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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

Learning to Listen to the Adult Inside Us

It’s natural to think of ourselves as a single person. We have – after all – only one body and answer to only one name. But inside our minds, we are in truth far more like an assemblage of voices or – as we might put it at its starkest – of ‘people.’

We could picture our minds like a theatre, much of it sunk in darkness, with a brightly illuminated lectern and microphone at the center of the stage. At different moments of our days and nights, contrasting characters will seek to step up to speak and interpret the world unfolding before our eyes. Sometimes, it will be the panicker, a prominent figure alarmed by everything, someone who has always known it will all go wrong and quickly resorts to weeping and wailing in the face of even minor difficulties. Sometimes it will be the self-flagellator, the one who speaks very sternly, insists that everything is our fault and berates us that we don’t, ultimately, deserve to exist. Sometimes it is the depressive, who knows that existence is an appalling error, that hope cannot survive and that our direction is towards doom and catastrophe. What unites these characters is that they are, in their diverse ways, very keen to speak and very very unhelpful.

But we need to keep a surprising idea in mind, that we all also have – though we are not quite aware of the fact and therefore rarely do anything to encourage them to come forward – an adult inside us. The adult may be lingering in the wings, they may be in a seat at the very back of the theatre or in some dark winding corridor backstage. But they are there. We have – over the course of our lives – all had just enough experience of other kindly, impressive adults, for this character to have taken shape and developed a capacity to interpret life, even if only in somewhat tentative form.

When we can allow them on stage, the adult brings some key virtues to the microphone in our minds. They are, above anything else, resourceful. In the face of trouble, they look for solutions. They know there can be some way through. They don’t despair at the first hurdle. It might be hard right now, but things will work themselves out eventually; they always do. What’s more, the adult is kind: they extend compassion to us for our difficulties: they know our troubled histories and how easy it would have been for anyone to slip up in our position. They can bring perspective to bear on questions: in the wider scheme, something may be of only miniscule importance; the adult applies distance to problems. They have a sense of how long life can be and how much time there is for us to recover. They are practical too: at moments, they will simply but authoritatively tell us to go to bed, not to think about it till morning and to make sure we are eating properly.

The good news is that however unused we are to hearing the adult speak to us on the stage of our minds, they can – with patience – be coaxed into doing so far more regularly than they do right now. We can develop how often, and how loudly, the adult inside delivers its verdicts. And what’s more, encouraging this adult voice requires no particular technical skill or arcane practice. All we need to do – at important moments when our other inner characters will be rushing to get to the microphone of the mind – is to hold them all back purposefully, breathe deeply and ask ourselves one simple but categorical question: what would the adult say here?

For example, in the course of a difficult conversation with a partner, our question to ourselves should be: what would the adult say…? When we’re feeling low and dejected, we should know to ask: what would the adult say…? When someone hasn’t called us, we should interrupt the panic and whisper: what would the adult say…?

We can thereby, with a little practice, come to see that we invariably have a choice about who speaks inside us. Of course the panicker, the depressive and the self-hater will always be offering their services to make lengthy speeches to us about our failings and our dark prospects. But we have an option to call time on them and request someone else to take to the stage. We may need to search for them a bit more assiduously, we may need to do a certain amount of persuasion and training to help them find their way up the steps in the semi-darkness in good time. We might have to implore them to come up right now. But it can be done. At any moment of difficulty, we can simply say: What would the adult me do here?

And miraculously, there will always be an answer in our minds, because however difficult our past might have been, we’ll have banked enough experience of adulthood to put this character together. Now the challenge is regularly to check in and ensure that the adult has as much of our airtime as possible. It’s entirely within our remits to shape the running order of who speaks to us and when. The adult is already inside us, now we need to give them the stage – and ensure we listen to the wisdom they, and therefore we, already well know about how to lead the rest of our lives. 

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