inappropriate messages and we are not aware of this because it’s a habit, it isn’t possible to make adjustments. Here is where your “two choices” comes in. At almost every moment of your life where a decision needs to be made, large or small, the automatic choice is to follow the lessons of the past. And as the saying goes, “Repeating the same behavior will get you the same results.”
Instead of engaging in your old, habitual behaviors (this includes how you think), you have another, more optimal choice. If your existing voice is based on lessons of childhood, the other choice is to come from a different perspective, from a new, internal voice that is based on a more effective view.
Healthy Internal Voice
I equate the optimal response and healthy voice with how healthy parents might treat their child. They would always come from a place of love, acceptance, compassion, support, and care. Rather than respond with punishment to a less-than-perfect performance, the healthy voice would appreciate the effort and compliment what’s positive before even addressing a mistake. The healthy internal parent will always keep in mind the goal of achieving success and happiness. Therefore, any response that might be undermining or harmful doesn’t fit.
This brings me to the notion of “two choices.” At any moment we have two choices about how to treat ourselves. We can follow our habit pattern and the existing internal parent. This might include some sort of put-down or similar message that says we are not OK. But if we awake to the moment, we realize there is another choice—to call on a newer, healthy internal parent with a more supportive response.
To some degree, we all fight some form of self-doubt and self-criticism. This is embedded in our existing internal voice. Even though this voice or perspective might have originated with good intentions, it no longer serves you in reaching your goals. For example, if you are used to receiving criticism from a parent, this voice might steer you away from new endeavors or taking action to avoid criticism. Procrastination and having difficulty following through and achieving success would be consequences.
At any moment, your internal voice is making commentary on your life, your day, this moment. You then act or don’t act based on these messages. It all happens unconsciously. I suggest the way to shift into a better way of engaging with your environment is to establish a healthier internal voice or parent. When you come from this perspective, you are able to achieve your goals, and experience joy and good health.
If you can go through your day with the intention of waking to each moment where your habitual voice is giving direction or commentary, and then reflect on the message of a healthy internal voice that comes from love and acceptance, you will break through the barriers holding you back.
Returning to the original comparison with a computer, we can equate your internal parent with a computer’s operating system. The operating system runs everything else. Make sure your operating system originates in a healthy internal voice that loves and accepts you.