We all talk to ourselves, much of the time, whether or not we are aware of it. We form conclusions, based on our experiences and make up stories or beliefs about what has happened to us, often based on feedback from people who may not necessarily always have our best interests at heart. These thoughts and stories can have a powerful effect on us, for good or ill, so, to my mind travelling a path to greater self awareness and self love involves being conscious of what we are telling ourselves in response to what life deals us.
Our inner self-talk can and does effect whether we end up with a crippling and paralysing depression, or help ourselves to move forward with compassion through the centre of the difficult experiences and pain, free from the unnecessary and self-defeating additional suffering inflicted upon us by an inner critical voice. Self blame or blame of others and despair in response to our traumas can be self imposed story lines which contort our reality, while limiting the birth of new possibilities which are formed from the process of moving through, feeling and integrating the complex and deep feelings that surround our traumas.
Robert Firestone is a therapist who has written several helpful books which outline his work in helping people to overcome destructive thought patterns, Fear of Intimacy, Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice and Combatting Destructive Thought Processes. I was lucky to come across his work over ten years ago.
Differentiating the critical inner voice from a conscience, Robert writes:
The characteristic that most distinguishes the inner voice from a conscience is its degrading, punishing quality. Its demeaning tone tends to increase our feeling of self hatred instead of motivating us to change undesirable actions in a constructive manner, These destructive thoughts are contradictory; first they influence us to act in self defeating ways, and then they condemn us for those very actions. In addition, the voice often turns our natural desires, wants and goals – the things we would like to accomplish in life – into “shoulds” – that is we “should” do this or that in order to be a good person. When we fail to live up to these “shoulds” the voice ridicules and berates us for our failure.
He goes on to explain how the voice keeps up a continual running commentary which selectively filters our experiences through a distorting and punishing lens. So its not so much what happens to us in our day or lives (although life, can and does dish us out some very painful experiences), but the sense we come to make of these experinces, which ends up dictating our feelings and causing us pain. In addition if we are not on the receiving end of the destructive critic internally, we may actually find ourselves drawn to relationships with people whose inner dialogue runs along critical lines and is then projected outside.
One of the huge problems of suffering emotional abuse as a child means that we come to believe a narrative story line about ourselves that is a result of someone else’s skewed interpretation and judgement, most likely that we are to blame and things might have worked out better if we had been more of something else other than who we were. Perhaps we confronted a parent with qualities that they could not bear to see or had no way of handling themselves.
In his wonderful book, Legacy of the Heart, the Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood, Wayne Muller writes:
We relentlessly judge ourselves for who we should be, and rarely accept ourselves as we are. Whatever we are feeling in this moment is judged against some mythical idea of how we should be feeling.. If we hurt, we think we should have healed by now,; if we feel frightened, we think we should be stronger; if we feel sad, we think we should be happier.
With such story line running around inside us we are most likely to attract to us others who are more than willing to confirm and validate this negative self belief and have the same unwillingness to allow us our full range of self expression. Until we can break free from the stranglehold of negative inner self talk that locks us up inside, healing can not happen.
Becoming aware of negative inner self talk is a great starting point for launching on a journey where we learn to re- parent and support ourselves emotionally in a way others could not. In order to heal it is essential that we are able to confront these inner voices or introjects of judgement, criticism and mis-representation, replacing them with truer, kinder and more loving thoughts. Instead of judging ourselves, why couldn’t we begin to learn to show ourselves mercy?
A huge part of depression can result from stories of self blame or self negation which we tell ourselves in relation to hurtful or painful events. Often the deeper truth is that certain things occur to us for no particular reason or due to other people’s issues, rather than from any innate personal failing of our own. In looking to attribute some kind of blame rather than just working with the feelings of grief, powerlessness, anger, sadness or loss that such events cause we can be setting ourselves up for a great deal of paralysis and inner pain.
Freedom from a depressive life script occurs as we loose our identity as a victim of suffering and find the inner power to move through that suffering beyond stories we tell ourselves to maintain some form of control, birthing in time a deeper sense of self awareness and acceptance as well as a more balance view of life’s limitations and possibilities.
David Richo writes:
We sometimes take on a “do-it-yourself” kind of pain to the natural, unavoidable suffering of life. At the ending of a relationship, for instance, we might say to ourselves, “No one will ever want me now”. Stories like that are fictions, superstitions we create to explain reality with labels pasted on us by our worst fears. They register in our bodies and make us tight and stressed, and so our body and our health often end up paying for our neurosis.”
Breaking out of the self destructive story line involves the practice of becoming mindful of our feelings in order to free ourselves from this self imposed suffering, rather than buying into the victim script which would have us believe we are trapped, powerless and defective. Such beliefs may in fact be a way of protecting ourselves from the hurt by walling it off. By becoming our own persecutor we come to believe that we had some kind of power in a situation where we did not. The deeper truth which may be more painful to face, especially when a relationship ends is that no matter how hard we try we cannot make another person love and care for us in the way we wished we could.
I am not implying here that we seek an escape from reality, if and when our behaviour may have been hurtful but rather that we accept the painful reality that something ended, despite our best attempts. We might not like certain truths but it is only in the acceptance of them without setting up a negative story line that we can and do find freedom. Acceptance of the reality means facing the fact of feeling the hurt and committing to moving through it without making up story lines as an escape.
Anything can be handled in that combination of feeling and common sense once the self defeating story lines are edited out. Paradoxically we grow in self trust through such whole-hearted acceptance of the reality of others. We learn to trust ourselves more because we let go of the need to trust that others will fulfil our needs in the ways that we demand.
We can trust ourselves to handle people’s not wanting to be with us as much as we want to be with them without adding any story about them or us. Self confidence is freedom from the need for a story.
In this vein, the practice of mindfulness is something that I have been exploring for the past year or more. Mindfulness is a stance of open awareness and being ourselves and our feelings, a way of being with life which allows us to explore thoughts, beliefs and reactions to experiences, both present and past without needing to argue with or push them away.
There is a lovely concept within this process called Calm Abiding which involves sitting with and feeling our way into the present experience of our inner and outer worlds with non judgemental awareness whilst being focused and fully conscious of the story lines that we are running in response to events within these two worlds.
In my experience it offers a path of freedom from a deep experience of powerlessness and stuckness which I have experienced in response to the difficulties and traumas of my past. Not getting too stuck in negative story lines I run surrounding events means I am more fully present to what is on a feeling sensate level. I was amazed the other day to find myself sitting quietly while looking very deeply at an item of clothing and seeing aspects of it that I had not noticed before.
I became very aware that sometimes I am looking but not really seeing what is right in front of me, caught up as I can be in the story in my own head. Gratefully these days that story is dissolving and I have been lucky enough to experience moments of real clarity such as the other day when I saw an old thing in such a new and vibrant way. A whole world seemed to open up. And more than ever within that opening was a place of peace and space, calm and stillness within which there was hidden deep within a most precious jewel: joy.
That moment in time passed too, as all such moments inevitably do. But the memory of it stays with me as a time where I felt myself so fully “at home”. I am sure negative voices will still whisper to me from deep within, but these days I will be in a better position to let them float away on the breeze and answer them back with voices of acceptance and love.