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.

desertfeathers

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… Your Own Mind is Your Worst Enemy

In the words of a former client: “When I finally looked into all of my most painful moments, I saw that it was my own thinking about the situations that made them so bad.”

Some people seem to be born with a positive disposition, with optimism at their core.  It doesn’t matter if they had saint-like parents nurturing them in all the right ways or came from the most challenging of childhoods, marked by poverty or abuse- they see the silver lining, and their joy is contagious!  Others of us struggle with negative, defeating thinking- even if things have always worked out reasonably well for us.  The mind is a powerful indicator of our ability to enjoy our time on this planet and to make a positive impact while we’re at it.  Have you found that your biggest obstacle to happiness or reaching your potential is your own mind?  Count yourself among the majority of humanity!  We all have struggled with the fact that our own thoughts in reaction to difficult situations can make the situations much worse.

The good news is that we can work with our own minds.  We can leverage our thinking mind in ways that- over time- develop a positivity bias in our brains.  As Rick Hanson says in his book Hardwiring Happiness, “All mental activity—sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes—is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/ neural activity—especially if it is conscious— will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.”  

We can use this powerful information in two directions- limiting the negative and cultivating the positive, both discussed below.             

 

Respectfully Set Boundaries With the Negative Mind

Negative thoughts come and go, just like positive thoughts.  Negative and positive experiences come and go, alike.  It has been said that our minds evolved to take special note of negative experiences, in order to protect us from future negative experiences.  For other species, and for our pre-homo sapiens ancestors, a “negative” experience would be something like encountering a predator and narrowly escaping alive, or experimenting with eating an unfamiliar plant and becoming violently ill.  

We no longer have close calls with such life-threatening experiences in the mainstream modern lifestyle, yet most of us still have the same strong internal reactions to common, but unpleasant experiences.  A supervisor at work gives us a less-than-glowing yearly review or a friend neglects to include us in group plans, and it can fill our minds as if it were a life-threatening encounter.  We might have anxiety around encountering the supervisor or the friend the next day, or we might ruminate over what imminent problems the event portends, such as being fired or being told your friends no longer find you interesting.  Nevermind that 80% of the work review was positive, or that the event you weren’t invited to was a musical jam and you’re not a musician… our minds have a way of running away with shreds of negative experience and drawing a picture much worse than it actually is.  

Along the same lines, we may find ourselves repeating difficult conversations / conflicts in our minds, practicing the statements we wished we had made in order to maintain our dignity / demonstrate the inferiority of the other party.  

When we step back from these thought patterns, we can see that they are useless.  In the vast majority of cases, it is useless to fret over whether something more drastic is coming down the line after we’ve had an unpleasant experience.  It is useless to repeatedly play back challenging interactions and to build up our own sense of superiority or righteous indignation.  In fact, it’s not only useless: it’s harmful!  If there is anything to be worried about in this area, it is our own negative thought process.  As Dr. Hanson says, the repeated thought patterns we follow develop and strengthen neural pathways- whether the thought patterns are damning, angry thoughts or are loving, joyful thoughts.  I would posit that the pathways we develop in our brains lead to not only further thoughts along the same lines, but further actions, and, hence experiences.  This is the degree to which I can get behind “The Secret”- type thinking.  Yes, our thoughts create our reality: they manipulate our physical brain and sway our future thoughts and actions.  The future starts with the thoughts you are thinking right now.  Is it going to be a limiting, afflicted reality… or an expansive, liberated reality?  The choice is ours!

Luckily, we are not the victims of our thoughts.  Maybe your thoughts are way more negative than you would prefer.  The most important thing is that you see this, and determine to work with your mind.  The only way to make change is with respect and compassion.  When you see the negativity, take note, pause, and gently embrace your fighting, negative mind.  You can journal or even say a silent mantra to yourself, “Everything is okay.”  “I don’t need to fight.”  “I’m here for myself,” “I love and respect myself.”  Just like a meditation practice, you can decide to drop the negative line of thinking and pick up a positive line of thinking.  For example, dropping the argument re-hash and deciding to pay attention to the beautiful flowers on the path you are walking.  Or thinking about someone you love and appreciate.  You may have to re-direct your mind a dozen times in as many minutes, but this boundary-setting around negative thought processes is making a difference.  You are employing your pre-frontal cortex in the enterprise of minimizing negative thought-pathways in your brain stemming from the amygdala.  Your brain has its reasons for being focused on the negative, yet you have the ability to guide it towards patterns that serve you best.

 

Cultivate the Positive

Going a step further, you can choose to turn your attention towards the positive at any time.  

Flower Garden

We are responsible for growing the flowers of compassion and joy in our own hearts.

It can be a part of your meditation practice, it can be something you do once an hour with a bell chime you set up on your cell phone, it can be something you do, as mentioned above, in response to a negative thought-stream you’ve just found yourself following.  Here are just a small sample of countless potential practices to try:

A quick and calming practice is to contemplate a source of support you’ve known in your life- a person, a pet, an organization, a tree.  Allow your mind to rest on that source of support and how the feeling of being supported feels in your body.  Stay with that awareness for a full minute or two, relaxing into the soft feeling of being cared for.  

Another example is gratitude-listing.  Take 3 minutes to get out a pen and paper and write, stream-of-consciousness-style, everything that comes to mind for which you are grateful.  Some people do this every day.  I do it many mornings.

An alternative is to write down one thing for which you are grateful and the several (positive) ways you feel because of it.  For example, I am grateful for the internet because it allows me to feel more connected when others can see what I have written and respond to it.  The internet helps me feel abundant because it allows part of my livelihood to exist.  The internet helps me feel more efficient when I can use it quickly to find information as I’m making plans or writing.  The internet brings me a sense of being in community when I see that others around the world share my political and spiritual perspectives.   

The loving-kindness meditation practice is powerful, and also requires more time than the other practices just listed.  It is a heart-opening concentration practice of developing genuine goodwill for yourself and all others.  Here is a description of loving-kindness meditation by teacher Jack Kornfield, and a 40 minute talk / guided loving-kindness meditation by teacher Tara Brach.  One of the most powerful meditation retreats I have attended was a week-long silent retreat on the topic of loving-kindness.  Out of that came a commitment to practice in this way on one specific day of the week (at the least.)  I am grateful to have the regular opportunity to make a little more space in my heart.  Similar to forgiveness meditation, loving-kindness can be triggering when we bring to mind those who have presented challenges in our lives.  I believe this confrontation with our mental formations around challenging people is a direct line to freedom.  When we work with our minds, we can break ourselves free of hatred by growing forgiveness and free of judgement by growing compassion.

Another heart-opening (and more lengthy) practice I enjoy is sympathetic joy.  This is an excellent antidote to envy.  In the meditation, you contemplate the blessings and good fortune of others, and grow your sense of joy for them that things are going so well.  Here is an article describing the practice, by teacher Sharon Salzberg.  Here is also a 1-hour talk and guided meditation of the practice, by teacher Joseph Goldstein.          

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Awareness

Loving-kindness

Sympathetic Joy

Gratitude

Goodwill

Compassion

 

Share Your Experience
What have you learned about nurturing your own positive mental states?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!