Befriending the Inner Voice
The willingness to challenge our firmly held beliefs and established narrative identity is a gateway for change, gaining wisdom, and better adaptability to life’s challenges.
Simon Shares His Story
I’m Simon, and I have bipolar disorder. I like to joke that I was a late bloomer, very tongue in cheek because that was far from the truth. I was in my mid-forties when I physically collapsed. Life and everyone in it just became too much and my mind and body had come to a place where something had to give, or in my case, both gave way at the same time.
I spent a long time in bed thinking that the heart palpitations, caused by my excessive drinking, were killing me. Eventually, I took a stupid Am I Bipolar? test in a magazine, and found that I ticked all of the boxes. That led me back to my GP, who set me up with an appointment with Arno, my first psychiatrist. Within an hour, and with prescription in hand, I entered life after diagnosis and the circus show that comes when dealing with extended family and friends. Luckily, I had Jax to help me.
That was a tough period of my life. Every mirror I passed seemed to be judging me for what I had let myself become, and every ear that I bent didn’t seem to understand what I was going through. I found solace and some closure when I sought out a psychologist that I could relate to, someone who would just sit and listen and not ask me to explain what I thought Rorschach’s pictures meant to me. Or judge me on me, not my personality, which was, by then, down the drain with uncertainty.
Mix in my job, which was 350 kilometers from my home, the four very close walls of a hotel room and the side effects of my script and I was close to breaking point again. Luckily, as these effects slowly wore off, I regained some sort of normality. Read the full story in endnotes 1
The Narrative Journey—The Inner Story and Outward Expression
Simon, a very talented and published fiction writer, shared his story to discuss the central importance of the personal narrative in everyone’s life. With their expertise, he and his wife have helped improve my current writing efforts. 2 My current writings will explore the personal narrative journey, the inner thoughts, and beliefs that shape our experiences and life. It is a central aspect in many forms of therapy and mental healthcare interventions.
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Simon’s personal story reflects the poignant nature of the narrative identity and inner governing story that guides our thoughts, beliefs, moods, emotions, and behaviors. Our developing personal narrative is the positive guiding essence of how we move forward. It inspires us to thrive, create, shrink, limit, confine ourselves, retreat from people, tighten into a defensive bundle, or even lose our purpose, or life direction. He shared his story with me, not as a personal health care provider from whom he was seeking guidance, advice, or treatment, but with the intention to help in the development of a writing direction about the personal narrative as an essential cornerstone in our mental and emotional life’s journey.
The Personal Life Story Is an Expression of Self Evolution, Learning, and Healing
Simon’s story is his presentation and reflections on his life journey, growth, changes, and struggles with painful times to become the talented writer he is today. He brings his passion, search for meaning, and understanding into his work as a writer and creator. In my earlier professional life, if someone called in distress and felt the need for help or intervention, the first step would be to determine the emergency need. If not, the caller would make an appointment to discuss what was currently causing concern in their lives and gather any historical information needed. The consultation would allow me to get the essential information required to set up a treatment plan. 3
Approaches to Support Mental Health and Wellbeing
As my professional career developed, I learned many approaches for the guidance or care of mental or emotional difficulties, with variations in practices, theories, and philosophies.
The developments in mental health studies have often centered on understanding our inner mental narrative and its expression that governs, shapes, and guides human life, adaptability, and cognitive and behavioral functioning.
There were often debates over actions when an unusual behavior or thinking became problematic, abnormal, a threat to the community, or even a person’s health or wellbeing.
The decisions about when and in what circumstances a treatment was justified were always the more significant challenge. The constant thread in developing therapeutic mental healthcare or interventions was searching for the most critical aspect of human life and functioning, where healing help would benefit most. The narrative part of our inner life and outward expression—that guides human life and shapes personal experience—is a central focus of mental health therapeutic work and studies.,
Efforts toward therapeutic support for mental and emotional difficulties go back to the earliest human existence in social groups and communities.
The development of many modern therapies came from the ancient wisdom, practices, and understanding of the human mind, behaviors, emotions, and spirituality. The role of the human inner guiding narrative—narrative identity—is critical in understanding differences in today’s mental health therapeutic practices.
The Essential and Critical Role of the Inner Voice and Story
When given attention, the value and importance of the ongoing internal narration, often hardly noticed, governs our life story, identity, and core beliefs. The established narrative guides our reasoning, actions, expressions, and emotions, and it becomes the story of our successes, failures, the experience of wellbeing, or victimization.
With Simon sharing his story as a lead into this current topic, it is vital that we all, including myself, reflect on the stories about ourselves that we have shared or might share in the future. Doing so will bring home and edify how our running inner narrative strongly influences us. Particular rigid beliefs that appear may lead us down the path of a more limited life, with vulnerability to conflict, sickness, and despair. My personal narratives appear on my website and in the biographical stories 4 that lead-ins to some of my blog posts and chapters in my last book.
With the journey through life, most people rationalize choices, beliefs, or opinions according to their ideology or organizing internal narrative—the frequent conscious voice in our heads. This inner voice or narrative becomes the basis or motivator for most of our emotions, behavior, choices, and actions.
All-Encompassing vs. Specific Inner Narratives
When observing our thoughts, ideas, and the running internal mental narrative when it is active vs. inactive, quiet, or calm, it becomes apparent that there is the larger, all-encompassing story. That larger story is about who we are, our history, and the identity by which we define ourselves. It is also apparent how we are functioning and guided by a more specific running narrative from moment to moment—what we are trying to do or accomplish in a more immediate time frame: getting the next meal, completing a task for work, trying to study for an exam, planning on how to paint the house, or appease an angry, threatening person.
The macro narrative, our core life story, influences the more specific or micro-narratives. The micro inner thinking, which focuses on our immediate needs, can, in time, modify the larger story. I notice during my swimming workout that my internal mental activity focuses on the experience in the water, my swimming stroke, the distance to the wall, and so on. The ongoing micro mental activity remains a part of my larger narrative story: to stay fit, maintain my level of health and athletic prowess—maybe to compete in one more master’s swim meet.
Narrative Psychology and Narrative Medicine are academic research and study areas for those interested in mental health psychology, healthcare, and therapy. Narrative psychologists feel people fall short in understanding why they do things and usually default to their developed and established inner narratives to explain or rationalize things. The mind’s neuro mechanisms construct a narrative story to make sense of the experience, threats, and challenges for humans interfacing with the outside world.
What we consider our unique personal story is frequently changing. What we believe so firmly to be true and accurate resembles a myth—a story—not entirely true or consistently accurate.
The narrative of our inner story is constantly changing with time, growth, and impactful events. However, there is always the opportunity to develop a more life-supportive and enhancing personal story for one’s benefit by increasing more self-awareness about our inner thoughts, emotions, and outward behavior. The willingness to challenge our firmly held beliefs and established narrative identity is a gateway for change, gaining wisdom, and better adaptability to life’s challenges. Observing what cycles through our conscious mind becomes critical when problems, pain, and suffering are present and identified. Recognition can be the impetus to get or ask for help when needed or when change is necessary.
Expression of one’s personal narrative, verbally or in writing, can contribute to healing and restoring one’s sense of meaning and purpose—a valuable tool for personal growth, healing self, or in prescribed therapies. Simon’s story reflects how a person, when asked to tell their unique story, does so as it has developed to the current point in their life, and the story feels authentic to the person. A person can benefit from doing self-help work such as journaling, teaching, and sharing their story with supportive, non-judgmental others or with an experienced teacher or therapist.
When one tells or explores the personal narrative, there is often the chance for a new perspective to occur and insight to emerge—that the related story will get modification toward better adaptation and personal enhancement. For a writer like Simon, learning and insight may bring change to his personal story and life as he writes and explores the characters in his fictional work. As a writer gains mastery of their art, with continued editing, revision, and crafting of the tale, everyone has the possibility of revising and transforming their personal life story.
Teaching and education often come from telling personal stories and sharing the cultural myths embedded with morals and lessons with children. Whether expressed or written in books, movies, business advertising, or social media, the themes and storylines widely influence people’s beliefs, ideologies, and philosophies.
Narrative Medicine 5 focuses on the complex and unique stories of illness found in current writings and past literature. When sharing personal narratives between the receivers and givers of care, both become better informed. Stronger relationships develop with trust, humility, mutual recognition, acceptance, empathy, compassion, and respect for each other’s respective journeys and struggles. The discipline and studies in the innovative field of narrative medicine originated in the humanities and patient-centered care and bring together healthcare professionals, therapists, advocates, and activists to improve healthcare.
The Bias and Distortion in Life Stories
Life stories often drift from what is reliable and what occurred, as there is distortion towards self-flattery, self-affirmation, redemption, or in the self-depreciation direction.
A redemption type of story might be that I was healthy, gaining momentum, and successful in my life’s pursuits and goals. Then there was a loss or setback, a disruption, a significant trauma, or illness. After this, I recovered, overcame adversity, gained wisdom, and returned more robust and thriving. In the opposite direction, the personal life’s narrative may attempt to explain wrong turns in life, victimization, or account for negative moods or emotional states, behaviors, fears, shame, guilt, or felt inadequacies.
The personal stories in my blog, articles, and recent book fall more within a redemption theme. I tell of early life trauma from an encounter with the conventional medical treatment of the day, hospitalization with polio, subsequent difficulties with anxiety, and consequently recovering through finding natural ways, along with what I considered promising approaches in conventional healthcare. It helped me regain my health and wellbeing and inspired me to get involved in healthcare, the healing arts, and teaching.
Some biases in my story sharing were no doubt to make a case for choosing healthy alternatives and lifestyle, which I feel helped me, and have real merit and benefits for those who are open to making health-oriented choices.
When the Personal Narrative Gets Stuck
With successes, adversity, or trauma, the always-evolving or changing personal story can get stuck, inflexible, and overly defended. It occurs when fearful situations, perceived outside threats, or challenges arise, leading to a block in healthy development, productivity, and relationships. Losing self-awareness or one's inner world, thoughts, ideas, and developed narrative and identity, leaves an individual inflexible and unable to adapt or change when needed for a healthy life and survival. 6
There can be a weakening of a person’s stable sense of self, creating vulnerability to fear, adverse influences, and manipulation of others. An individual may get fixed in a narrative or ideology that endangers the person and others in the family or community when failing to ascribe to public health measures in a pandemic or having rigid thinking that leads a person to mental illness, health problems, violence, or self-harm. If given medical or psychiatric labels or diagnoses, it may become embedded in one’s personal story and narrative identity and thus stifle further growth and needed healing.
When a person is susceptible to the influence of someone felt to be very knowledgeable, as may be the case with a healthcare giver that one has sought for help, the individual may incorporate a label or diagnosis into their growing personal story. Their pain and suffering now has a name and become an explanation for who and what they are. A diagnosis may be beneficial if it comes with some effective or remedial treatments. But often, the label can contribute to not being open to other possibilities and practical actions as the diagnosis have become a part of the personal narrative identity.
Inflexibility can ensue with the resignation to do nothing, thus not considering other options or broader courses of action. A person with an illness can lose the chance for positive outcomes when taking medications only, avoiding corrective lifestyle changes, or not pursuing correctible causes or contributing factors to their condition.
As it adapts and changes, the personal story can become a rigid, overly defended belief, ideology, or position. The narrative loses its fluidity when unduly influenced by propaganda or misinformation. Misleading Information often originated from an unethical source as a business, politician, person, or group trying to build their brand or power unscrupulously.
A person's life loses the pleasure, spontaneity, and moment-to-moment experience of joy and wonderment, a sense of oneness with the natural world when the inner narrative becomes fixated on the past as with guilt, shame, or remorse. Stuck in the future also leads to a loss of being in the moment and the here and now. Caught up in the future occurs with obsessive worry, planning, and the need to be in absolute control that can be from the fear or dread of past unwanted recurrences. Being present in the moment allows for the mind, body, and spirit to be in their natural balance, allowing for living in the ebb and flow of vital experiences and connection with reality.
Being over-focused on the inner thoughts and mental narrative, especially when triggering mental, emotional, or physical health concerns, is the time not only to seek help and support but the time to recognize the need to restore balance. The needed accord is between spirituality and the necessity of our mental life to think, plan, and make choices for safety and survival. Spirituality is the being present in pure, non-thinking awareness, where there is liberation from stress and worries to respite in the calm abode of renewal, healing, and creation. In eastern thought, it is the movement between the narrow, binary, and dualistic thinking of the mind and the unencumbered, beyond mental thinking, and configuring place, to non-duality—the peaceful state beyond the usual narrow entrapment and conflicts present in the ordinary mind activity. 7
Keep a daily journal. Write down dreams, bothersome thoughts, fears, or worries. Record inspirations, ideas about change, projects, health needs, and intention to help others: note affirmations, spiritual awareness, ideas about seeking more simplicity and humility. Find what is essential and most important in your life, like taking time to be more in the moment, aware, compassionate, and accepting.
Be aware of your personal inner story and running narratives, the larger life story, and the smaller and more focused, task-specific narratives essential to life and wellbeing. Find a guide or teacher if you have difficulties finding resources—they might be closer than you think: a friend, a family member, a clergy, or a healthcare giver. When there is pain, suffering, or despair in the narrative, there may be a need for help, change, or professional resources.
Watch for possible misinformation and devious people that might influence your inner narrative, altering your life, critical choices, health, and well-being.
A reader or student can seek information or courses about the many aids and ways to do better self-care or caregiving for mental, physical, emotional, spiritual health, and wellbeing. Look to the extensive literature and books on healing, healthcare, narrative psychology, and medicine.
If a significant other has personal issues in any health area and appears at risk, seek information, support, or professional services to provide the education or services needed. 8
So be open, flexible, and aware of narrow-mindedness or an over-restricting narrative identity. Seek the help and support of others when needed in times of illness, crisis or when growth and change become vital.
I appreciate you and your interest. Please share this article with others or leave comments below.
Be well and do the best you can on your journey of discovery and learning.
Ron Parks, MD
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Dr. Parks’ new book is now available - COVID-19/MENTAL HEALTH CRISES is a practical guide to help understand mental health challenges and crises during stressful times. It blends research, historical events, and my personal and career experience in holistic medicine and psychiatry.
Lead-in photo for the article: ©pixelsaway/123rf.com
(continuation of Simon’s story) I did what all people would do in my position; I looked for the answer to the only question that played with my semiconsciousness: why me? Self-pity? Perhaps. But it did lead me to a rather more pertinent question: when? Or rather, when did I stop being Simon, and become bipolar Simon, and then on to the natural progression of, well, why didn’t anyone notice? How come no one tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, bud, are you alright?” Because no one ever did. Okay, when I was older, I would have told you to back off. I wasn’t exactly open to that sort of line of questioning, but as a child, maybe, who knows?
Later, after I turned fifty, I decided to write a semi-autobiography set in the year 1976. It was going to be a love story, but it soon became something else, and I found myself exploring my childhood with new eyes. With every word I wrote, that same old question came back to haunt me: when did the switch flick from off to on? Or was it the other way around? I’m still unsure.
My parents often said how happy I was as a child. I don’t remember any of that at all. I remember being angry and sad and very full of everything. That last part is hard to explain, but it’s the best way. Maybe that’s why they saw me as happy. Every experience fed the sensation of being overwhelmed to the extent that it soon became easier for me to run from things than to face up to them—a habit that would later overshadow many decisions made. I was experiencing the fight-or-flight response multiplied by a million, or so it felt.
From a very early age, I spent most of my life in my own head—handy as a writer, deadly as a child. I remember sitting around the dinner table and just crying for no reason that I could explain. I had fits of rage and I was frustrated with everything around me. There are a hundred stories I could pull from to explain that something was wrong with me, but there are two that stick with me to this day. The first was when my dad wanted to go and work abroad and he and my mum would spend a lot of time arguing and shouting about whether he should go or not. It got to a stage when I threatened to stab him if he went. I swear to this day I would have done it. Second came a day that I was so unhappy with life, school, and home that I sat on the upper floor of a school bus and wished with all of my might that the thing would just crash and put me out of my misery. I could go on, but the point is that I can recall many stories, but I can’t remember any happy ones in the mix.
My parents both worked more than one job and both loved me dearly. I loved them in return. So why didn’t they spot what was going on with me? I think the answer was that they did, but in those days, mental illness was seen as something that happened to other people. We were regarded as the perfect family, I think. Or was that just me?
As a bipolar person, I have one wish, that as a parent, especially if mental illness runs in the family as I found out was my case, you look out for signs that something isn’t quite right. Tears, anger, frustration, depression, withdrawal, and dark thoughts are all signs that can point to a problem. Ask the question: are you alright? Have the conversation about mental illness, in the same way as you should about all social issues that impact a child’s life—not only if you think there is a problem. Most kids with problems either become bullies or are bullied. If it’s not spotted and addressed, then most carry that baggage into adulthood and into relationships.
If I were asked to explain how I felt at the time, I would steal a line from U2, I had become ‘see-through in the sunlight’. There I was, in big trouble, and people just looked through me. As an eighties teenager, I lived my life in the shadow of the threatened mushroom cloud, both physically and mentally. Thank God that bomb never exploded. Simon Corn
A consultation would also include inquiries into any mental health issues as difficulties, emotions, behavior, relationships, addictions, or related medical difficulties. An extension of the initial evaluation might be: the acquisition from other family members of the earlier life history, looking for any developmental problems, learning or social difficulty in school, prior history of trauma, or earlier life medical difficulties testing. If indicated, a recommendation would be made for psychological or medical testing, or the securing of prior records of any treatment or diagnostic assessments. Next, if there is a desire for change, help, or intervention, a therapeutic treatment plan would be initiated. A treatment plan might include: psychiatric and medical care, or medications; lifestyle recommendations like exercise, nutrition, social support networks development; healthy practices such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga; or therapy work with a therapist that could provide the type of support or psychotherapy deemed needed or potentially helpful.
The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine 1st Edition
by Rita Charon (Author), Sayantani DasGupta (Author), Nellie Hermann (Author), Oxford University Press; 1st edition (November 4, 2016)
The experience described in the spontaneous spiritual awakening moments or epiphanies such as when in the depth of prayer, meditation, mindfulness, yoga practice, or use of psychedelic drugs; during an inspirational moment or spiritual training and practices with a guide or teacher.
There are many interesting and valuable therapies that work closely with the narrative identity, the inner governing story, and the outward expressions that are either reviewed in my earlier works or to be discussed in future articles as: Schema Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, CBT, ACT Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, Mindfulness, Meditation, and Yoga Therapy, Psychodynamic, Jungian and Psychoanalytic therapies, Breath Work, Groff’s Spiritual Emergence work, Trauma-Focused Therapies, Somatic Sensory Therapies, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, and many more not listed here.