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Voices in your head? That's a good thing!

Last night, at 3 am, I was suddenly wide awake.

It's not an uncommon position for me to be in, and last night it was the same story; one minute I'm fast asleep and dreaming away, the next I'm wide awake and thinking about things I need to do come the sunshine.

Initially, there were two voices in my head, and that's something I'd like to talk about.

The first voice, I'm going to call Alan - just so it's clear who I'm talking about.

Alan, it seemed, was very concerned that I get my ducks in a row, for the start of my day. Alan was running off the words I should use in that email, figuring out which task I should start first so that I was ready for my 9 am, and listing all the activities I had to make sure were covered off first thing. He was a pretty busy fellow. Alan was talking away like an auctioneer, listing it all out.

Next to Alan was George. Now George absolutely loves his sleep and was pretty cranky at Alan. He kept telling Alan to knock it off and go back to bed - first in a relatively calm but stern voice, and later with more of an air of 'if you don't knock it off and shut up now, I'm coming over there and I'm gonna start swinging!' George was not happy.

But he was also not effective. Alan kept busily listing all the things I had to do - including the homework I needed to get done for Saturday's training course for the SES. Alan was super-worried it was going to get forgotten. George, meanwhile, was holding his head in his hands and moaning about how little time we had left before the alarm was going to go off and sleep was lost for good.

And then something interesting happened - Ted turned up.

Ted is a peacemaker, and whilst Ted understood that George needed his sleep and felt it was being stolen from him, he also had sympathy for Alan's stress around all those things that needed doing. So Ted started to explain what was going on. "Now Alan's just worried it'll get missed, you know how easily things get forgotten. It makes sense, once he's gone through it all, maybe he'll go back to sleep..."

It was at this point that I realised there were three voices going on in my head - and after a bit of a chuckle, I kicked myself into a mindfulness activity I use for this exact circumstance, and eventually drifted back to sleep.

Now it's possible that you're reading this and thinking that I'm either a little - or possibly quite a lot - odd. But I'm betting if you're reading this, then this is something that's happened to you, too. Maybe it's only the two voices for you, maybe it's a pretty crowded space at times, with many different voices competing to be heard.

But one thing is true for all of us with that crowd; understanding that there's more than one voice up there is a 'good thing'.


In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy there are six core facets that we work with, one of those is called self-as-context. What that really means is that there is a 'you' that is separate from your thoughts. You may, if you were having a bad day, think 'nobody likes me'. That is a thought; it's not the truth, it's not a fact, and it certainly isn't you - unless you're a particularly terrible politician it's guaranteed that some people like you, many people, hopefully.

But it can be very hard for us to see that there is a separation there.

One of the metaphors that can help to make this clear is the stage metaphor.

Imagine that your mind is a stage. At times a confident, serious actor walks onto the stage and tells us loudly about the things we need to do, like paying our taxes. At other times a sulky teen might mope onto the stage and complain that they absolutely hate cutting the grass, and are sure someone has to do it. "But why me?!" At other times it might be the child who hears a song from years ago and leaps about without a care in the world, or the party animal careens across the stage looking for a bar to celebrate the long overdue coming of Friday.

They are all of them, us.

But also, they are all of them, not us. For we are the stage. We are the mind within which those voices turn up and play their parts. We are the observer, in the audience, listening and watching - or, in the case of Ted the explainer - narrating what's happening on stage.

In a very real sense, the 'observing self' is the you that always exists, persisting across the years. It listens, observes, and remembers. On stage, the 'conceptualised self' tells stories about us, laughs and cries, rages, and holds court. Just as in my dream, there can be multiple players on that stage at any one time - Alan, George, and Ted in my case - but they are all of them, separate from the observing 'me'.

So what does it matter if 'all our mind is a stage'?

It's a good question. And it might seem at first that this is a distinction without a purpose. But let's just take this in a slightly different direction.

Let's imagine I'd woken up at 3 am to find Alan was ranting about what a loser I was. How I'd done nothing but mess up all day, and just how bad I was going to mess up tomorrow. "You are such a loser, you might as well quit!" he might scream from the stage.

If I awoke to that, I would have a couple of choices open to me. Firstly, I could hear that voice and take it as a truth I was telling myself - after all, those voices in our heads can be pretty convincing. In this case, I may well decide that there was no point in turning up for work, no point in responding to those emails or preparing for my SES training day. "Might as well stay in bed and never get up" might cross my mind.

But my second choice would be to understand that the voice was that of Ted - an actor, on the stage. And whilst he might sound convincing, he is nothing more than that; an actor telling a story on a stage that will persist, and see many many more stories play out. Whilst he might seem convincing, he's just passing through like a blustery summer shower on a sunny day.

In ACT terms, I would have 'defused' the thought that I was a loser. When we believe our thoughts are true, we become stuck, or 'fused' to them. We see them as laws we can't break. When we defuse from those thoughts, we see them as stories, nothing but negative actors on that stage that we can choose to ignore.

But it's difficult to defuse from a thought when we don't see it as separate from ourselves. And the first step in seeing our thoughts as being separate from the essential 'us' is understanding there's more than one of us in there.

So the next time you realise you're having an argument with yourself, and that there's more than one voice inside there, don't berate yourself for being a little odd; congratulate yourself for understanding that you're the stage, and the actors are hamming it up big-time today.

Once you understand that, you're on your way to seeing that the stories they are telling are not only not true - they're open to being changed.

And now it's time to get back to sleep - hopefully, no show on the stage tonight!

Take care of yourselves, and each other.


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