In the words of one of my clients: “If anyone else said to me the things I say to myself, I would call it verbal abuse.”
Part I of this article addressed ways to take care of the anxious, negative, and critical mind when it targets people and incidents outside of oneself. What happens when the same quality of mind takes the form of self-critical internal commentary and self-limiting automatic thoughts? I hear from many people- particularly from those who are newly self-aware- that their thoughts towards / about themselves are abusive. They have an oppressive inner voice that comes down harshly upon them- with name-calling and cursing included- for relatively minor mistakes. They catch themselves staring in the mirror and mercilessly picking apart their own appearance, inwardly criticizing every bulge and sag. The thoughts are automatic, and have been around for a long time. Once they begin “hearing” this voice so clearly, they are disturbed that it has been going on so long. It is as if they are waking up from a trance and discovering they have been in a toxic relationship… for decades… with themselves!
How did we get this way? Why on Earth would so many people be so unkind to themselves? It could be an internalized oppressor- the voice of someone abusive from the past, whose rude names and general disrespect for you has become the playlist for your own inner voice, always ready to tear you down at any sign of weakness. It could be the influence of our wider culture, with its youth-and-beauty-worshipping messages creating an impossible physical ideal you have become programmed to expect of yourself. It could be the same culture leaching its sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, and any-other-ism into your psyche, giving fodder for an unsettled mind to use against its closest, easiest target: you.
I like to hold out the possibility that the self-abuse isn’t meant to be personal: rather, it is a product of our evolution- as I mentioned in Part I- where our minds have developed to take special note of negatives, in order to avoid failure or harm that could be lethal. In the case of viewing oneself, the mind goes overboard in criticizing and wanting to push away today’s “problems” that are not life-threatening, such as the social, financial, physical and other “shortcomings” we recognize in ourselves. Maybe the mind believes that the harder it comes down on the “shortcomings,” the more likely they are to retreat- like fighting off an attacking tiger, tooth and nail. Anyone with any kind of experience working with people knows that abusive language and actions do not fix “shortcomings-” rather, they increase shame and self-hatred, leading to either magnified “shortcomings,” or the eruption of a whole new problem.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, it’s time for an internal intervention. Here are five ways to respond to the inner bully. Are you ready?
It’s tempting to respond to a negative inner voice with forceful rejection. However… this is more of the same pushing-away energy that is hurting you. Hatred cannot heal hatred. Only love can heal. When you discover that you are breeding hateful thoughts about yourself, the medicine you need is compassion. The simplest way to do that is to pause and softly embrace the pain when you see hurting. Whether you are having a bad day and need to cry or you catch that negative inner dialogue, you can apply compassion: “It’s okay to cry, I am here for myself, holding my heart with tenderness and reverence,” or “I hear you, negative inner voice, and I know you are coming from fear and insecurity. I can assure you that I am safe and you don’t have to be afraid.”
Do you have a spiritual practice that addresses compassion? All the spiritual traditions I have studied hold compassion in high regard. Prayer, reading, and imagery on the topic of compassion can help make this virtue so present in your mind and heart that it becomes your natural language, replacing the critical or abusive. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish theologians have written much about compassion. Compassion is a central tenet of Buddhism, embodied by the bodhisattva Guan Yin. If it suits you, pray to be filled with compassion.
Dwell in the Light
I find that it is easiest to procure positive thoughts and feelings when I immerse myself in positivity… and steer clear of negativity. Positive conversations, articles, films, and music all shape my mental state to one that is pretty much full-time positive. This is not rocket science. I have an appreciation for the macabre, the underworld, my own shadow self… but I don’t live there full-time. You can be a complex and mysterious person with dark and light facets who chooses to dwell in the light. If you are one of the many people drawn to dark and violent media and conversations and you struggle with dark and negative thoughts… well, you may want to reconsider your choices! What we put into our consciousness is what comes out of it. Would you prefer to feel light and positive? Feed yourself full-time on the light and positive, and see what happens.
When you begin to see that you have been hurting yourself from the inside (and probably with the choices you make on the outside, too,) it can be frustrating and bring up anger, more self-hatred. This, of course, will be a self-reinforcing cycle. So, like compassion, forgiveness is the medicine needed here- not resentment. I have mentioned forgiveness practice here before, in the last paragraph of this article. Forgiveness practice goes through a cycle of multiple objects- first yourself, then someone you have hurt, then someone who has hurt you. The entire practice is so fruitful, but you can meditate on self-forgiveness, alone, if that is what you need today.
The words you can use are something like this: “I see that I have hurt myself deeply, and I am so sorry. I have been confused and in pain, and I have made choices that led to my own and others’ suffering. I allowed my pain and confusion to spill over and multiply, creating more of my own pain. I forgive myself for making this very human mistake. I am committed to protecting myself from further self-abuse, to taking care of my suffering so that I do not cause myself or anyone else to suffer needlessly. From the bottom of my heart, I bring forth forgiveness and compassion for all those places in me that hurt and don’t yet know how to heal. I am here and I will take care of myself.”
Do you have a Higher Power concept in your spiritual life? Whether God, the Divine, Great Spirit, Holy Spirit, Suchness, any among the myriad world pantheons of Gods and Goddesses or Bodhisattvas, Mother Earth, your Guru or mentors, or that part of yourself that is most wise, this is a time to call upon your Higher Power for help. Light up some incense and place your pain at the feet of your Higher Power. Summon the support of your Higher Power in transforming your internal dialogue.
The action of humbling oneself and acknowledging the need for support is a key to transformative healing. This is part of the magic of 12-step programs. Steps 1-3 say: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” You could view your hurtful relationship with yourself as a kind of addiction to self-hate, just as substance and behavioral addictions could also be described. Whether it’s poisoning ourselves with toxic thoughts or toxic substances, sometimes we need help from a Power greater than ourselves to break free.
People who have worked all or most of the 12 steps are also familiar with the concept of affirmations. Affirmations are short, powerful, positive phrases that counter negative self-views you have been carrying. While identifying affirmations as you work the steps is an in-depth exploration of negative self-beliefs via the process of making a “searching and fearless moral inventory” (step 4,) you can do a smaller version of this right now.
Let’s start with one negative belief you have about yourself. Let’s say you find yourself criticizing your appearance. You get deeper, and you see your negative self-belief is “I am ugly.” Can you dig deeper? Maybe you find another layer, “I am unloveable,” or “I am worthless.” Once you think you’ve found the belief that is ailing you, play around with crafting positive affirmations that oppose that negative statement. They will begin with “I am…” Various options here could be “I am Beauty,” or “I am loveable,” “I am Love,” “I am worthy.” These are not statements that you will believe- at least, not fully and deeply. That is why they are important! If you do this for several beliefs, you may come up with a list of 10 or more affirmations. Put them on small note cards, put them on your bedstand or in your bag, and shuffle through them once or more every day. Say the affirmation out loud as you look at each card. Say them to yourself in the bathroom mirror. Say them under your breath if you can’t get privacy. You are studying for a self-love test called “Life,” and the sooner you get this part down, the further you can go!
Important skills you are strengthening:
Share Your Experience
How have you healed from self-hating and self-defeating beliefs and internal dialogue? Please share about it in the “comments” section. The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!