So what´s new about the phenomenon of hearing voices?
People have been hearing voices for thousands of years in diverse ways, across and within different cultures.
This means that the ways in which we respond to voice hearing experiences change also, depending on the beliefs and predominant perceptions and theories that hold sway at any given time.
In some cultures, voice hearing, even today, is more readily accepted as a singular experience taking place within a continuim of lived human psychological or spiritual peak experiences. It is often related to stresses in life or intense states of psychospiritual activity which might be inviting a breakthrough into higher levels of awareness.
An example. Entering states of deep meditation, in Zen "Zazen" practice can bring a person into touch with deeper subconscious or buried feelings that may present themselves to the awareness of the individual in the form of visions and voices.
The Zen master will generally advise that the person or student stays calm and simply observes this phenomena while minimising emotional energies that are distressing but, it is not unkown for students to cry, laugh, shout and talk to their voices when they are in this situation.
Normally, the moment passes and the calm waters of the self regulate themselves, eventually restoring balance and harmony within. But the experience is allowed to take its natural course, in a safe and supported setting overseen by an experienced "elder".
The Western psychologist may wish to delve even deeper into these experiences and try to help interpret hidden meanings and how these voices might speak to unhealed traumas in the persons` individual life story.
If the individual is also curious to explore and learn more of the origins and meaning of their voices, this can be very empowering and liberating, often giving voice hearers some sense of ownership of their experiences. An experience of ownership that is missing from a narrow medical model that relies on a diagnose and treat scenario, whch minimises investigation and gets on with trying to suppress the "symptoms" of an underlying brain chemistry causation illness.
No single way is right or wrong here but does an approach, which relies on a bio-medical "illness" model to diagnose and treat the person who has these, sometimes troubling, experiences work better? Let´s question that.
The teacher of Zen advises passive observation of surface phenomena that arise from within the self.
The psychologist is curious to dig deeper in the search for hidden or disguised meaning and will work to explore metaphors and allegories that might make sense to the person in light of their life experiences, relationships with others and with themselves.
Hearing a helpful voice or guide - hypothesis or fact?
We should remember too that people often hear voices that are actually helpful in giving advice as well as sometimes warning against courses of action that may prove risky or hazardous to their own well being or the safety of others. Voices that protect and guide.
There are multiple accounts and anecdotes in case studies and research and plentiful evidence in forums and hearing voices support groups that speak to these experiences.
Of course, most of these folk rarely, if ever, need to ask for help from medical services as their experiences are not in any way distressing, even if we might consider them to be somewhat "unusual".
The people that doctors meet most regularly are those who have struggled to cope with critical and negative voices that are interfering with their quality of life and have asked for help from health professionals. And these professionals are generally trained in a singular way, that hearing discomforting voices is a symptom of an illness requiring medication. Medication that "rebalances" brain chemistry with a view to alleviating distressing experiences of the client. This results in voice hearers experiencing disempowerment and stigmatisation as a consequence. Is there an alternative?
Moving toward a transformative approach
What if we spent a little more time safely listening to what our voices say and explored the possible connections between the content of voices and what it might mean to us as individuals. Even if, as is sometimes true, the voices say hurtful, critical and destructive things?
This has been the inspiration behind some of the work pioneered by Marius Romme and Sondra Escher in Holland. They listened to voice hearers and created a survey that allows people hearing voices to map out their inner experiences and creates the condition where talking about voice hearing is not only permitted but actually encouraged.
The Hearing Voices Movement is now a world wide phenomena and continues to grow as people start their own self-help groups. Here space is given for the expression of stories, lived experiences and different theories and ideas regarding how voices begin, what conditions of living might help create them and how many differing ways people can learn to cope with or manage better with these lived and sometimes challenging experiences.
One step further: Embracing the voices within
In the world of NVC ( Non Violent Communication), inspired by the remarkable Marshall Rosenburg, people learn and are trained to look for the hidden needs behind behaviour that is sometimes difficult to understand or deal with. An angry individual, according to the practice of NVC is a person who has not been able to get his or her needs met and that unmet need is making itself known through the behaviour that we witness.
If we can see a person complaining about messiness and unwashed cups is not a bossy individual who is telling us what they want us to do, but instead embrace them simply as a person with an unmet need for orderliness, hygiene and ease, i.e. being able to find a clean plate when he or she needs one. Maybe thay have become frustrated at having to search the dishwasher or the cupboards while gazing at a full kitchen sink of unwashed crockery for weeks!
We can hear the complaint and witness the annoyance without owning the feelings ourselves. NVC teaches empathic listening without judgement so that we can be a witness to the other, fully present in their pain and unmet need. This allows us to ask empathic questions and to check in with them, showing our care, interest and presence. We might say "are you feeling frustrated because you need ease and you´d really like everything to be in its place in the kitchen?"
This might lead to more signs of frustration, like complaints, showing us that here is someone who really needs to be listened to. We can offer up our presence, our empathy and also potential solutions and arrive at agreements too. And then, identified needs can be met, like "how can we both increase ease for you in the kitchen and peace and harmony restored for all?" A simple example, but it illustrates the point.
Here is a little introduction to this concept, one that, just like the work of the hearing voices movement, is rapidly growing and spreading into all sorts of fields relating to fostering and co-creating better and more balanced human relationships.
In schools, businesses, communities and even political systems, a different way of identifying and addressing unmet needs for individuals, work teams, couples and communities is being seen as the way forward to a more peaceful world and all based the utilisation of more empathy. listening without judgement and developing understanding.
In my next blog, I will look at how we might use some of the helpful learnings from the field of Nonviolent Communication to try and hear and identify the possible unmet needs that are present inside the comments and statements that critical voices might make to individuals.
After all, if it can work as a communication tool for critical voices from other people outside of ourselves, might it also prove useful for interpreting the unmet needs that might be concealed within the voices inside too?
The basic structure of Non Violent Communication invites us to think a little differently when we hear criticism or complaints and not to react in the way we have likely been conditioned to, which is sometimes to criticise the person back in defence as we feel we are being attacked.
1. We witness the behaviour without owning it ourselves. We can accept that the person´s distress or annoyance is a feeling that they are having and these emotions do not belong to us. Each person being responsible for their own feelings.
2. We listen using empathy without judgement or evalution in order to get a sense of where the person is coming from.
3. We safely look at what feelings arise in them and in us when we hear complaints or criticism. We try to explore this in our shared conversation.
4. We can make empathic guesses to clarify what is the root cause of the persons distress if they are open to this process.
5. We can ask for permission to see if the person would like some feedback to see if we have heard or understood correctly what the person is expressing.
6. We can identify an unmet need with that person.
7. We can ask if the person would care to hear any suggestions that might be helpful or find agreements to get that unmet need met!
Of course, it sounds simple! Nothing is guaranteed but we find we are talking and not arguing, we are not attacking them or defending ourselves and the whole process pivots on developing a relationship based on identifying unmet needs and meeting them.
It does not have to become a raging argument or a " You said, she said, I said" debate which often gets us nowhere in finding concensus for achieving ease and contentment. And let´s be honest, isn´t that something we all welcome in our lives?
We are not really comfortable in hearing criticism. And we try to avoid conflicts or difficult conversations when we can, even if it means simmering tensions slowly build and at some point the kettle boils over and out it all comes. Then we might take it personally and we may brood or sulk or even try to avoid spending time with that person.
Using the tools and strategies of NVC helps us to co-create an atmosphere of geniune connection when we try to reach out by being present, even if it can make us feel vulnerable, because we are talking about feelings and needs.
However, when our discussion is focussed on trying to get unmet needs addressed, the process becomes one of honest, heart-centred sharing and co-creating comfort and ease, an entirely more positive ambition and one which does not require strategies of avoidance and denial. We come home, albeit temporarily, to our truths, our genuine emotions, our desires and personal and collective needs.
I have hopes that we can learn to apply some of these helpful ideas and strategies when it come to hearing critical and negative voices. Perhaps we can ask ourselves just what is the unmet need behind the things that voices sometimes say, whether they come from a person externally or we hear them in our own heads.
I worked for so many years inside mental health systems where there was very little interest in or time given to unravelling and understanding any meanings in the voices people heard. Here, I think we may have a useful tool that can help us do just that!
In my next blog, I will look at some examples of personal criticism and abusive voices and we will see what the hidden need might be when it comes to looking at some of these experiences more creatively and differently
Stay tuned! Best wishes. Ivan
Activist/ Health worker/ 20 years. Specific interests : wellness/ voice hearing/ coping/ exploring/ sharing/ stigma reduction.