Three Voices of the Mind: Deconstructing Worry

Worry is not just a jumble of distressing thoughts and feelings.

Posted Aug 13, 2019

People with sticky minds have looping thoughts—they often repeat “what if?” worries that are frightening and catastrophic over and over again. Trying to reassure yourself or reason with yourself does not seem to stop them. The attempt to “replace positive thoughts” with negative thoughts paradoxically keeps that looping going, no matter how diligently you try to do it.

Worry is not just a jumble of distressing thoughts and feelings.  It is a predictable pattern which starts with an anxiety raising thought—a “what if?” or a flight of imagination or an intrusive image—that makes us distressed. This is followed immediately by an attempt to make that distress go away. This anxiety-lowering effort works very briefly, but then fails and is overpowered by the returning “what if?” 

The anxiety cycle is paradoxically maintained by the very efforts we make at coping, planning, analyzing and self-reassuring.

In order to reach a more peaceful and productive response to anxiety, we need to notice how we inadvertently defeat ourselves when it happens. It is easier to see this process if we tune in carefully to our inner dialogues and see how they work.

We all have many natural voices.   We can identify an internal critical voice that stands guard, issuing judgments and comments, most of which we would never say out loud.  We also have voices that monitor feedback from others, check on our physical well-being, and let us know what we are feeling when we tune in. And many more.

The voices are part of the flow of our minds as we divide up the tasks of the day, make choices and adapt to the demands of daily living.

Today we identify three voices of the mind that are particularly relevant to worrying: Worried Voice, False Comfort, and Wise Mind. Our next blog will use these voices to show you how it is that the interaction of these voices can either escalate or de-escalate anxiety, and will explain why “think positive” backfires in people with sticky minds. As we add additional blog entries, we will illustrate some basic principles for managing a sticky mind with a variety of dialogues and commentaries involving these voices.

Worried Voice

Worried Voice is the voice of frightening imaginings and catastrophic “what ifs?” Worried Voice articulates the fears and doubts and misguided conclusions that predict tragedies and awful outcomes. This voice can seem irrational, ridiculous, even perverse or downright crazy.

Worried Voice raises anxiety. Worried Voice is often the first voice to react to an intrusive thought or odd sensation.

False Comfort

Next is the False Comfort Voice, which invariably follows the “what ifs?” of the Worried Voice. False Comfort tries to remove the discomfort, but it never achieves its goal—hence False Comfort. It often gives brief relief and the illusion of rationality. But it does not ultimately silence the Worried Voice. In fact, it does the opposite.

False Comfort almost always triggers yet another “what if” or doubt from Worried Voice. False Comfort is actually so disturbed and frightened by Worried Voice that it continuously tries to argue, control, avoid, suppress, reassure, reason with, neutralize or workaround whatever Worried Voice comes up with. It often becomes frustrated, angry or ashamed of Worried Voice.

When disturbing thoughts occur, Worried Voice and False Comfort invariably launch into a back-and-forth argument.  This is the commentary that is part and parcel of all frightening, sticky, looping thoughts.

Commentary can be the most distressing aspect of your anxious thoughts.

Wise Mind

Last is Wise Mind, who watches the constant arguments between Worried Voice and False Comfort from afar.  Wise Mind is calm, unimpressed and unaffected. It knows Worried Voice can’t help itself and that False Comfort truly thinks it is helping.  However, Wise Mind knows that False Comfort is actually spurring Worried Voice on, keeping the process going without realizing it. Wise Mind is disentangled, free of effort, accepting uncertainty. It is curious and sometimes even amused by things that upset the others.

Wise Mind demonstrates mindful compassionate awareness.  Mindfulness is a state of open and active attention to the present, moment by moment.  It involves the experience of observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment or evaluation. A mindful attitude is made possible because there is a part of you that can stand back and look at your experiences—in real-time—with perspective.

Just learning to observe these inner voices is the first step towards gaining some relief from your anxious thoughts.

In our next blog, we present some dialogues between Worry Voice, False Comfort, and Wise Mind that show how these voices can increase or decrease your anxiety.