esther calling

‘Where Does the “Evil Voice” in My Head Come From?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

If you haven’t read the first part of this session, I invite you to read it, as it will help you understand why I wanted to offer this young woman a part two to her most perplexing question. 

Esther Perel: You didn’t expect that we would talk so soon, right? 

Caller: I didn’t, no. I’m excited.

Some conversations last, they stay with me. Where you hang up and say, “Oh, I wish I had said this or asked about that.” So that was my first thought, actually: “What did she walk away with?” I said so many things. We went into a very different direction, I think, than the one you thought we would go. I wondered when Evil Voice … it still is the same name? 

Caller: Yes.

When Evil Voice says, “You can do this, you can hurt him, you can get away with it, nobody will notice,” in some way, it almost says, “I want him to feel what I felt.” It’s more than him just being curious and asking me something. 

To sort of challenge that, I feel like in my heart, I don’t want to hurt him, ever. When you say, like, I want him to feel what I felt, I don’t know if that’s exactly what I’m internalizing.

Please tell me. These are just thoughts that went through my head that I wondered, and … but I absolutely don’t think I’m right. 


So I like when you say, “Nah, doesn’t fit.” Please take it where it needs to go. 

I think those thoughts are challenging me, telling me, like, “So, you’re in love. Let’s see how far my thoughts can go to make her mess that up.” It’s like constantly challenging me to be the bad person. I don’t know why they’re so constant in my mind. It’s sort of like, “Oh, you think you’re in a good spot right now?” It’s self-sabotage, but I’m constantly choosing to not sabotage myself.

Can I ask you: How did your family or your friends react? 

When I asked my family member who’s been in a relationship for over 15 years, “Do you ever get thoughts of cheating on your partner?,” automatically he was like, “No, never.” He said, “When we argue, that’s never crossed my mind.” And I was like, “Great, I love that for you. But for me, that’s what happened.” Then my friends, they’ve just told me not to tell him, as long as I’m not acting on it, just ignore those thoughts and let time pass by.

Did you share with your family or your friends about the assault? 


How did they react to that? 

They were very empathetic. They were there when I needed them. I think they believe that I’ve moved on from that, so it hasn’t been brought up in years now, which I like, because I don’t want to bring it up constantly with friends and family. But they were there throughout the whole process.

First of all, it’s incredible that they were there and that they showed up for you. But the other thing is that between never bringing it up and constantly bringing it up, there’s a bit of a gap. There’s a space in between “never” and “constantly” that means “sometimes.” But the thing that I stayed with was your emphasis not on the cheating but on the “nobody will ever know and I can get away with this.” Which I assume is what your assailant thought, that they could get away with this. “Nobody will notice. I could get away with it.” So then I thought, do you wonder how he got away with it? 


And the voice is setting you up for the same. Cheating is the secondary part. The bigger part is, “How does one get away with this? And nobody notices.” 

Part of what you said about your boyfriend is you want him to notice more. Because sometimes, when people don’t acknowledge, there is a bit of a subtle shaming and judgment, as if this were behind you. Which emphasizes even more that your assailant gets away with it and nobody notices. 


That’s what stayed with me. This is what we call trauma reenactment. But this time in the role of the aggressor, this time it’s you doing it. Almost to figure out how one does such a thing and get away with it. Evil Voice keeps telling you that. 

Yeah, definitely. I really resonate with that, because Evil Voice is saying, “Get away with cheating, you can do it.” But I’m constantly having to choose to be a good person. The voice is constantly challenging me, and constantly like, “There’s still a bad person inside of you.”

It’s not a bad person. But it is the way that sometimes we reenact a trauma and it’s a hiddenness. If you take it as her egging you on to cheat, then you’re disconnecting it from what Evil Voice really is saying to you. It says, “He doesn’t notice,” and when he doesn’t notice, it brings back the feeling of what it was like that this assailant could get away with this and nobody noticed. It brings back the fact that, in the not noticing and the not acknowledging what you went through, there’s a subtle shaming and judgment. 


I would like you not to take it as literal. The cheating is not literal, you have no intention. This is not, “I see you with desire for somebody else and turned on by other people and wanting to seduce.” You know, I’ve heard people who are inclined to transgress. You don’t sound like that. You sound like someone who is working through something that is living inside of you and that is being awakened or reignited because you are with someone who doesn’t acknowledge. Not because he’s mean, because he’s probably thinking that he doesn’t want to hurt you or make you feel bad, so he prefers not to ask. But in not asking, he emphasizes the hiddenness of it all. The hiddenness is probably one of the most important parts of this traumatic experience for you. You’re the one dealing with this for five years afterward. 

I actually talked to him yesterday about what we had discussed.

What did you say? 

I told him that I love that he is understanding and accepting of me, but I wish that he were more curious about the process that I go through when it comes to, like, problem-solving, or when it comes to emotional situations, and that he doesn’t really ask questions about or acknowledge that sometimes I’m struggling emotionally.

It was kind of rough at first, because he took it as me asking him to do something that’s out of his nature. He doesn’t ask questions because he doesn’t want to pick and probe the situation. He also said it’s kind of unfair because he feels like with that conversation and what he took from it, moving forward, if I were to tell him something and he didn’t ask me any questions, it’s going to be a negative mark on his end, and I’m going to get mad. I was like, “No, no, no, it’s none of that. I just want you to realize that I’m an open book and I want you to truly know me and know how I became who I am now.” So I told him, as a note, just constantly be curious about me. I know we’ve known each other for so long, but just continue with the curiosity, like how we were in our first date or second date. So it ended well. I feel like he understood what I was asking and what I would like. But it was hard to get to that point because he was just understanding a completely different thing. So we’ll see how it goes. I don’t know if he’s actually going to be more curious.

Do you have a feeling that he understood that, unbeknownst to him, when he is not curious, it intensifies the feeling of hiddenness? When our traumatic experiences are hidden, which then of course intensifies the shame, it intensifies the isolation. 


The point is not to talk about it all the time. The point is to know that if you want to, you can, and there’s someone who will hear it, because the act of sharing is what takes away the hiddenness, the getting away with it, the “no one will know,” the “I can damage you and just go on with my merry life.” That’s why you call it Evil Voice, because you call it a voice of vengeance. A voice that wants to react against that aspect of the experience. There are other parts that are so hurtful, but this piece is what this voice has focused on. 

Yeah. I spent so many years thinking about the assault. Now that I’m in a healthy relationship, I’m not thinking about the assault anymore, and subconsciously it is coming back to me in that way. For sure.

You’re clear on that now. Did you know it before? 

No, I just thought that I am constantly letting my intrusive thoughts win, and this was just another intrusive thought that wouldn’t go away. But now, digging deep, it does seem like I’ve thought about this one specific event in my life for so many years and it’s not just gonna completely go away. It’s gonna manifest and morph into something different.

“It’s one more dimension of this experience that I need to bring full circle. I am now able to be with a new partner. I’m able to connect to fall in love, to make love, to be loved, to be desired, all of the above. But I need that experience to find its place in the thread of my life. If it becomes a hidden piece here, then in a way it keeps it alive, when in fact what I would like is to morph it into something else.” So the intrusive thought is trying to accomplish something. It’s saying, “There’s one more thing you need here.” But it’s not about “go ahead and cheat.” It uses that script to deal with the hiddenness. 

I just wanted to say that to you because it stayed with me. I just thought — and maybe I’m off — but the fact that you called it Evil Voice, that there is an anger at him for, under the guise of respect, inviting silence. In that silence, there is a bit of shaming and judgment, which is one of the things when we have these types of traumatic experiences that really do become intrusive thoughts. 


Is this helpful? Was it worth calling you back? 

Yes, that was very helpful, because one thing I didn’t understand in our last call was … I do get the reason why I think that I can get away with “cheating.” That made perfect sense, but I didn’t understand: Why cheating? Why not getting away with something else, like binge-eating or something? Why does it have to go to something that is going to harm someone who I love?

Because that’s what the guy did to you. 


You’re not gonna choose something that doesn’t affect him. Your overeating, that’s not a big issue for him. The cheating is the perfect metaphor for something that is secretive, that is hidden, that is hurtful, that involves sex. It’s the right metaphor for doing something hurtful and then getting away with it, in this instance. It’s not always that, just in the way that Evil Voice is using it. 

Yeah, it’s something that would bring me shame if I were to cheat. And that’s exactly how I felt after the assault for so many years, just shame. That makes perfect sense to me.

The conversation you had with him yesterday was just the beginning. You know that? 

Yeah, it’s going to be a process, for sure.

Could you imagine writing him a letter? Would he be more receptive?

Definitely. Yeah.

“In a way, when you don’t ask me anything, it’s as if you’re joining forces with the evil forces of assault and its hiddenness. I know you don’t intend that. I know you have no idea that that’s what is happening, but I think it’s important that you understand that.”

I love that. It seems as if you are joining forces with the secretness.

Yes. I think that in our first conversation, we got close, but we didn’t get there all the way. I just thought, I can’t let you just really think of this in the literal sense, that this is about cheating and being egged on to act poorly. I wanted you to really put it in the context of this traumatic event and how trauma often acts over time. That what you think is a negative intrusive thought is telling you there’s something you have to pay attention to that is happening here. That doesn’t sit well with you, but you don’t allow yourself to know it. 

I do have another question now that you summarized that. In the not knowing or not questioning bringing up shame and hiddenness, how am I supposed to feel? I mean, obviously, you can’t tell me how I’m supposed to feel, but in the silence, in the quietness, and in the shame, how do I get out of that? Because I feel like if I were to attack that feeling in the moment, it would stop Evil Voice from coming in later on, you know?

But it’s not attack. It’s attend. 

Okay, yeah.

You attend to these feelings, you don’t attack these feelings. The goal is not to eradicate them with pesticides. Because if you do that, you’re going to get more Evil Voices that are gonna say, “Since you don’t want to listen to me on this channel, let me bring out another channel that whispers in your ear.” 

You know, I don’t know how to answer you specifically, because I don’t know the nature of the assault, the particular way that you experience the shame. You are in therapy, right? 


I think that that’s work that would be really helpful to do with your therapist: What is the shame? What happens when it gets hidden? I think you’re the one who said earlier, “I don’t like to be angry.” Anger has a force in this. It can be a positive force. It’s an anger that fights for you. It’s an anger that says “This is not okay.” It’s an anger that looks to your boyfriend and says, “We don’t have to go into the details of anything. But I do, I do need you to not act in a way that makes me feel that I’m once again with someone who doesn’t notice anything and gets away with it, and reinforces that, even though I know you’re not doing this on purpose and you have no idea that this is even happening. Each of us comes with a story and this is a part of my story.” 


But when you do that alone, it’s about allowing yourself to be angry. To see the wrong that was done, the harm, to not think about being “over it.” “Over it” is I’m able to continue living with it. But that doesn’t mean I now put it in hiding. I now never bring it up. When it comes up, I sit with it for a moment. I say: What’s happening? Why now? Why this? What’s it telling me? What does it need? 

Yeah, I like the repurposing anger to benefit me. Anger’s there to be my ally, to fight for me.

Did you know the person? 

I did. This person was a longtime friend of mine. He knew my family, I knew his family. It was my 21st birthday. I was obviously, rightfully blackout drunk. He was supposed to be my DD. He dropped me off at my apartment and decided a now-or-never kind of thing. He and I never talked about hooking up before that. He was like a brother, essentially. I knew him when I was 10. I haven’t spoken to him since. It’s gonna be eight years since the assault. In the beginning, it was like that where I asked myself, “How did he get away with this?” My friends were still his friends. I hung out with him once to see if maybe I could forgive him, and I was terrified for my life when I was with him. Now, as an adult, letting time pass, I have chosen friends that choose me. I have now distanced myself from the people who decided to continue being friends with that person. It was definitely someone who I knew. That I was very very close with.

So there is also a huge betrayal. 

Yeah, the betrayal was very hard to get over.

Thank you. I didn’t mean to ask you. 

No, it’s okay.

But every one of these details makes a difference. The recovery of sexual assault, as my friend Holly Richmond says, is connection, control, and pleasure. So, you experience a reconnection and the freedom to connect again. You experience control not as in being in control, but as in surrendering control voluntarily. There is no greater freedom than voluntary surrender. That’s the opposite of an assault. And then the reclaiming of pleasure. I hope that you find your way to all of these. 

I’m definitely working my way there, but it’s been a journey.

What’s incredible is that you went to meet him with the hopes that you could forgive him. Why? Why not first have him be accountable for his actions? 

Yeah. I was naïve. I was young.

No, no, but that’s the power of your anger. It has a purpose, it’s actually even more important than I had initially imagined, because you were ready to run to forgive him, without him experiencing any responsibility, blame, accountability, remorse, guilt. Only when people experience those things does forgiving have the meaning that it needs to have. It’s very hard to forgive someone who is not taking responsibility for their actions, that doesn’t show remorse or guilt for hurting you. This is true for him, but this is also a message for you, hence for the others. We could go on. 

So I’m gonna say good-bye to you right here. And I’m looking forward to hearing from you. 

Yes, you will. You’ll hear from me.

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‘Where Does the “Evil Voice” in My Head Come From?’