Many people have found that making peace in their mind requires finding a balance between
- resisting allowing voices to have too much influence, and
- just accepting the voices and even finding some good in them, so that a peaceful relationship can be made with the voices and/or with the issues that underlie the voices.
Some of the ideas listed below will be more helpful in resisting or setting boundaries with the voices, and some will be more helpful in making peace with them and perhaps with the unsettled issues in your own mind that gave rise to the voices.
Figuring out what are physical sounds others might also hear, versus just voices only you can hear:
– If you are often unsure whether you are “hearing voices” or hearing actual people’s or other physical sounds, you can try the following exercise. Get a recorder, or an app to record on your phone. When you are starting to wonder what you are hearing, start recording. While it is recording, maybe just for a few minutes, make a guess as to whether what you are hearing is going to show up on the tape as being normal sound. Then play it back (maybe with someone you trust also listening to it) and see whether you were right or not. Over time, you should be able to get better and better at guessing.
Studying the voices:
– For example, one method is to notice each day how intense and disruptive the voices were that day, and to give them a rating on a 1 to 10 scale. You can even collect more detail and rate them on how intense they are in each hour. This information could be kept on a chart which might allow you to see when the voices become stronger and when weaker.
– Keep a diary about the voices. You might try things like writing down exactly what the voices say, and then notice any themes, any issues the voices are preoccupied with. You might also record the context in which the voice was speaking up, or what coping ideas you tried and how effective it was in that situation.
– Another method of focusing on the voices might be paying attention to triggers: things that seem to occur right before the voices get stronger. You can then work on better ways to cope with those triggers, so they don’t bother you so much.
– Interviewing the voices. This might include asking them questions about themselves, while noticing any inconsistencies and asking about those as well. You might ask them how old they are, what benefit they get from pestering you, what they like to do for recreation, anything that crosses your mind. By actively asking questions you are taking the initiative, rather than letting the voices have all the initiative.
Distraction. (avoid over-use of distraction, as just distracting yourself all the time creates the impression that you are not strong enough to face the voices, and you don’t get any practice doing that.)
This category includes anything you do to divert your attention away from the voices. It can include shifting attention to taking care of yourself and getting on with your life! Some possibilities include:
– Going out for a walk, doing some shopping, travelling around on public transport as a form of diversion than without serious intent to travel to any particular place, going out for a drive or even visiting a transport hub like an airport or busy railway station..
– Doing routine domestic chores at home, washing, ironing, cleaning or gardening etc.
– listening to music (music without words might be better if hearing words being sung gets voices going for you).
– reading, studying, writing a journal or diary, or creative writing, doing art work or sculpting or something related, putting together models, jigsaw puzzles, repairing things at home or maybe at someone else’s place, Playing chess, shooting pool, going to a bowling alley, playing racket sports, playing a musical instrument e.g. guitar, drum, violin or keyboard instrument synthesiser: it could be things like singing specific tunes or songs, even attending a choir etc.
– Doing anything that helps you move forward toward one or more of your life goals, or anything you might do to help others.
– It might be a good exercise to create your own list of things that you particularly like to do as a reminder that you refer too when you having a particularly hard time with the voices.
Activating your own speech or inner speech (subvocalizing)
– It turns out that voices usually have a hard time talking when you are speaking, or even thinking to yourself in words! So if you are alone, you might try saying things out loud to yourself, maybe saying encouraging and kind things to yourself, or maybe singing along with some of your favorite music. If you aren’t alone, you can do the same thing without saying or singing the words out loud. You might notice that the voices can’t be that powerful if you can diminish their activity by this simple method!
– like taking a walk or a bike ride, working out at the Gym, Yoga, or swimming. Physical activity can improve mood as well as help calm the voices.
This means undertaking activities that involve others.
– You might take time to speak with a partner, a close friend, or even a sympathetic worker, if you for example live in some kind of formal residential setting.
– Telephoning a friend/s
– Visiting (fairly supportive) friends or relations who are fairly supportive to you even they may not necessarily understand your experience.
– Attending groups, such as peer support groups such as one for voice hearers, or joining a hobby/activity groups.
– Be careful to avoid spending a lot of time in social situations where people are likely to be “negatively critical.” Experiences with people with these attitudes frequently results in feeling worse. Instead, seek out people who know how to be constructive, people who can see some good in you and help you see how to build on that.
– Also, don’t expect too much out of yourself in social situations. No one can please all of the people all of the time, and if you try to make yourself please everyone, you can make yourself miserable!
THINKING (cognitive approaches)
Thinking (termed Cognitive) strategies means using your thoughts in a self aware way to challenge or in some way diminish the sense of voices having power over you.
– ‘Reality testing’ The voices may be saying something about your friend or partner, for example, saying that your friend is angry at you about something. There are two ways you might “reality test”:
– One way is just to check in with your friend in general. “How is it going? Would you like to get together sometime?” If your friend really is angry with you they will tell you, but probably you will find out they aren’t, and you will do so without having to mention the voices or what the voices said!
– Or, providing that your friend is understanding and are not likely to take offence, you might try asking your friend directly if what the voice is saying is true. You may have to be cautious about the content of what you wish to check out with person the voices are speaking about, as some of it may just be too intrusive or personal and may actually cause offence! And it may be the voices just want to get you into trouble or bring trouble in your friendships or with the people the voices are attacking. So be cautious with this one.
– Negotiating with the voices about when you will listen to them. For example, you might offer to listen to the voices for ½ hour starting at 3 PM, but tell them that at other times in the day you will not listen. You may have to experiment with this awhile, and practice, to get some effect.
– You can practice this even if the voices don’t cooperate at first. You would do that by deliberately directing your attention to anything but the voices when it is not “their time” and deliberately paying attention to the voices when it is their time. Part of the advantage of this method is that you are asserting and practicing your own ability to direct your attention – but you may also eventually train the voices to appreciate their time with you and to back off at other times.
– Providing you don’t feel too frightened of the voices you could practice doing whatever seems to bring them on, and then practice dismissing them and tuning them out: this can really work for some people and build up their confidence over controlling some of the voices.
– Thinking positive thoughts of yourself. Thinking positive thoughts about yourself when the voice are around (voices are often negatively critical), perhaps writing something positive about yourself, your achievements or what you might want to do in the future etc. You may have a portfolio (or album) containing mementos of things you achieved in the past, it can be helpful to look at these as a way of recalling positive aspects of your life. Self compassion exercises of various kinds can really help.
Getting to know the emotions behind the voices
– If you watch voices carefully, you might notice certain voices that pop up at certain times, or say particular kinds of things at certain times. For example, it may be at times when you are alone, or when something embarrassing or unpleasant has happened. Try to observe and appreciate what you are feeling at the time. Focus on the emotion you are feeling as what is really going on; you may find the voice becomes less important as you give yourself permission to directly feel the unpleasant emotion.
– Once you know the emotions that stir up the voices, you can also work on encouraging counter-emotions. For example, if voices are stronger when you are bored, work at making your life more interesting. If they are stronger when you are feeling disgusted with yourself, work on ways of increasing your self-respect and reasons for respecting yourself. This can be an extremely important way of fighting voices!
– Imagining that you are the voice & try to understand why you would want the say to your “self” the things the voice says. Try to get inside the “head” of the voice, the way you might try to get inside the “head” of a character in a novel or movie, understanding its emotions, drives, and strengths and weaknesses.
– Once you understand the life of the voice better, you can start wondering about what it needs, and even showing care and compassion for it. For example, maybe it bothers you because it is scared, and you could imagine ways to help it find peace. Or maybe it is very rigid, and you could look for ways to help it be more flexible. This is not about giving in to the voice at all, but is about helping to give it what it really needs instead of what it may demand from you all the time.
Questioning the Voice:
– Voices love to act like they are big authorities, and often people get sucked into believing them! You can help yourself by questioning their authority. Example: a voice is disturbing you by saying that you are evil, and you don’t know why the voice is saying this. You can challenge the voice, and say “Prove it!” Either the voice will shut up, or it will have to try to prove it, and then you can dispute whatever “proof” it comes up with.
– Voices also like to give themselves fancy identities, such as claiming to be famous people or important spiritual beings, etc. You can dispute this by thinking of some question that you yourself don’t know the answer to, but that the voice should know if it really is who it says it is. Get the voice to answer the question, and then look up its answer to see if it got it right.
– You can draw the voices, or sculpt them, or make some other representation of who or what they seem to be. This can help you deal with the voices in a new way.
– Another approach, perhaps more advanced, is to “take the role” of the voice, or to mimic it, the way an actor or actress takes on the role of a character in a play or a movie. For example, if you have an “evil voice” you could play the role of this voice the same way that an actor plays the role of an evil character. If the “evil voice” tells you to kill yourself, then when you play the role of the voice you would pretend to be telling someone to kill themselves. You can even play this role in an exaggerated way, being more dramatic and “evil” than the voice usually itself is. You could try this with your therapist if your therapist agrees, or practice in front of a mirror. This method can help you step out of the role of feeling like a “victim” of the voice. It will only be helpful if you feel ready for it and if you can keep it clear in your mind that you are just acting an evil role, not being evil or going to do evil things yourself.
Frustrating the Voice by Repeating Everything:
– Some voice hearers have found it helpful to repeat to themselves everything that the voice says, word for word, in your mind. For many people, this causes the voice to stop, or at least become calmer. A variation on this has worked when the voices seem very loud: when you repeat to yourself what the voice says, just slowly reduce the “volume;” this tends to lead to a lowering in the volume of the voice itself.
– Putting an earplug in just one ear has helped a lot of people, at least for a little while! Experiment with using either the plug in either your left or right ear. If it doesn’t work, try taking the earplug out: for some people the voices stop when the earplug is taken out!
Seeking out positive and constructive voices while tuning out voices that tend to be negative:
– This involves, first, making an effort to distinguish which voices are really offering something constructive versus those that are just causing trouble. Then, for example, when you hear a negative voice, you can instead seek out the company of one of your more positive voices. (One way of calling it up might be just being curious about what the positive voice might say, or imagining what it would say, or remembering the kinds of things your positive voice said in the past.) You might even try asking the positive voice for advice on how to deal with the negative voices.
– If you tell someone, “don’t think about elephants,” it’s elephants that they’ll think about. So don’t worry about trying to “not hear” destructive voices; instead just focus on paying attention to constructive ones.
Seeking out positive and constructive thoughts & activities while tuning out voices that tend to be negative:
– Any focus on something constructive, that makes you feel good about yourself and what you are doing in the world, can help create good feelings that protect you from the voices.
– Remember that to really make the constructive things you are doing count, you have to give yourself credit for them. One way of doing this is to write each day in your journal about what you did that day that was constructive, and perhaps what you plan to do in the next day.
Using imagination or visualization to protect yourself.
– For example, you might imagine a sort of “halo” or protective light around yourself. Or, you might find an inner guide who can give you advice or help defend you from the voice. You can imagine whatever it might be that you would need to overcome the voice: there are no limits on what you can imagine! You might start out thinking that the voice is more real than your imagination, but remember that the voice depends on you paying attention to it and believing that it has power: if you pay more attention to and put more belief into what you imagine that is protecting you, the voice will lose power.
Learning to quit expecting the voice:
– This method takes advantage of the fact that people tend to hear the voices they are expecting to hear. If you create a counter-expectation, that counter-expectation can eventually overpower the expectation to hear the voice. For example, suppose you are used to hearing voices and getting preoccupied with them when you go home in the evening. Instead, think about what you would like to be preoccupied with in the evening. For example, maybe you would rather be focused on some good music, or a novel you are reading, or working on a project. Focus on expecting that from yourself, and if the voices try to intrude anyway, expect them to become less important as you focus on what you really want to pay attention to.
Notice how the voices are not all that original:
– To do this, you need to keep 2 written records of what happens when you are in a distressing situation. In one record you write down the thoughts that come to you automatically about yourself when you are in the distressing situation. In the other record you write down what the voices say when you are in those situations. Later, you can look at these records and see how much they are the same or different.
Reframe what the voices are saying as something positive
– Using this method, you assume that the voices are really trying to help you in some way, though perhaps they are misguided or overly enthusiastic in what they are trying to do. For example, if the voice tries to convince you that everyone hates you, you might reframe it as trying to make sure you aren’t overly self confident. If the voice wants you to kill someone, you might reframe it as the voice wanting to make sure that person doesn’t take advantage of you. If the voice wants you to kill yourself, you might reframe it as the voice wanting to save you from a distressing situation that it is worried will be too painful for you to endure. By finding a possible positive intention in what the voices say, you can then focus your attention to handling those concerns, and you can even thank the voice for its concern and ask it to help you. For example, you can tell a voice that wants you to kill someone that you appreciate its desire to not let you be taken advantage of, that you do not want to go so far as to kill the other person, but that you are open to other suggestions about how to protect yourself from this person. When you reason with the voices in this way, you might find that a healthy dialogue begins inside you.
Reframe hostile voices as helping you get in touch with difficult feelings:
– This one is a little tricky but potentially very helpful. Hostile voices can be verbally abusive, and can even encourage people to give up on themselves or hurt themselves or others. People can then get into long and emotionally exhausting battles with these voices. This method asks you to try something a little different.
– Instead of fighting back against the hostile voice, imagine that the voice has won, that the voice has all the power and that it has already hurt you in the ways it is trying to hurt you. How does it look or feel to you that this has happened? What is most difficult to you about this feeling?
– What do you need when you are wounded or overwhelmed like this?
– Once you get in touch with the sad or wounded feelings, then let yourself notice that there is also a healthier you that can provide some of what you need at this moment. You can then focus on giving yourself some of what you need, you can practice self comforting.
– The magic of this method is that you quit fighting with the voice, by focusing instead on how it feels to be the victim of the voice. (But you do it without actually hurting yourself – for example if the voice wants you to cut yourself, you focus on what it feels like to be a person forced by someone to cut themselves, how it feels to be sad and overwhelmed, you don’t actually cut yourself.)
– The notion behind this method is that voices often try to get people to feel horrible or vulnerable feelings which the person has disowned: by accepting and owning the bad feeling, and then taking care of yourself around it, the voice loses its purpose for existence and fades away, at least till next time there is a difficult feeling you are resisting!
Letting the voice time share in your body.
This is probably more likely to be helpful for someone who is not totally intimidated by the voices and who feels they are not likely to get completely out of control. The way it works is to just to set a time when you can experiment with having a particular voice have “control” of your body, at a time when it is unlikely to cause any problem. (You should only attempt this if you feel you could take back control should the voice attempt anything that will cause trouble.) What is helpful about doing this is that you get to know the voice in a different way, and may even find something positive about it. For example, you may find that an angry voice has a very firm, strong way of acting in your body, and you may find you can eventually borrow some of this strength when you need it in various situations in your life. You may also eventually come to see the voice as more just a “side” of yourself, and less threatening because less alien.
Not taking voices literally
– This means considering the possibility that voices may not literally mean what they say: instead, they may be speaking in metaphor, they may be speaking poetically. So while the voice may insist for example that you “jump in the river” it might really mean that you should get more into the flow of things, and not hold yourself back so much. So, instead of just doing what the voice says, or just fighting with it because you don’t want to literally jump in the river, you could think about what the voice might be really trying to say.
Allowing your identity to be wider than you are in the habit of letting it be:
– Consider example of someone who wants to lose weight: they are sure who they are is a person that entirely wants to lose weight, and is willing to give up desserts in order to do so. Then they see a piece of chocolate cake, and suddenly, there is the temptation to eat it. If the person is rigid about who they think they are, that they are a person who doesn’t want desserts, then they can only see the temptation to eat the cake as coming from someone or something else, maybe a demon or an unpleasant voice. The chocolate cake example is kind of silly, because usually people are able to accept that there are two parts of themselves, one part that wants to diet and another part that wants cake, so they can be wide enough in their identity to let both parts in. But what about bigger conflicts?
– A person who wants to live may find it really difficult to accept an urge to kill themselves. A person who wants to be conventional sexually may have a hard time accepting urges to be gay or otherwise different sexually. A person who wants to be peaceful may have a hard time with urges to kill or hurt others. These are very serious conflicts. One way people can try to resolve them is to simply decide that “the real me” only wants what is good or conventional, while the “evil” or “nasty” ideas and impulses come from something else, like from voices.
– When a person wants to get rid of some thought or impulse they don’t think they should have, they might focus on defining themselves in a more narrow way. Making the self more narrow has its advantages, in that it can help a person feel that his or her own self is good and peaceful. But the disadvantage is that the urges and temptations are still alive somewhere, and they will live and appear as voices and demons if not allowed to live as parts of the self.
– Another way the self can get narrow: let’s say the person identifies themselves as kind of weak and incapable, for whatever reason. Something strong within them might be seen as foreign, as not themselves. So maybe the person connects with the strong part by thinking of it as an exterior spirit and feels helped by this. This can be helpful, but since the strength is seen as exterior to the person, in time it can take its own direction that may not be helpful to the person. For example, they might start out noticing a “spirit” as helping in some strong way, but later the “spirit” wants to take some direction that the person doesn’t want to go. So “spirit helpers” can easily become “demon opponents.”
– Allowing yourself to be wider, means seeing the thing that seems to be either opposing you or helping you as being part of the bigger you. In other words, you can see yourself as wider, more complex than how you usually see yourself. You can be wide enough to include things like urges to hurt yourself or others, urges to do strange things, to be different sexually, or whatever. Being wider doesn’t mean you will necessarily let these urges take over, but it means allowing them to be part of the mix that makes up you.
– A person might say for example “a part of me wants to never speak to my parents again” even though they know that overall they do want to keep talking with their parents.
– Advantages to allowing yourself to be a wider person: You can talk about your experience more the way most people do, which allows you to relate better to conventional people. In other words, you can talk about how you are “beating yourself up” instead of being attacked by a spirit, or how “part of me wants to kill him” instead of “the voices are telling me to kill him” etc. By allowing yourself to be wider, you are no longer as “pure” but you also don’t have to feel as different from “normal” people.
– This is not to say that the way “normal” people look at things is always the best way, or always right. Maybe there are times when we would be better off identifying ourselves in a narrow rather than a wide way. But if we have a choice about it at any given time, we may be able to choose a way of looking at it that is most helpful to ourselves at any given time.
Being kind to the voice
– Voices are often distressing, but it’s easy to forget that they may be even more distressed themselves. Treating them with kindness may really surprise them, and result in some big changes! When you hear the distressing voice, take a step back mentally, and imagine that it may really be troubled, and is causing trouble only because it is desperate. You can take an attitude toward the voice similar to the attitude a parent might take toward an injured, frightened, or tired child who is being obnoxious.
– For example, a man may be bothered by a voice that calls him names and is very threatening when he has to be around strangers. He may be planning to go to a store and knows this is likely to upset the voice. Instead of arguing or fighting with the voice about his plans he could say to it: “I know that going to the store with all the people around is really hard for you! Do you have any ideas about anything that might help you feel safe while I do the shopping?” The voice might be helped by something that is strictly imaginary, like imagining a tropical beach that the voice can go to while the person is shopping. Or perhaps the voice would have a more practical suggestion, like going to the store at a time when fewer people are around, or having a better shopping list so the trip is less confusing.
– Notice in the above example, the person did not give in to the voice, but was kind to it and considered its needs. This might not work right away (the voice may still be distrustful and obnoxious) but eventually the relationship between the person and the voice might change.
Getting better at telling the difference between “voices” and what actual people are saying.
– Some people seem to always be able to tell when it is their “voices” talking and when it is that they are listening to actual people, or the radio announcer, or whatever. Other people have a harder time with this, and sometimes the voices trick them into thinking that other people are saying things that they aren’t. This can cause lots of confusion and chaos! If this is a problem for you, here are some things you can try:
– It might help to just pay attention & be on the lookout for this. Voices trick people much more easily when they are being inattentive.
– Notice if there are certain things the voices really like to say. If you start hearing people around you, or the radio announcer, saying these things, be alert: it might really be the voices.
When what you are doing for coping isn’t working:
– Try something different! Anything at all that you do differently might be just what you need to be successful.
– You could even try something “completely different” or even the exact opposite of what you were trying before.
Rediscovering your dreams and getting on with your life
While doing something just to distract yourself from the voices may have limited usefulness, doing something because it connects with your dreams and because it makes you feel fulfilled as a human being may be much more helpful! In other words, instead of thinking you can’t pursue your dreams because the voices cause too much trouble, try finding right now some things you can do to take steps toward your dreams. Every time you take some meaningful step, you win, and you prove that you and not the voices are in control of your life!
Keep in mind that for this to work, you don’t need to make the voices stop, you just need to find ways to do what is most important to you whether the voices continue or not. This focuses your attention on what you want to do, not on the voices.
What to do if you are trying to pay attention to some constructive activity but then you notice you have started paying attention to the voices instead: just direct your attention back to the constructive activity. Remember why you are doing it and why it is important to you.
Other Types of Coping
– You can just agree to disagree with voices, rather than get sucked into arguing with them. “Yes I know that you think I’m worthless, it’s ok with me if you think that, you have a right to your opinion. I on the other hand see some value in what I am doing and in what I’m planning on doing. I understand you don’t agree. It’s ok with me that you disagree with me.”
– When a negative voice speaks up, you might use that as a reminder to do some self care for yourself. Or use it as a reminder to do some constructive self talk – say to yourself the things that a friend or a good coach or a positive voice might say to you. Focus on that positive, constructive message instead of what the negative voice has been saying.
– Make an audiotape of the worst things voices often say. Play it over and over again until it doesn’t make you anxious anymore.
– You can try paying attention to how you might be setting yourself up to be vulnerable to voices. For example, maybe you are thinking you have to live up to some standard of perfection, then whenever you don’t live up to that you are vulnerable to a voice that berates you for not doing it. If you decide you don’t have to be so perfect, you might find there is much less trouble from the voice.
– Make sure you aren’t trying too hard to “not hear” the voices! If you make “getting the voices to shut up” be your goal in life, then all the voices need to do is speak up a little and you will feel defeated! Thinking this way just gives the voices more power. Instead, focus on living the kind of life you want, and tune in to whatever helps you move in that direction.
– If voices seem very serious and intimidating, you might try making fun of them. One way to do this: First you can write out a script of what the voices usually say. Then, have a friend help you (it helps to make a recording of this you can listen to later.) Have the friend say the statements on the script in his/her most silly voice possible. (They might try to sound like a cartoon character, or say things in a very high pitched voice.) You repeat back exactly what the “voice” said each time. Later you can listen to the recording as a reminder that you don’t have to take the voice seriously. (If you don’t have a friend to help you with this, you could also role play the voice yourself when making a recording.) You can also draw or paint the voice, representing it in silly ways, etc.
– Find some truth in what a critical voice is saying – in a balanced way! For example, if the voice says “everyone hates you” you might say “well I know some people don’t like me and might even hate me, you are right about that, but I think others like me OK, and quite a few other people will probably like me once they get to know me better.”
– Figure out what the voice may be trying to do for you, and then replace it with self talk that accomplishes that objective in a more constructive way. For example, if a voice tells you that you are stupid, it may be reminding you that there are important things you don’t know, or that you have been ignoring some important things. So in your self talk, you might just kindly and constructively talk to yourself about those issues. As you get better at talking to yourself about these kinds of things, you won’t need the voice as much, and you may naturally hear it less or pay less attention to it.
– Try the stress interpretation: Consider the possibility that the voices may just be a sign you are under too much stress. You might then respond by taking care of yourself, and taking it easy, rather than stress about the voices being present. When you stress about the voices being present, you may just make them worse; but when you see the voices as an indicator you need to let go and loosen up a little, you may do much better.
– Learning to dialogue with your voices is something many have found helpful. Check out this self help guide to dialogue with voices!
– You may fine entirely different methods of coping as you pay attention to what works for you: good luck in your experiments!