Negative Self Talk - The Abusive Cycle That Leaves Us Feeling Trapped and Alone
Not too long ago, I was playing corn hole with a friend of mine. You know the game. Two boards, 4 friends and a bunch of sewn up bags just waiting to be thrown a super long distance with the hope of a perfect landing for points.
I was feeling pretty good that day. Like a winner. I took the bag in my hands, put my eyes on the prize and threw it into the air with all of my heart and soul toward the unforgiving board 25 ft away.
It'd be fun to tell you that I nailed it, but at the last second I realized I had held on too long and my best try ended up going way left and landing at the feet of my teammate across the way.
Then came the interesting part. Out of my mouth poured the words:
"That's ok David, you gave it your best try."
I didn't think twice about it, but my friend/opponent thought it was hilarious that I was being so kind to myself after such a misdirected throw. He laughed, made a couple quick quips and then lined up for his shot.
He focused, set his intention and then let it loose into the air. Let's just say his shot made my shot look amazing. His bag landed way off in the grass and he began shouting:
"C'mon man, you can do better than that! Pull it together!"
Something like that anyway, with a few more expletives intertwined.
At that moment, I realized how strange it was that my positive self soothing talk toward myself was met with sarcasm and his negative self talk seemed to be accepted as so natural and normal.
I know that this is a small story about a simple game at a BBQ, but the theme hasn't left me.
As human beings, we consider it natural and normal, and sometimes even helpful and motivating, to meet our mistakes with negative and degrading self talk. Somewhere deep inside of us, we believe that the way to better health and success, to better habits and moral choices is found through punishing ourselves.
When you really think about it, this shouldn't be surprising. After all, as kids we were shown time and again that when we made mistakes or when we expressed our anger in the "wrong" way, when we were out of line, we deserved some kind of discipline in order to be made "right" again. And without this discipline we faced the fear of losing relationship with our parents/teachers/friends/loved ones.
This belief was then reinforced through religious stories that went even further, showing us that our sin, our mistakes, were so bad that God himself couldn't bear to be in our presence. That in order to be accepted, even by eternal love, someone had to pay the penalty.
I no longer live by this belief.
Today, I practice positive self soothing talk even in the midst of my biggest habits and struggles. I let myself know that even when I fail at what I consider to be important, that I tried my best. I remind myself that mistakes are normal and that the way forward is to keep trying.
Let's put this in real form. My latest habit that I have been trying to step out of is smoking cigarettes. I've been working hard at quitting. Believe me, I can see the reasons I should stop and I've been told them all over again a million times, but some days, I still decide to smoke.
Within this habit, I have realized that when I smoke, and I respond to myself with inner or outer verbal punishment, I find myself experiencing heavy guilt and frustration which leads me to a dark place of shame.
Then, covered in this shame, I hide away from my friends and loved ones with the hope that I will find safety in being alone. But, in my aloneness, my negative self discipline reminds me that it is me who I am trying to get away from.
This cycle does not bring healing, this cycle pushes us backwards into the trap that we are all working so hard to be free of.
Nowadays, when I have a cigarette, and I hear the negative self talk start to raise its voice, I respond like this:
"I hear you Davers (my childhood name:). I understand your fear. Don't worry, I see the danger as well. What if we are on our way to quitting? What if health and freedom are just around the corner?"
Through awareness, through listening to myself, through the acknowledgment of my fear, and through the invitation to imagine a better future, a door of greater possibility opens and I know I am on my way out of my habit.
What habits are you struggling with? What mistakes have you made lately? When you miss the mark, do you meet yourself as a positive self soothing presence? Or do you find yourself caught up in negative self talk leaving you isolated and alone?
There is a path to healing. It’s through the door of the comfort and care that only you can offer.
I know you can do it.
Be kind to yourself.
It's the only way forward.