“V, that was nice of you to share your toys with your friend.” I told my daughter after a playdate.
“I heard a voice say, ‘just do it, give him some of your toys.’”
“That’s your inner voice, honey. When you’re not sure what to do, you can always trust this voice to lead you in the right direction.”
We all have this inner voice, but many of us don’t hear or heed its wisdom. We either question its validity, block it out, or deny its existence all together.
We turn to the external world to filter our decisions — popular culture, thought leaders, family, and friends. Even Google and Siri play a role in guiding our decisions.
Paradoxically, the answers to most questions can’t be answered by anyone else but you. In the Information Age, we’re losing the ability to listen to ourselves.
It’s smart to seek answers for certain questions from trusted guides — scientists, clergy, and coaches. Many of us also outsource our inner voice to loose acquaintances and strangers. Pop into any moms Facebook group and you’ll see evidence of this.
- Where should I send my kids to camp?
- What color should I paint my kitchen?
- Where should I go for dinner tonight?
- What should I buy my husband for his birthday?
- What’s the best salad dressing?
How did we lose touch with our inner voice? Part of the problem is too much choice. When we have too many options, it’s a burden to decide.
Walk into any American grocery store and you’ll see what I mean. There are 10,000 kinds of cereal. You can’t decide. The inner dialog may go something like this — “I want something healthy, but also something that my kids will eat. Sugar is the devil, so nothing with sugar. But do I need to get gluten free too? I heard to watch out for gluten. We’re on a budget, I want the most bang for my buck. Let me look at cost per oz. to find the cheapest cereal. Oh- this one has Bob the Builder on it, my kid loves Bob the Builder. But it’s expensive and the CEO of the company said some terrible things about women once….” By now you’ve been standing in front of the cereal for 10 minutes and you’re stuck. So you go to Facebook and ask, “What cereal should I buy?” thinking, “Please tell me so I don’t have to make this decision on my own. I’m trying to be a good mom and good citizen, stay healthy, on budget, and on time. Oh and I’ve got to get out of here before soccer practice is over so please tell me what cereal to buy!”
Tangent and confession: this happened to me a few years ago. Only it was in the ice-cream section. I stood there forever and finally grabbed the cheapest thing — store-brand rainbow sherbet. My boyfriend, who was waiting outside with our dog, laughed at my decision, went back in and exchanged it for some Ben & Jerry’s. Good man. I married him and we served Ben & Jerry’s at our wedding. Now he does all the grocery shopping and even makes his own ice-cream.
The struggle to decide comes from the competing voices telling us what to do — that Atlantic thought piece that informed us that sugar is killing us, our own expectations about reducing the weekly grocery bill, our children’s picky palates, our “friend” who judges us for buying character products…
Growing up we were told to keep the inner voice quiet, that our opinions don’t matter, to trust the Grown Ups to call all the shots. “Don’t be silly, you love [fill in the blank]” they’d say.
As an organizing and lifestyle consultant, my clients want me to answer similar, seemingly simple questions:
- Do you think I have too many shoes?
- How many toys should my kids have?
- Am I allowed to keep old birthday cards?
As much as my clients want me to answer questions like these, I don’t. My job is to help them to find their inner voice and then trust its guidance. Despite my title, I’m not in a position to tell another person what’s important to them. These decisions may seem small, but they are deeply personal. My job is to hold space, so they can answer the questions themselves. How do I do this? With calm stillness, I’ll reframe the question, “tell me how you feel about this pair of shoes.” Then I’ll pause and listen with kind eyes for their answer. I’ll mirror their words and share what I’m interpreting about their body language. “Did you see how you straightened up and smiled when you held those pumps? That looks like joy!” I’m teaching them to recognize their own emotions. As my clients master these skills with the simple decisions — which objects to keep and discard — they can apply this discernment to the bigger questions in life.
- Should I stay in my career field?
- How can I make time to care for my elderly parents?
- Should I have more children?
- What makes me happy?
- What are my values?
Unlike many modern adults, children are deeply attuned to their inner voice. They know what they like and what they don’t. They love freely and follow their interests with pure enthusiasm.
When it comes the KonMari joy-check (does this spark joy?), children are naturals. They prefer an ordered environment and can easily discern between what brings them joy and what doesn’t. So what grandma bought that dress, it’s too plain. So what that sweater cost a lot of money, it scratches my skin. They are very matter of fact.
Do we hold space for our children and allow them to listen to their inner voice, or do we silence it by should-ing on them? We tell them that it would hurt grandma’s feelings to return the dress. We tell them that the sweater was expensive so they’ll have to get over the discomfort.
When we’re told to quiet this voice over and over again, we start to shut it down. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our need for connection and belonging comes before our need for fulfillment and self-actualization, so we prioritize preservation of these connections over the little voice inside us. It gets quieter and quieter. We forget that it’s there and then find ourselves asking Siri what we should do with our lives.
The good news is that the voice isn’t lost. It’s always there. We simply need to be quiet and practice stillness so that we can hear what it has to say.