Why (& How) We Should Filter the Voices in Our Lives

Here's how to determine whom to take advice from in life and why.

When it comes to taking what’s often referred to as “critical feedback” at work or at home, I often find that people (myself included), have one of two responses. Either we get defensive as a way of protecting our bruised egos, denying even the possibility that we could have “opportunities for growth”; or we take it all to heart, convincing ourselves of our inadequacy.

I hear this all the time in my office. My clients share stories of how their parents, spouses, bosses, and friends cut them to the quick with their critical words. Is it because every one of these people are living and working with jerks who don’t care about them? Of course not. Most of them are surrounded by a supportive social network of friends and family.

I often find the problem to be a combination of two things.

First, when we’re stressed out, frustrated, and short on patience, we tend to overreact and say things we don’t mean — at least I certainly do. In moments where emotions are high, it’s easy to wound with our words, to be extra-critical of our loved ones and ourselves.

Second, when we aren’t secure in our self-worth, or when we can’t separate who we are from what we do, criticism of our actions is easy to internalize as criticism of who we are as a person, which invites a deep sense of shame to settle in our hearts.

This is an ongoing struggle for most of us, to separate who we are from what we’ve done. One thing I’ve found helpful is to be mindful of whose voices I’m listening to — whose critical feedback I take seriously and whose I try to let roll off my back. Often, when I’m feeling insecure or downright worthless, I find I’m listening to all the wrong voices — voices that remind me that I’ll never be smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough; that I’m a bad wife, a bad friend, a bad mom, a bad therapist, a bad writer.

Five years ago, I moved into my first home as a single college student. Now my husband and I are preparing the extra bedroom in this same house for our first child. When I first moved in, my dad taught me how to change the air filter, and told me to change it often. I nodded and smiled at his instructions and then six months later realized I hadn’t changed the air filter since I moved in. It was disgusting — black and caked with dust and grime.

I think that’s a pretty accurate picture of what my heart looks like when I stop paying attention to what voices I’m letting penetrate my heart. It’s long past time to change the filter.

If you’re feeling empty and ashamed, if you’re focused on all the things that are wrong with you and have become blind to all the things that are right with you, give this simple practice a shot.

Draw a small-ish circle in the center of a piece of paper. These are your people — the people whose love and support endure on your best and worst days. When these people speak into our lives, we stop and listen. Even if we don’t act on their advice, we always take their feedback seriously. We trust what they say because they’ve proven time and time again through both their words and actions that they are trustworthy.

Now draw another circle around the first one. This next level out is for the voices we trust with caution. These might be newer friends who don’t know you as well as the best friend you’ve known since church camp in fifth grade. They haven’t yet earned the same level of credibility, not because they’ve wronged you, but simply because trust requires familiarity and familiarity takes time.

Your boss might fall in this circle as someone who is invested in your well-being, but specifically in the context of their organization and your role as an employee. It doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t care about you, but only that your relationship is based on a set of expectations and an exchange of resources — your time and skills for their money. Distant family and in-laws might fall in this circle as well, folks whose presence in your life just isn’t as consistent and significant as that core circle.

Last but certainly not least, draw one more circle around the second circle. This last, largest circle contains the voices that should mostly be ignored and avoided. These are the people whose opinions, unsolicited advice, and social media posts can leave us feeling undone when five minutes ago we were feeling perfectly secure in our lives and homes and bones.

Sure, there are some bloggers and influencers I look to for solid advice and guidance, but friends — they are few and far between. Similarly, it has happened on more than one occasion that a long-lost friendship has been rekindled via Facebook messenger or that I connect with someone I never really got to know in high school, but now we live in the same city again and find that we have a heck of a lot in common. There are exceptions to every rule, and these exceptions reinforce the rule.

This circle should be filled with all the people whose voices do not encourage or empower you, who through their words and actions have proven themselves unworthy of our trust. They may not be bad people per se, but it doesn’t matter. If their voice does not echo the voice of God — who created you from nothing; who looks at you and sees a living, breathing miracle — then their voice has no place in your life.

Notice the size of these three circles. The core, smallest circle should contain a few clear, strong voices who echo your dignity and worth, even when it‘s uncomfortable. The next circle is a little bigger, big enough for all the people you trust for the most part, but who for any number of reasons don’t belong in the core — yet or maybe ever. The last circle, the biggest by far, is reserved for the voices that not only might not add value to your life but can actively do harm.

Once you’ve filled these circles with names and groups and labels, what are you going to do with it? How will you use the knowledge you’ve gained to make a change in your real life? Who will you seek out for wise counsel when you need it? Who will you unfriend and unfollow online and in real life?

That part, my dear friend, is up to you.

Diagram of in-article exercise about whom to take advice from in life.

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