Some days my mind will not quiet itself. Rumbling through my head is music from my Spotify playlists, the news, a joke my friend told me the other day, something my third-grade teacher said to me years ago, and the constant chimes of my phone notifications. Life can be so noisy that it’s hard to hear my own inner voice in the clatter.
Do you ever wonder if you even know the sound of your own voice — what stream of thoughts running through your mind are authentically yours? Or are you just hearing an echo of voices from throughout the day or your life?
J.S. Park, the author of The Voices We Carry: Finding Your One True Voice in a World of Clamor and Noise, completely understands. It wasn’t until he began training as a hospital chaplain that he was able to sort through those voices in his head — to find out whom they belonged to and which one was his.
As he listened to stories and confessions at the bedside of dying patients, he started to see patterns. The events and traumas we experience in life take shape in voices that continue to speak to us long after they happen. As Park learned to be present with patients as they struggled between life and death, he heard them wrestling with competing voices. He realized that in order to find that one, true voice that could guide his own life, he had to sort through a lot of noise — he had to lean into his own pain and confront what was going on inside of himself.
Park explains that the voices in our heads can come from an internal source and take shape as doubt, judgment, pride, or our need to please others. Or they can come from external sources, such as trauma, guilt, grief, or family dynamics. It can help to name the dynamics that are driving the dialogue in your mind — if you can narrow down their source, you can start to evaluate if they are worth listening to.
One of the ways these internal and external voices rear their ugly heads is as the “voice of self-condemnation” that fills you with doubt and insecurity. It could be that we don’t want to hear constructive criticism because we already hear it in our own heads, or that we are trying to “fake it till we make it.” Park and many others respond to this voice of self-condemnation by pretending to be better than they are.
In Park’s case, he wanted to be an amazing chaplain, without really learning how to be an amazing chaplain, without putting in the work. When a grieving family really needed him, he knew he couldn’t deliver in the way he wanted to, so he ran away — like actually ran out of the hospital room of a grieving family.
Park was lucky to have an understanding boss. She was firm but gentle. She gave him a reality check: “You’re just not that good. No one is.” She told him that he had to stop thinking about an ideal version of himself and think about what it would look like to do something — anything — starting from where he was at that moment. These were harsh words to hear, but of course she was right.
For Park, this was freeing. He acknowledged the voice in his head telling him he needed to be perfect, and said goodbye to it: “I knew I could never get to saying, I am enough. The truth was, I am not enough a lot of the time, and that’s just fine.”
I can see this in my own life. When I couldn’t be perfect, I just didn’t even try. So often we are petrified to do the wrong thing that we do nothing. The only way we will gain experience or knowledge or get anywhere closer to that ideal version of ourselves is to simply do something — to just start.
I like this concept because it gives power to the act of simply showing up. Park learned this lesson, too. He ends up giving the same advice to one of his patients by asking, “What can you do, from where you are, from who you are, right now?” Sometimes, just being present is enough to get started.
Park says one of the ways to find your own inner voice is to listen for the one that sounds genuine. Often that means “finding the story you want to tell and telling it well.” He listened for the parts of his story that felt heavier and more substantial that the others — parts that landed in the area of a “solid conviction,” as he put it. That allowed him to let go of some parts of his story that he was telling out of spite or anger or frustration, and instead lean into elements that were non-negotiable because they were too important to him.
Do you want to tell your story just to fight? Or is there a way to use your story to lift your values in the world? Once Park realized what his deepest values were, he started to hear his own voice more clearly. It was a voice that sounded real and true — not fake, but genuine.
As Park listened, he discovered another voice, too — a kind voice. He began to hear a non-judgmental yet truthful voice, one that seemed to root for him. It was the voice of God that had been there all along — he just needed to clear away enough noise to hear and listen to it.
In that voice, Park found strength and confidence — he learned to hear and use his own voice to advocate for himself and for others. He wondered how he was able to find the courage “to say what was true even when it was hard.” Park said he started to see himself from God’s point of view, who loved him unconditionally and wanted him to thrive. If God saw him that way and advocated for him and rooted for him, then he thought he should start rooting for himself a bit more, too. He started to believe he had a voice worth sharing.
I want to sort through the voices in my head, too: to say goodbye to the ones that aren’t me; to put them on mute; to kick them out of my head. I want to listen and find the one that sounds like me — the one that’s genuine. The one that has the story I want to tell.
And I want to hear the voice that is rooting for me, giving me strength in a noisy world.