The Horrid Sound That Haunts Your Nightmares: Your Own Voice

Voice confrontation, a phenomenon in which we encounter a feeling of displeasure in hearing our own voices, is caused by both the differences in sensory input of the ear and our flawed perception of our self-image that synthesizes this reaction.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Angel Liu

A video your friend took of you laughing like a maniac while walking to the subway station. A recording you have to submit for a language assignment. Whatever the case, we are all familiar with how we wince as we listen to the shrill, high-pitched voice that exits our mouths. What causes such an intense feeling of discomfort when we listen to the real version of our voices?

We are often disturbed by the sound of our recorded voice because our perception of our voice is different from reality. This phenomenon is known as voice confrontation. What creates this difference are the vibrations our ears pick up while we listen. When we listen to others, their voices create sound waves that travel through the air. These waves vibrate the eardrums inside our ears, which then vibrate the ossicles, or the small bones inside the ear, and the cochlea, a spiral-shaped organ that changes the vibrations into electrical signals. These signals are then transmitted to the brain through the auditory nerve. However, when we listen to ourselves speak, the vibrations of our voice are not the only source of sound. In addition to vibrations produced by external sources, the internal vibrations of your body—the ones produced by your vocal cords, your bones, and your airways—also produce sound, and your brain processes these two sources of sound. Because of both external and internal stimuli, your perceived voice is a distorted version of what your voice actually sounds like: it is deeper and lower than what others perceive.

However, it isn't just the ears that play into voice confrontation; the brain has a significant role as well. The differences in the sensory input our ears receive are what cause us to experience voice confrontation, but our brain and conscious sense of self amplify it. Besides talking, many of us do not hear our voices, creating a strong detachment from our voices. A study conducted by psychologists Philip Holzman and Clyde Rousey in 1967 showed that only 38 percent of participants were able to quickly identify their own voice. As Martin Birchall, a professor of laryngology at University College London, stated, “We get used to the sound we hear in our heads […] We build our self-image and vocal self-image around what we hear, rather than the reality.”

In addition to the misconception, Holzman and Rousey also concluded that the emotions conveyed by an individual’s true voice resulted in such negative responses. When listening to our speech from recordings, we also pick up extralinguistic elements—nonverbal, indirect communication that helps convey different emotions and parts of our personality that we are often unaware of. These can range from subtle anxiety to overt aggression. According to Holzman and Rousey, “The disruption and defensive experience are a response to a sudden confrontation with expressive qualities in the voice which the subject had not intended to express and which [...] [s]he was not aware [s]he had expressed.” Voice confrontation is not as simple as hearing a contrast that makes your voice feel foreign: it is a part of yourself that is unrecognizable to you, yet something that the world knows you by.

Though voice confrontation produces a response of displeasure for us, we become accustomed to it in most cases. However, certain individuals struggling with their gender identity are especially prone to issues regarding their voice. For them, it is difficult to listen to their own voice since it sounds similar to voices of the opposite gender, making them more susceptible to stress, anxiety, depression, and gender dysphoria, the feeling of distress that occurs when one’s sex does not match their gender identity. Additionally, transgender individuals are more prone to transphobic attitudes and comments when their voices do not match their expressed gender identity. Fortunately, as medicine progresses, voice and speech therapists are providing professional guidance in developing a voice that matches their gender identity, decreasing the risks of lesions, scarring, and muscle tension in vocal cord tissue that may result from an individual attempting to change their own voice. If therapy is unsuccessful, gender reassignment surgery can also resolve issues in voice changes, allowing individuals to fit into and freely express their gender identity.

Moreover, people in voice-heavy professions often find themselves with voice confrontation issues. However, Bob Kirschner, the head mixer and engineer at Creative Media Design, learned that as individuals become more experienced, they grow accustomed to their voice; some even begin to enjoy the sound of it. Kirschner can easily distinguish the inexperienced, who display awkward, hushed tones in an attempt to hide their voice, from the individuals who have gotten over their voice confrontation and speak with confidence. “You have to be comfortable with your own voice if you’re going to be a good voice artist,” Kirschner notes. “That means learning to become authentic and playing to your strengths.”

Voice confrontation is common because our voice is a core aspect of how we identify ourselves. Our voice is not just a series of sound waves synthesized by our vocal cords; rather, it is a way we connect and communicate with the world around us. From cheering and screaming at a concert to angrily complaining about a stressful school day, our voice lets us respond and react to these experiences, and allows us to show that we are alive.