There’s a faint audible voice trying to get louder.  It speaks to your aspirations in life.  

Its whisper tells you to get moving before it gets too late.

But the voice is quickly squashed by the fear of not doing what’s expected.

You want to buy the bigger the house, a new car, and send your daughter to private elementary school like your neighbors. You work longer hours,  your spouse started working,  and there’s less family time.

But there’s another problem.  The thought of continuing that pace sets your heart beating faster.  Maybe you get a little jittery.  You toss and turn each night at 2 AM.

You find ways to dodge the stress.  You skip the neighborhood holiday party so you don’t have to listen to the chatter of how great everyone else is doing.  You turn down the opportunity to present research at a conference because you fear that your work won’t gain recognition.

Eventually, past decisions begin to haunt you.  You think you were happier in your first house.  Life there was simpler.  You didn’t feel neighbors judging the car you drove or that your yard needed new landscaping.  And your spouse didn’t need to work.

The stress that you’ve been trying to manage increases and the symptoms hang around longer.  You become more anxious at work and more snappy at home.  You think that you can perceive what others are thinking:  That you make bad decisions; that you act over-anxious; that you appear like you don’t want to be included.

Battling an anxiety disorder and depression, and living up to expectations can feel like a hammer pounding on your head.  And to make matters worse, hindsight begins wreaking havoc with your thoughts.    How could you have made that mistake?

Chasing expectations

You listen to the world’s expectations.  That’s only natural.  And, at first,  it’s easy to be like everyone else.

But another problem pops up.  Your belong to several groups with different sets of beliefs.  

In church on Sunday, you listen to the sermon about chasing the wind and you volunteer your time at Sunday school.  The next day, the church service is forgotten and your back chasing the wind at work.

But it’s not just church.  You can belong to the Elks Club, Daughters of The Revolution, or be an elected representative to your State Congress.  If you’re an elementary school teacher from a family of overachievers, you’re expected to be the principal.  So you start attending grad school at night.

The problem rests in assimilating outside beliefs and expectations into who you would like to be.

The real problem rests in trying to integrate with a set of beliefs that make it seem like you’re living someone else’s life.  

And the first seeds of doubt that you’re living the right life and doing the right thing take root and begin to grow.

psychotherapy takes aim

In the mid-1950s, the largest mental health survey ever done at the time, reported that 81% of its 1,660 participants suffered a mental illness, with anxiety the overwhelming factor.[1] [2]

Its participants were ordinary citizens of Manhattan and results reported in the Mental Health in The Metropolis: The Midtown Manhattan Study.

The study was greatly anticipated as it was the first to examine socio-cultural effects and their impact on mental health.  It was published during a time immortalized in Happy Days, Leave It to Beaver, and Patty Duke.  An era when we were all supposed to be normal and holding the same values and beliefs.

Researchers determined that 24% of participants had a severe mental health illness that interrupted their day-to-day activities.

Another study, named Stirling County [2], was performed in Nova Scotia around the same time.  Its participants were rural-based (versus urban-based as in the Manhattan Study).

Stirling County reported comparable results to the Manhattan work with the same 24% suffering debilitating mental health issues mostly caused by anxiety.

Their results were seismic and gave birth to the widespread pharmacologic treatments and new diagnostic tools that we have today and spawned the goal to make us all free of mental defects.

Psychopharmacology is now a $100 billion business and psychotherapies have continued to grow in popularity.

Even though cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has been around for 90 years, it’s only been since the late 1970’s that the recognition took hold that someone’s thoughts and thought patterns could affect self-perceptions and future behavior.

Today, CBT is the most widely used psychotherapy for anxiety disorders and has triggered new therapies such as acceptance and commitment and mindfulness.

So, what progress have we made since the 1950’s?

It’s more common to talk about your obsessive-compulsiveness and phobias, and your experiences with a therapist. In the 1950’s, only 25% of those studied sought mental health counseling.

In the 1950s,  if you were outgoing by nature, you were observed as healthy.  If you were overly shy and avoided large gatherings, you were not normal.   Today, the recognition that introversion is a normal behavior may have pushed 50% of us across the line towards normalcy.

However, reported success rates of modern psychotherapy range from 40-90% with no difference between medication or CBT alone, or when used in combination.[3]

The wide disparity exists between studies due to varied endpoints for success and to the varying severity of illness of the study participants.

Today, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 25% of Americans are being treated for mental health illness, primarily for anxiety disorders [4].  The same % as reported in the 1950s. 

In the end, not much has changed.

What is the inner voice?

“One of the deepest longings of the human soul is to be seen.”  – John O’Donohue

There is a growing movement that the answer to defeating anxiety disorders lies within ourselves [5].  Not just our thought patterns. The discussion is about our inner voice. [6].

So what’s this inner voice?   Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  Maybe a therapist talked with you about it but you didn’t get it.

It can be difficult to understand because it’s not the thoughts sitting on the front of your brain.  It’s not the thoughts that you analyze and weigh pros and cons.

The voice is much deeper.   It’s when you say that “my gut tells me to…”  That gut feeling is essentially your inner voice.

It’s the “Blink” method of decision-making[7].   The inner voice is not discovered through critical analysis and weighing options. 

The voices are your own personal aspirations.  Not the expectations you’ve been chasing.

These are the things that you have a passion for.  However,  as you pass through early adulthood into the full working world, you’re not sure what they are anymore.  Your aspirations may have been in your thoughts when you were 10-years old, but by age 18 to 21, things began changing as you assimilated to the outside world.

Today, those expectations overwhelm your aspirations.

And, expectations that are out of alignment with your inner voice result in internal conflict, stress and anxiety.

For those struggling with an anxiety disorder and depression, finding your inner voice is not an 8-10 week course.  The process is not just calming down, exercising to enhance a positive mood and learning patience.  And, although your inner voice often shows itself through your intuition,  the inner voice is much more powerful than intuition.  It is your guiding light and the source from which you draw self-confidence.  

How To Find your inner voice

Today, the process of finding your inner voice is generally considered as “mindfulness.”

Mindfulness stems from the Buddhist tradition that only through meditation can you learn about yourself and elevate yourself to higher levels of understanding.  

At its foundation, practicing mindfulness involves intentionally focusing your thoughts on the “Now.”  The Now is whatever is occurring in your life at the present.   Your intent is to learn how you feel about the Now and become non-judgemental about it.

For some, mindfulness remains solely in this Buddhist tradition of meditation.  For others, it’s not only about the Now.  It’s about connecting the Now with an energy shared throughout the universe. 

It’s often described as “the Source.”  And from the Source you draw energy, and only through the Source can you separate the outside world’s expectations from your own.   It is the only path to intentionally guiding your life.

And, yet for others, the connection of the Now to the Source can be quite spiritual and it could reaffirm your belief in God.  It’s often called the Divine Source.

Mindfulness can be any of one these things or all three.  The experience of discovery is your own.

I’ve talked with many people who have tried meditation and didn’t get it.  They expected a sudden awareness or discovery about themselves in a relatively short period of time.  But it’s not that way. (If anyone tries selling you a 30-day course to self-discovery through meditation, thinks twice about it.)

My journey was certainly not intentional (which can be found here). I did not start out trying to find my source as I didn’t understand what I was looking for.  My purpose for meditation was simply to relax and lose stress.

start with relaxation

You can begin meditating for any number of reasons.  Not just because you’re looking for your inner voice.  I began meditation during college in the mid-1970’s.  I was taught by a cognitive behavioral psychologist.   His goal was to lower my level of anxiety because it was off the charts.

In my early meditations, I imagined lying on a warm sunny beach or floating on a raft in a gentle pool.   I learned to focus my thoughts long enough that eventually, I was on that beach and on that raft. And, the stress and anxiety melted away and I’d be laying on the floor like a blob of jello.  That was my meditation experience for about three years.

Then another therapist told me to begin visualizing the event that caused anxiety and, at the same time, using my relaxation skills to remain calm.  That was more difficult but I soon accomplished that as well while remaining in that jelly-like state.

But discovering my inner voice through meditation did not come about because I learned to meditate through anxious events. I still found it difficult to get through high anxiety events and situations. That led me to look for more. 

It wasn’t until February 1984 that I came to understand.  Despite years of meditation and counseling from several therapists, I could not wash away outside expectations.  

In that February 1984, I was once again at a new low in my battle with anxiety.  I reached a point where I gave up and admitted defeat. I believe now that by total surrender, I finally gave up the expectations and beliefs that I had been trying to fulfill.

By surrendering, then tension and fear left and I turned into a blank slate.  And the barrier between my inner voice and what I thought were my expectations disappeared.  The result was an experience that changed my life.

Begin with 4 steps

The purpose of this article was to help those who are struggling with self-esteem, self-confidence, and anxiety, that there is a path to a better place.  And that path lies within you.  It’s a matter of finding it.

Today, when I read about mindfulness and meditation, most articles and books I find fit one of two categories.  Either they are much like the books I read in the early 1980’s with abstract words and philosophical meaning; or, they make it sound like it’s a few simple steps to nirvana.

I believe that a purposeful way to begin meditating is to think about the following two objectives:

  • Learn how to meditate for relaxation;
  • Learn how to reach a deep quiet within yourself.  

I don’t pretend that the following 4 steps will be the only ones you’ll ever need.  And, of course, I’m not a trained professional therapist or certified mindfulness coach.  But as I look back, practicing these steps were the most important in learning how to meditate.

1.  Learn to be quiet 

The key is silence.   You need silence to help you focus on your thoughts.  You don’t need random noise interrupting those moments.  

Sit or lie comfortably.  Begin to breathe slowly.   Breath in and hold for a second or two and gently exhale. Feel and hear yourself breath. Feel your chest gently rise and fall.

2.  Focus word

The repetition of saying (out loud or in your head) the same word over and over will help keep your mind from wandering off.

The word could be any word that you find helps you to focus. Although, many prefer “ahh” sounding words like God.  Say the word slowly as you exhale.  (Back in the late 1970’s, I began with God and have stayed with it.)

Do this for 80-100 breaths and do the exercise no less than once a day (I practiced twice a day.  Sometimes more).  Practice until you feel relaxed. Your muscles should feel limp.

3.  A peaceful place  

I found another level of calmness when I envisioned a place that I found relaxing and peaceful.  It could be a beach, a mountaintop, or floating in warm water.

I thought of my relaxing place as I slowly inhaled, and then as I slowly exhaled, I would repeat my word.  I found that eventually, the feeling I felt from the relaxing place seeped into the exhale and my word.

By the time I became practiced at #3, I was able to begin meditating and fall into a relaxed state by sitting in silence, breathing and focusing on my single word.  This would happen within a few minutes.   I didn’t have to think about going to that special relaxing place, I would already be there.  

4.  Focus on what you need and want

When you’re in that focused and relaxed state of #3, you can begin turning your thoughts to your Now life.  What would you change? Would you have the same job?  Would you be living in the same house…driving the same car?  What would you like to happen most in your life?

When I was in the deeper meditative state, I could sense thoughts that wanted to come to the top, but at the same time, were blocked. And despite all my meditative practice, I couldn’t reach those hidden thoughts.

It wasn’t until I surrendered and let go of what I thought I wanted and what I thought others expected of me, did I hear my hidden voice. I had reached a state of mind where the outside world no longer affected my emotions.

Conclusion

Learning how to view a situation differently so it brings change to your life is not a short process.   The 4 steps above are to help you get comfortable using meditation to calm yourself, examine your life, and begin reaching inside for the inner you.   

Questions for which I’d love to hear your answers.

  1. How many practice sessions did it take until you could relax and lose the tension held in your body?
  2. What step took you the longest to achieve?
  3. Would you like to read more about using meditation to overcome stressful situations?

I look forward to your comments.  I’d like to know about your own experiences and whether this article was of value.

Thanks for reading!

 

Footnotes:

  1. Midtown Manhattan Study (PDF)   ia800302.us.archive.org
  2. D. March, G. Oppenheimer  Social disorder and diagnostic order: The U.S. Mental Hygiene Movement, the Midtown Manhattan Study and the development of psychiatric epidemiology in the 20th century, Int J Epidemiology, 2014, 43 suppl 1, pp 129-142
  3. J. Hunsley, K. Elliott, Z. Therrien  The Efficacy and Effectiveness of Psychological Treatment,  PDF, Canadian Psychology Association, Sept 2013
  4. National Institute of Mental Health,  www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence
  5. Melbourne Academic Mindfulness Interest Group, Mindfulness-based psychotherapies: a review or conceptual foundations, empirical evidence, and practical considerations,  Oct 2005, pp 285-294
  6. KW Brown, RM Ryan  The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being,  J of Personality & Social Psychology, vol 84(4), Apr 2003, pp 822-848
  7. M. Gladwell  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Little Brown & Company, 2005.
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About The Author

I’m a writer, entrepreneur, and survivor.  I share my experiences and discuss how to battle the odds and keep coming back. Don’t let fear and anxiety control your decisions in life.

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