Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

Whose Voice is in Your Head?

“You don’t have what it takes.”
“People wouldn’t like you if they really knew you.”
“You will never amount to anything.”

The voices in our head preach. Their sermon drowns our creativity, drains our energy, and deflates our motivation. Don’t expect to accomplish anything significant without first silencing their jabbering.

However, before you can apply duct tape, you need to know where the voices come from? Whose voice is in your head?

Credit Brandon Koger (Creative Commons)

Credit Brandon Koger (Creative Commons)


Your parents voices are (almost always) the first you hear. From the hospital room to the nursery to the dinner table, your parents speak powerful words.

I saw a study a few years ago predicting academic success among children. The researchers discovered a correlation between success in school and the ratio of positive words to negative words spoken at home. It makes sense. When your mind is full of negative voices, there is no room to think.

As a parent, I wonder what the ratio would be in our house if someone sat on the couch and counted my words.

Parents speak swords or daggers—a weapon for a child’s hand or a wound in their back. (You can tweet that) Can you still hear them talking? about work? about school? about life? about what gives you value?

My Dad told me, “Josh, you can do anything you put your mind to.” Not technically true, but that’s a voice I am glad to have rattling around my grey matter.


From elementary school bullies to work colleagues, our peers have a powerful voice.

My older sister was the coolest girl in middle school. Student President. Musician. She played on the girls basketball team and then changed clothes to lead the cheerleaders for the boys game. She was so cool the students talked about her for a year after she left for high school. One day, during 7th grade, the conversation around the lunch table turned to my sister. They wondered aloud, “What ever happened to Candace?”  I gave them a brief update on her life. They looked stunned.

“How do you know what she is up to? Do you know her?” they asked.

“She’s my sister.”

Jaws dropped. One friend shot back, “No way, you must be adopted.”

Point made. The cool gene skipped me.

Words like these come coated in super glue. They stick. What was spoken in the lunch room can echo decades later in the boardroom. “You must be adopted.”

And it doesn’t have to be something your friends have said. It could be, “What would they say if . . .?”  What will my friends say if I decide to have a big family? become a writer? move to another country? release an album?

Will they accept me or mock me?


Your culture also has its own voice.

“A woman should . . ..”
“A real man would . . ..”
“Any father worth two cents wouldn’t . . ..”

I feel bad for mothers in the age of Pinterest. It is not enough to throw a birthday party for kids anymore. Do you have a theme? Does the decor match the cake? Does the cake match your child’s hand-stitched costume? Did you document the occasion with an SLR camera and 50mm lens?

Nothing against Pinterest—in fact, thank you Pinterest for the great recipes I regularly enjoy at home—but it can add to the voices. It is hard enough to be a parent today without all the comparing.

Through every website, TV show, and advertisement, society raises its voice.


Now for the most powerful voice of all—your own.

In college, I thought I knew everything. I was very judgmental (I called it “discerning”). I was particularly critical of public speakers. With squinted eyes, I listened for a “wrong” phrase or idea that enabled me to dismiss the speaker. Afterwards, I bad-mouthed him to my friends to show my intelligence.

Then I was asked to give a talk.

It took me 20 hours to prepare a 30 minute presentation—and I still wasn’t ready. I couldn’t think through the drone of my judgmental voice. The criticism I had thrown at others only boomeranged back on me. I was drowning in a cesspool of my own creation. The experience gave me a whole new understanding of “judge not lest ye be judged.”

Listen, there are enough destructive voices in your head already, don’t add you own. You can’t trash someone else without hearing it yourself. Words are like geese, they always find their way back home.

A Good Voice

But there is another voice echoing through creation—a good voice.

You are beautiful.
You have a purpose.
You have meaning.
You were made for this.

If only we will listen.

Whose voice is in your head?


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