There are a lot of bad things that I’m good at doing. Things like procrastinating, being pessimistic, speeding in school zones, putting away Porsche-sized portions of pizza and ice cream, and many more that I won’t be naming because my mother might read this. I am a flawed human being with a natural bent toward rebellion and excess and doing things I ought not to — just like you and the rest of the world. One bad thing that I’m good at is practicing the art of negative self-talk. I have mastered and perfected this to the detriment of my self-esteem and identity and am aware at how toxic it can be to my tender, 20-something psyche. It’s a war I’ve been waging with myself since I can remember — the war between what is true and what I tell myself is true.
“You suck at managing your time which is why you suck at everything this week,” I told myself last Thursday.
“You don’t have a nice enough body for that bathing suit, that would look bad on you,” I told myself this over the weekend while shopping online for a new bikini.
“Don’t bother trying to run on the treadmill today, you’re not good or strong enough because you injured your hamstring in 2011 and still have to be careful. You’ll look like a stupid loser next to all those girls with perfect, healthy legs,” I told myself today at the gym.
It astounds me how great our capacity is for self-inflicted verbal abuse in the realms of our minds. When I step back and consider some of the things that I tell myself on any given day, I’m disgusted because they are mostly things that I would never be cruel enough to say to someone else. But for some reason, it’s easy and almost automatic to talk to myself like this.
On Sunday night, I ended the weekend by mopping the floors, folding laundry, scrubbing the shower, and watching House of Cards with a big bowl of granola and almond milk. At around 10:45 p.m. I was “done” for the evening. I did all my chores, shampooed my hair and packed Monday’s lunch. I wasn’t tired so I thought about more things I could be doing. Then I thought about all of the things I had to do Monday morning, which spiraled into thinking about all the things I need to do this week and eventually lead to me feeling guilt for not having “done enough” over the weekend. I had about seven mental ‘to-do’ lists drafted in my brain and felt my body become tense. Soon enough, my breaths changed from deep and full to shallow and short and I started to pick at my thumbnails.
In a matter of about 15 minutes, I had managed to catapult myself into a state of stress and anxiety. And the only party responsible was the voice inside my head. That’s typically how it happens for me.
Once I get to this state of mind, it’s not a matter of obliterating the stress but choosing the best way to react to it. Most of the time, I don’t react well. I get pissed and curse myself or my circumstances, shake my fists up at God, bark at my husband for not cleaning enough, or eat a pound of potato chips and wash it down with a generous glass of wine as if to say “screw you, world!” (thinking some part of the world will actually be affected by my sloppy and unhealthy coping mechanisms.)
I took the dog out for a walk until I came down from the high of the stress. And when I got back to our apartment I sat down and thought: I don’t want tomorrow and the next day at work to be like this. I want peace. I’m tired of the stress. (Certainly not a sentiment I’m unfamiliar with — I wish this all the time.)
So on Monday morning on the drive to work I replayed what had happened in my head Sunday night in an attempt to identify it. I know what negative self-talk feels and sounds like and that wasn’t it. This was less personal and not so rooted in insecurity. This was about expectation and performance. This was about all of the “what I should do” scenarios that ultimately paralyze and render me overwhelmed and immovable when I give it the power to do so. This was a different kind of beast of self-talk. And not one I had identified or learned to fight.
I would best describe it as stressful self-talk: telling myself what it is I should be doing or what I have to do or should do and not forgiving or choosing to love myself until they are done or dealt with. It’s when I detach myself from the moment and neglect to filter out the stress involved with these thoughts and replace them with positive encouragements and reminders that I work myself into a tailspin of self-deprecation and success-oriented performance anxiety. If you haven’t experienced this, consider yourself lucky. And prepare yourself because unless you’re Jesus, it’s going to happen to you, too.
So what do we do about it?
There’s no easy answer. There never is. But I think that the first step involves uncomfortable self-evaluation. For me, means this means asking myself some questions:
- What is it exactly that I am stressed about?
- Are the physiological and psychological consequences of the stress worth it?
Will the world end if it doesn’t get done?
- What can I do right now that will make this less stressful? And if I can do nothing to make it so, or if it is out of my control than I must let it go.
This helps to put things in perspective. Focusing on what I can control and what the realistic and practical consequences will be if I don’t accomplish certain things can quiet the self-banter. I usually find that a lot of my stress is an outpouring of fear and misunderstanding the truth of my identity and circumstances — and not so much about getting stuff done. I have to learn to focus my energy on what’s truly worth it in this one and only life I have and swat the other clutter away. I also need to learn that not every detail or problem deserves equal amounts of stress.
There are a lot of bad things that I am good at doing. But they don’t define me. And with time, I believe I can get better at them. It’s a smaller lesson that I learned more about this past Sunday night as I sat staring at my pug with a tummy full of granola — a lesson that ultimately reflects the bigger one that my 20s is teaching me more about each day. And that is the lesson that life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful. And neither do I.
What we tell ourselves matters. We ought to pay more attention to it. To control our self-talk and use it for good is a gift we all deserve to give ourselves — especially in our 20s. It’s a gift that can make or break the whole of our experiences as we figure out the world and our place in it. Because when we choose the truth and when we choose to love ourselves internally no matter how stressful and messy life gets, we become the victor. We automatically win the war.
But not without first claiming the victory in and over the voice in our head.