What are your needs? Your dreams? Your values? Your priorities? Some people have a very definite “inner voice” that can easily answer these questions. But for others, especially those who identify as “people pleasers,” it can be hard to tune out the opinions and advice of others and tune into your authentic self. You don’t even necessarily need to be a people pleaser to struggle to hear your own inner voice: for many extraverted, open-minded or relationally-oriented people, it is much easier to take in the ideas of those around you than it is to identify your inner voice. Ideally, each person balances their inner voice with information coming from the world around them--after all, it is important to be able to change course and rethink your opinions based on new data or perspectives. This article is aimed at those who are already adept at seeking outside perspectives but want to build skills to strengthen your inner voice.
The next time you’re facing a decision, take one full day before asking others for their opinion. This may sound easy but in practice you might find it’s difficult, as questions and thoughts emerge that you would like to run by someone. You can expect to want to ask others for input - that’s OK, just write those questions down on a separate sheet for now and don’t ask them yet. The trick here is to practice first answering those questions yourself, without interference from others. Use this time to tune inward, perhaps journaling your initial responses to those questions. This is also a good time to try different decision-making methods, so try a few different reflection processes and see what works best for you to strengthen your inner voice. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
1. Use your intuition - once you have identified the questions relevant to your decision-making, simply sit with them and see what responses seem to emerge naturally. Pay attention to how you feel in your body as you consider one possible answer or another. For example, if considering a pair of hiking shoes to buy, imagine deciding on one pair, and see how your body feels. Do you notice any feelings of discomfort or tightness in your body? If your body feels uncomfortable, it’s a good sign that this might not be the best decision for you. If you consider the second pair of shoes, do you notice any difference in your body? If your body feels lighter or less anxious, that may be a clue that this is a better choice for you!
2. Use your reasoning skills - why not try a pros and cons list or a strengths/weaknesses/opportunity/threat assessment? Or a decision tree? Do a little digging on Google to get ideas on best ways to organize your thoughts, and adapt them however you see fit. You may be pleasantly surprised to see how clear your opinions are once you devote time and energy to organizing them without the influence of others’ input.
3. Let the decision come to you. Some folks find that clarity around decisions comes most easily when they are not trying very hard to find it. So once you have your key questions in mind, try setting them aside and engaging in another activity--gardening, housework, biking, drawing or even just taking a shower. You might find your brain arrives at a decision while you’re not paying attention.
Hopefully by the end of this process, you will have a bit more clarity on your own thoughts and feelings. Once you have finished the day without asking for input, consider how much weight do you really want to give others’ opinions on this decision? For people pleasers and other relationally-oriented people, asking for advice is often a way to show affection and respect more than it is an actual request for information. It’s great to value the feelings of those you love, but with this habit you risk signaling to them and to yourself that their opinions matter more than yours. While you learn to strengthen your inner voice, make a conscious effort to refrain from asking advice as much as possible. Before asking others, ask yourself---“who else is really affected by this dilemma?” In many cases, such as what to wear, where to eat and what to watch, no one else’s opinion matters. Let that sink in: when it comes to purely personal decisions, other people’s opinions aren’t necessarily wrong, but they just don’t matter. If you find your own views and preferences easily overpowered by others’, now is the time to completely avoid the well-meaning advice from friends and family.
A second question to consider before asking others their opinion is, would I resent this person for making the wrong decision for me? One unfortunate side-effect of letting yourself be influenced too much by others is that it can breed resentment. By giving others ultimate power over your decisions, you can lose sight of your own agency and resent friends and family for having their personal opinions. Part of the work to strengthen your inner voice is to also center accountability for your decisions where it belongs--in you! While it might seem daunting at first, in time you are likely to find that your relationships actually feel better, as you no longer feel controlled by others and feel free to engage with them on your terms. Bottom line: if you suspect that you’d resent someone for their influence, don’t give them that power.
If you truly must seek some advice, take time to define to yourself the criteria that would make someone’s opinion valuable. Does this person have special expertise or experience? Are they a person whose judgment you especially trust in this area? For example, if you’re buying new hiking shoes, it may not be worth asking your city-slicker grandmother for advice, but you may want to ask your friend who’s a veteran hiker for information. Purposely avoid asking people for their advice unless you have explicitly identified them as a useful source of information, and focus on gathering information rather than asking them what to do. In this case, you might ask your friend what criteria they might use to evaluate a hiking shoe, and simply try to understand what they consider to be the important factors to consider.
Get really clear on what input you are looking for and what you’re not - don’t just put the decision in your friend’s hands! You may want specific advice on comfort or durability of those hiking shoes, but you don’t really need their input about the color or the amount of money you want to spend. Be sure to ask only for the exact input that you want. It may sound nit-picky to identify such specific questions, but checking in with yourself in this way helps remind yourself that you’re the one in charge, and helps break the knee-jerk habit of deferring to others automatically.
If this is a decision that might affect others, who are the people whose opinions matter? How much weight should their opinion hold? In the case of hiking shoes, you can ask for input while ultimately deciding to give 0% weight to your friend’s advice (after all, only you really know your feet and your friend won’t feel any hypothetical blisters from the shoes you buy anyway). In fact, it’s a good idea to remind yourself that just because you ask for advice doesn’t mean you have to follow it! But if you are deciding something collectively, like where to go on vacation with your partner, your partner’s opinion probably counts somewhere around 50%. (More importantly perhaps, remember that your opinion also counts for 50%.) That doesn’t mean you have to split the decision down the middle and vacation at the geographical midpoint between your two top choices, but that each of you should feel your opinions were heard and given weight equally, or 50-50.
Some people can feel strongly about your choices and will try hard to influence you. This can be well-intentioned, but to strengthen your inner voice you will need to shift away from following those with the loudest and most persuasive voices, and check in with yourself about how much weight you want to give them. In concrete terms, this means identifying how much time and energy you want to spend considering their views. If your mother has a very strong opinion about that vacation but won’t be joining you, you can decide that you’ll entertain her views at about 10% (so devote about 10% of your decision-making bandwidth to listening and considering her views). Remember that 0% is also always an option when it comes to those who are not directly involved in your decision.
It also often helps to give yourself some time to think about others’ input before agreeing to it. This is especially true for relationally-oriented people who want to validate their friends by agreeing with them, and for open-minded folks who get excited about new possibilities and say “yes” before they can really think things through. Some kind but firm statements you might try: “Thanks, I’ll take that into consideration.” “Let me think about that and get back to you.” “I appreciate your input but I’m not ready to make a decision just yet.” To take this step even further, pick a day in the week in which you do not agree to anything right away. Instead, whenever someone suggests something or makes a request of you, use one of the above statements (or put them in your own words). You can absolutely agree to these things eventually, but the point is to give yourself a buffer before going along with others, so that you have time to reflect and strengthen your inner voice before committing yourself.
If you have asked others for input, remember that the only thing you owe them is a “thank you” for taking the time to explore this topic with you. You can let them know that hearing their perspectives helped you become more clear in your own thoughts--even if you decided the opposite of what they suggested. People like to hear that their thoughts count, but having their thoughts count does not mean allowing them to make the decision for you.
As you complete these exercises and strengthen your inner voice, it is worth reflecting on how to re-engage with others without losing your new skills. Once you have a solid sense of your own opinions, beliefs and values, you can begin balancing these with the perspectives of others. Instead of asking yourself whether you’re right or if a friend is right, frame your questions as a check-in to see if there is any information that you missed. Rather than asking for a friend’s opinion, ask for a different analysis. You could even try asking them to offer several viewpoints without telling you their own personal opinion, so as to avoid falling into a people-pleasing pattern. Before agreeing to anyone else’s viewpoint, take time to check their analysis against what you have already formulated using your inner voice. By this process you will achieve that ideal balance of internal and external wisdom. Hopefully these exercises will help you develop the habit of tuning into yourself, as well as specific skills to use to strengthen your inner voice so that it balances out the views and opinions of others. To further explore your inner voice, or to develop a more personalized plan to increase your sense of autonomy and identity, reach out to the Center for Growth for an appointment with one of our highly trained therapists.