Bad habits. Yep, I have them in abundance. But instead of telling you all about them, I’m going to put my Kerry-as-Mental-Health-Counselor spin on this week’s topic.
More often than not, when somebody comes in to see me for counseling – whether they are dealing with anxiety or depression or childhood trauma or whatever – a large portion of the work we do relates to self talk and self thought.
You are running out the door in a hurry, late for some appointment or other, and in your haste you manage to spill the beverage of choice that you were carrying with you (coffee, tea, diet brown stuff, Mountain Dew, whatever). What is your immediate response, either out loud or quietly in your head? For a lot of us it runs something like this:
Stupid idiot. Klutz. Why can’t you ever do anything right? First you’re late because you can’t do anything right. And then you spill the freaking coffee because you can’t even carry a drink. It’s going to be a horrible terrible day, and it’s all your own fault.
Just like that, we manage to turn one incident into an event that spoils an entire day. Amazing, really.
Or maybe you’ve scheduled writing time on a Sunday afternoon – two glorious hours in which you expect to write a whole chapter. Or at least a scene. But there’s a research need that takes you to the internet, and one thing leads to another, from rabbit hole to wormhole to a whole new universe, and poof! Your writing time vanishes as surely as if an evil witch cast a spell. For some of us, this experience results in a diatribe that goes something like this:
Oh God, I’ve done it again. I’m hopelessly lazy and unmotivated. My mother was right* – I’ll never amount to anything. What was I thinking? I’ll never be a writer. I can’t even write one stupid scene. I’m a failure.
Oh, and then don’t miss this really fun little trick a lot of us fall into. The transition from failure as a writer to:
I’m also a horrible mother. I could have spent these last two hours with my kids if I wasn’t going to write. I suck at parenting. And look at this house. I suck at housekeeping. I can’t believe my husband still loves me. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe…
All right. I’m stopping there. Either you relate to this sort of head talk, or you don’t. If you don’t ever fall into this trap – I salute you! For the rest of us, I have a few thoughts.
1. Sure, most of us want to be better, do better, accomplish more. But beating ourselves up over our weak moments accomplishes only one thing: it makes it that much harder to try again. If you believe that you will inevitably fail at whatever you try, then what is the point in trying? You are going to avoid ever getting started.
2. I believe that for every character trait that we judge negative, there is some positive aspect. Like this:
Stubborn = tenacious, persistent, determined
Procrastinator = maybe you have a curious mind, or you’re a multi-tasker, or really friendly, or someone who knows how to relax & enjoy a good nap. Or maybe you’re just so accustomed to other negative people (and maybe yourself) telling you how you’re going to fail, that you don’t see the point in ever getting started.
Always late = maybe you get absorbed in other projects and lose track of time, or you’re flexible and easy going. See Procrastinator for other ideas
Irritable = passionate, intense, involved
Scattered = creative, interested in multiple tasks, caught up in your head with fascinating ideas
I could go on at length, but I’m hoping you get the idea. Whatever the negative character traits you think you have, chances are very good that there’s a flipside positive that you could develop, rather than deploring your failure as a human being. This is much more productive and likely to facilitate change.
3. A little kindness goes a long way. Most of us are pretty good at delivering the kindness to someone else. If your best friend spilled her coffee on the way out the door to work, your response would likely be, “Oh, honey, how can I help?” If you would shout, “You stupid clumsy idiot! I have no idea why I keep you around,” at a friend, then you need to come see me for some therapy. Right? So what would be wrong with talking kindly to yourself?
When you fail to live up to your own expectations, make an effort to treat yourself the way you would treat someone you love. Give yourself some kind words. Cut yourself some slack. And you might be surprised to discover that you, the day, your writing, your parenting, and your entire life don’t really suck at all.
*My mother never, ever, implied that I would fail. She taught me to believe I could do anything I set my mind to.
How are you with self talk? Bonus points if you can tell us a “negative” character trait and then flip it positive side up.