Mind Wide Open: Listening to Disturbing Voices, Thoughts and Feelings

We all have many parts to our personalities and getting those parts to work in harmony is the essence of emotional health. Leave out certain voices and you're in for strikes, rebellions, hypocrisy, and, eventually, brutal attacks.
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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

"Is that crazy?" my patients sometimes ask me when they've told me something they're feeling or thinking that they're worried about. "No, it's not crazy," I say, "but I get that it can be crazy-making." I understand that while their feelings or thoughts don't necessarily qualify them for a trip to the hospital, they can be very disturbing. But I've also come to learn that while what comes up inside can be distressing, it may well also have meaning. And while the experience that psychologist Eleanor Longden describes in her TEDTalk is far more dramatic than what most of us go through, her talk shows the way to a more informed and fulfilling way of living; we should all listen to our voices.

Well... most of them... Here I need to make a distinction that's difficult to achieve in a blog. Voices arise for different reasons, and their characters cover a wide spectrum, from destructive and completely intractable to caring and surprisingly amenable to dialogue. Longden's main point, as I see it, is that it's a diagnostic error to quickly pathologize these voices and place them on the far end of the spectrum, and that more often than one might imagine, it's a clinical error to demonize and try to silence them.

Those voices at the intractable end of the spectrum need to be disregarded or perhaps medicated, but some voices lie on the other side of the spectrum and may reveal meaning if we hear them symbolically rather than literally.

Longden tells us early in her story that the voices mirrored her own unexpressed emotions. As a survivor of sexual abuse, she had a lot to keep unexpressed; the intolerable becomes unspeakable and silenced in a reservoir so vile one can only try to avoid it. But this is unsustainable and the soul will scream horrifically if it isn't heard.

What her experience demonstrates for all of us is that the unconscious is often trying to balance us out with its messages, to bring to consciousness what hasn't been expressed -- and it's not always so gentle in how it does it. In fact, this homeostatic, self-regulating, self-balancing aspect of the human mind can and does go awry. But that doesn't mean we should ignore it.

Longden describes an understanding of human psychological growth and healing that we can all embrace. As Walt Whitman put it; "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." We all have many parts to our personalities and getting those parts to work in harmony is the essence of emotional health. Leave out certain voices and you're in for strikes, rebellions, hypocrisy, and, eventually, brutal attacks.

Longden's voices really became problematic once she revealed them to others. Under the guidance (or infection) of some overly cautious mental health workers, voices that had been "companionate and reassuring" became dangerous and shameful; an aggressive civil war ensued, with Longden and the voices escalating hostilities reciprocally. We can't know with certainty what would have happened had she kept the voices to herself, but I suspect that had the voices originally been met with a cautious but respectful curiosity by the people who treated her, she would not have experienced the hell she did.

This is not to say that anyone should avoid psychiatric treatment; medication is helpful to many and psychotherapy can be beneficial to just about all. In fact, if there is anything disturbing going on inside, I recommend that you get professional help to deal with it. These situations can be dangerous, and whether the things that are arising are intractable or amenable, psychotherapy can be helpful.

Nor am I saying that this balancing dialogue with our psyche is easy; in fact it's often fraught rather than smooth. It would be misguided to be romantic about it; détente takes time and perseverance, and we need to set boundaries that are respectful yet assertive.

Bad as all this can be for the one who ignores parts of their personality, it gets worse; if you don't own all these parts, you're more likely to project them onto other folks, as I suspect some have done to Longden. The people that I'm really worried about are not the ones who hear voices or have strange thoughts or feelings, but the ones who suffer under the delusion that their own psychology is solidly unitary, and can't help but see everyone else as the crazy ones.

Longden's determination, and her attitude toward her inner life, her voices, feelings and thoughts, are inspiring and exemplary. Even though what arises in most of us is not as extreme as what Longden encounters, our attitude toward it is just as crucial because our attitude can influence the course of the inner dialogue. What rises up inside usually deserves our respectful attention -- it has something to say, even if it seems very foreign -- and curiosity makes the message less strident. As Carl Jung said, the unconscious reflects the face that we turn toward it.

One of Longden's early fears was of being empty inside. Her assured and inspiring presence on stage shows that now that she has her channels wide open inside of her, her life is anything but empty.

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