Your Worst Enemy is Within by Robert Firestone, Ph.D.
My life’s work as a psychotherapist has focused on the problem of resistance. In my study of people’s resistance to change, I was deeply perplexed by a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon: the fact that most people consistently avoid or minimize experiences that are warm, successful, or constructive. I observed that most of my patients tended to manipulate their environments in order to repeat painful past experiences and to avoid positive emotional interactions that would contradict their negative personal identity within the original family. I was searching for an answer to the question of why most individuals, in spite of emotional catharsis, understanding, and intellectual insight still hold on to familiar, destructive patterns of the past and refuse to change on a deep character level.
In the early 1970s, I became interested in the emotional pain that patients experienced when they were confronted with certain types of verbal feedback or information about themselves. They would have strong negative reactions to selective aspects of this information and feel bad for long periods of time. Initially, I considered the old adage, “It’s the truth that hurts,” but then I realized that evaluations from others, regardless of accuracy, that support or validate a person’s distorted view of him or herself, tends to arouse an obsessive negative thought process.
From these observations, I discovered that most people judged and appraised themselves in ways that were extremely self-punishing and negative. Thus, their reactions to external criticism were usually out of proportion to content, severity or manner of presentation. I thought it would be valuable for people to become aware of the areas and issues about which they were the most sensitive, so I began to study this phenomenon with my patients and associates. In 1973, we formed a therapy group, made up of a number of psychotherapists, to investigate this problem and pool our information. The participants focused on identifying the negative thoughts they had about themselves and observations corroborated my early hypotheses about a well-integrated pattern of destructive thoughts which I then termed the “inner voice.”
Destructive thoughts or internal voices strongly influence our actions and the way we conduct our daily lives. For example, a man about to give a speech thinks: “You’re going to make a fool of yourself. You’re going to sound stupid. Who wants to listen to what you have to say anyway?” As a result of “listening” to this voice, he becomes nervous and actually does stumble over his words. A woman preparing to go on a date tells herself: “What makes you think he’ll like you? You’d better think of something interesting to talk about or he won’t call again.” A man recently unemployed because of the economic downturn attacks himself with thoughts such as: “You must have really screwed up or they wouldn’t have let you go. You’ll never get another job! You’re a total failure!”
Like these people, most of us are aware of self-critical thoughts that increase our nervousness or make us feel down or depressed. However, most of us underestimate the extent to which these hostile thoughts are directing our lives. The sneering, belittling self-attacks as described in the examples above are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the underlying anger we feel toward ourselves. They are merely the more visible fragments of a larger, well-hidden enemy within, a powerful adversary made up of destructive thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that control our actions, interfere with the pursuit of our personal and career goals and make us feel bad a good deal of the time.
My specific orientation and approach to psychotherapy has come to be known as “Voice Therapy.” Voice Therapy techniques bring internalized negative thought processes to the surface with accompanying affect in a dialogue format such that a person can confront alien components of the personality. It is so named because it is a process of giving language or spoken words to negative thought patterns that are at the core of an individual’s maladaptive or self-destructive behavior.
As I described in Voice Therapy: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to self-Destructive Behavior, (1988) the methods of Voice Therapy are complex and varied; however, one basic technique is to ask patients to verbalize their negative as though they were talking to themselves, instead of “I” statements about themselves. Statements such as “I’m a failure, I can’t succeed” become “You’re a failure. You’re never going to make it.” As soon as this method is employed, strong affect is released as patients vent the thoughts and feelings which indicate an enemy within and the source of one’s animosity toward self becomes obvious.
Although the methods of Voice Therapy uncover elements of the personality antithetical to self, they do not imply a simple solution; the process of challenging the inner voice by taking action and working through the anxiety associated with change is essential for expanding one’s life. The theory and methodology have value in revealing the core of resistance to any form of psychotherapeutic movement or constructive behavioral change. The therapeutic venture, by counteracting the dictates of the negative voice and disrupting fantasies of connection, offers people a unique opportunity to fulfill their human potential, thereby giving their lives personal meaning.Tags: resource, self development