How to Take Care of Yourself When… Your Own Mind is Your Worst Enemy, Part II

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?

 

Compassion

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.

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Call in the Medicine that will heal your heart

 

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.  

 

Forgiveness

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.”

 

Higher Power

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.

 

Affirmations

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:

Loving-kindness

Compassion

Forgiveness

Affirmations

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!  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… A Relative Has Estranged You

“My grandfather doesn’t approve of my marriage, and has cut me out of his life.  I can’t be someone I’m not… but I also feel incomplete without my grandfather in my life.”

 

Estrangement is a very painful- and often hidden- part of many families.  Sometimes, the estranger (the one deciding to end communication with another) is explicit in his or her intentions: “I don’t want to see or hear from you again.”  Other times, the estranger simply never responds to efforts at communicating from the estranged (the one being estranged) and doesn’t reach out to the estranged.  My assumption in writing this article is that if you are identifying as an estranged person, you have tried to communicate with the estranger, and they have either not responded to your several attempts via different avenues (telephone, email, letter, stopping by) or they have explicitly said they do not wish to be in communication with you.  At this juncture, it is safe to say that you have made all the reasonable effort you can make, and that a return to communication will have to happen through future efforts of the estranger.  

When you become estranged, rejection, loss, grief, shame, unworthiness, and a host of other debilitating feelings may come to the fore.  To be estranged- especially by a relative- is one of the most triggering of the human experiences.  A family is oftentimes a symbol of security, love, and acceptance- and yet, here, you are experiencing instability, indifference, and rejection.  The most important thing for you to know is that the estrangement is often not about who you actually are.  In fact, estrangement is most often indicative of the social and emotional intelligence of the estranger.  Many people- when they have a disagreement with someone- are able to initiate a dialogue about the conflict and come to a place of healing and relationship preservation.  Not so, with the estranger.  Barring a hard “no-contact” boundary on account of abusive history perpetrated by the estranged, the estranger is often incapable of maintaining healthy relationships with people whom they find challenging- and sees no reason to develop this capacity.     

Some people deeply value family and family connections, and others don’t.  This can be one way that estrangement happens: if a relative does something you don’t like and you don’t value family, it might be easy to decide you never want to see that person- or his or her children- again.  On the other hand, some people deeply value family and family connections- so much so, that they have developed an enmeshed experience in their families, where identities blur and the choice of a relative is seen to reflect either poorly or positively on oneself.  In this case, it may be very painful to estrange a relative who has made a choice you wouldn’t make for yourself- and yet you might value your “pride” or “honor” over keeping the relationship intact.  

I put the words “pride” and “honor” in quotations because they are smokescreens hiding something not so positive in the shadow aspects of the estranger’s consciousness.  Much estrangement comes from the estranger judging something about the estranged and “disowning,” or cutting that person out of the estranger’s life- and sometimes, out of a whole nuclear family or branch of the extended family.  The example quoted at the beginning of this article is an example of such a case.  When the estranger is judging the estranged, it is very often coming from self-hatred, via the psychological process of projection.  The estranger sees something in the estranged that the estranger has been rejecting in him or herself, pushing consciousness of these traits or tendencies down so as not to think about them- though they often do manifest, anyway- simply in ways the estranger is not willing to see or address.  A dramatic example of this is the phenomenon of right-wing, openly homophobic politicians who are found to be soliciting gay sex in public bathrooms.  These politicians are projecting their fear and hatred of their own homosexuality onto others, actively oppressing an entire group of people.  At the same time, they are engaging in the action they say and believe that they hate- albeit surreptitiously and anonymously (until they are arrested, publicly shamed, and their political careers are ruined!)  While projection doesn’t often have such a dramatic consequence, the consequence of families being broken apart on account of someone’s unchecked projection is a major disturbance in the fabric of the family and in the emotional well-being of all family members involved.     

If you have been estranged by a relative or a branch of the family, the pain is real.  You may not be able to reunite your family, but there are several things you can do to take care of yourself.

           

Cultivate Your Compassion

The very first thing we need to do when we’re in pain is to acknowledge the pain and to be gentle with ourselves.  If someone asks about the relative who has estranged you, it’s okay to say you haven’t heard from that person and that it’s something you’d rather not discuss.  Take time to journal if that helps you.  This is also a great time to seek the company of friends and other relatives who will be able to support you as you navigate the waters of estrangement.  The care of a psychotherapist is a powerful tool on which to call, especially at a time like this.  In your work with a therapist you may be able to uncover your personal emotional and cognitive symptoms resulting from the estrangement and develop coping strategies for them.  You may also be able to address the healing possibilities described in the next two sections, Heal Your Relationship, and Fill Your Life With Loving People.     

Further, when we consider the deep suffering that the person who has estranged us must be experiencing, it is a little bit less painful to be estranged.  When we see that this rift is on account of someone else’s suffering and that it is out of our hands, we are able to let it go.  Take some time to consider the magnitude of confusion and pain that the estranged must endure every day to be able to cut a part of themselves off- like cutting off a hand, or a leg.  When you envision this suffering, you may begin to realize that your own suffering is not even the half of it.       

 

Heal Your Relationship

While the estranger has made it clear that they no longer wish for a relationship with you, you still have the capacity to heal your relationship- or the representation of that relationship- within yourself.  Two ways I suggest doing this are through prayer and forgiveness meditation.  Prayer means different things to different people, but in this case, it would involve sending up prayers for the estranger to find peace and healing.

Forgiveness meditation is a process where you allow your heart to rest on the ways you have hurt yourself and others, and the way others have hurt you- all out of confusion and pain- and to cultivate forgiveness towards yourself and others.  When you are able to see the pain and confusion out of which you and others have acted, you are more able to actually feel forgiveness.  People who are suffering cause others to suffer.  This meditation cuts through the illusion that the estranger is acting from a place of strength, pushing you down and hurting you.  Remember that to forgive does not mean to forget.  While forgiveness may allow you to not carry hatred any longer in your heart, you are still able to use discernment about whom you welcome into your life.  I have heard it said that forgiveness is “the abandonment of the desire for the other to suffer.”  Here is a text version of a forgiveness meditation, as well as a 10-minute video meditation, both by Jack Kornfield.      

 

Fill Your Life With Loving People

 

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The World is Filled With People Who Want To Be Near Your Light

The beauty of our highly populated and internet-connected world is that there are so many people to befriend.  What may seem like a loss of the estranger is actually an invitation to broaden your “family” to include new people.  Your tribe can be an international powerhouse of loving, supportive people- if you want it to be!  Unlike the distant days of small villages and only ever knowing the same 200 people your entire life, you can now build a family of choice.  Whether in your city or town, or with people you have met while traveling the globe- in person or virtually- you can find community.  Don’t let the grief of familial rejection hold you back from finding your tribe.  And don’t let that grief cause you to shutter your light.  Let your light shine, and find others who are sending out the same signal.  There is a community for everyone, and community is- from my personal and clinical perspective- the most important factor for mental health.  There is a tiny fraction of the human population that genuinely does not feel benefit from being in community- if you know you can benefit from building your social circle, reach out and find your people.

Even deeper than the general concept of community, we also all need people in our lives who fill certain roles.  There are numerous archetypes- or characters with specific traits and behaviors- that cross cultures and are found in all of our psyches, according to Carl Jung.  Examples could be the mother, the brother, the priest, the hermit, the father, the crone, the fool, the teacher, the judge, etc.  When we are able to embrace the elements of these archetypes within our own psyches, we are most whole.  It is also helpful and stimulating of growth to have people in our lives who play some of these roles for us.  In an intact family, you would have an actual mother who is nurturing and compassionate and patient and an actual father who is supportive and loving and encouraging.  However- whether through estrangement or not- some parents aren’t actually like this.  In that case, you can become friends with older women or men who treat you in these respectfully maternal or paternal ways.  I want to be clear that this is very different than the often-criticized “daddy issues” or “mommy issues” that some people have: a need to be taken care of by an older man or woman (often in a romantic relationship) on account of being rejected by one’s actual mother or father, or an angsty need to rebel against an older man or woman (such as a boss at work, landlord, or professor) on account of some unresolved anger towards one’s actual mother or father.  

Your tribe can be comprised of not only age-peers who have your same interests, but multi-generational kindred spirits who are role models and mentors for you, and for whom you are a role model and a mentor.  You don’t have to have any actual sisters or brothers to love people as if they are your own siblings.  Let this estrangement be an invitation for you to turn around and embrace others.  

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Creating Community

Journaling

Compassion

Acceptance

Forgiveness

Prayer

Share Your Experience
If you have experience healing from estrangement, please share it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!