I recently had a laugh with someone posting advice to help writers to get out of a rut; she recommended, ala George Costanza from Seinfeld, an “Opposite Day.”
I told her that “Opposite Day” is my go-to advice for anyone feeling stuck in any way in life. Because, to quote the most overused cliché of all time YET AGAIN, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
The premise of George’s opposite day is that if he consistently makes bad decisions, then his instincts are not to be trusted; therefore, doing the OPPOSITE of what he wants to do would yield more positive results. This is actually great advice if your instincts tend to be fear-based or overly self-protective. However, instincts exist for an excellent reason: survival.
Sometimes it’s hard to know if we are feeling afraid because of our insecurities or feeling afraid for a damned good reason.
Most of us have a lot of tripwires set in our heads that can easily be triggered by negative feedback or a perceived “failure.” The tendency to jump on the bandwagon of self-immolating talk is very strong. This is one of those times when you can rest assured that doing the opposite would bring some relief. Adding fuel to our insecurity’s fire is never a wise idea.
The problem is, it has become instinctual for many people; it’s a deeply entrenched habit, and habits can be very hard to break mainly because they become unconscious behavior.
If you are thinking, “Oh, this is not me; I only levy constructive criticism at myself,” then I have a challenge for you.
One year, as lent rolled around, I was thinking about what I would “give up.”
Food allergies have made my diet pretty Spartan, so there wasn’t much to work with there; I rarely watch TV and my devices are used 90% of the time for work. Then the inspiration hit me: I would give up negative self-talk for lent. Whenever I caught myself thinking or saying something unkind about myself, I would offer a correction or compassionate response.
I was surprised to discover that this became pretty much my full-time job. I had NO IDEA how often I said self-deprecating, unfair, and often downright mean things to myself, both silently and out loud. Challenging these beliefs was arduous work that often felt false (“but I DO look like hell today!”) but I stuck to my guns and by the end of the lent period I felt like a new person. Just having the conscious awareness of the habitual ways I had been undermining myself helped me to redirect and find a better way to manage my stress.
So what if you gave up all of your negative beliefs about yourself? Does that sound great or does it scare you?
The irony of this challenge is that for most good, conscientious, and sincere people, negative self-talk is actually comforting; it is regarded as a governing or parental voice that keeps the ego in check. The idea of NOT harboring a checklist of personal criticisms seems narcissistic, megalomaniacal, and possibly sociopathic. But it is only when we are none of these things that we can falsely come to belief that beating up on ourselves is the price we pay for having a conscience.
I say: NOT SO FAST.
Giving up on the personal attacks is not the same thing as abdicating responsibility. In fact, it is a more evolved way of taking responsibility that helps you grow empathy in dealing with others. For example: when dealing with rejection and “failure” there is clearly some benefit to retracing our steps and checking in to see if perhaps there might not have been things we would do differently in retrospect. However, it makes no more sense to berate ourselves on these issues than it does to shame a child learning to walk for falling.
If you already knew how to do things perfectly, there would be no point in making an effort or trying new things, right? When the toddler takes a tumble, would you scream “What is wrong with you? Why aren’t you doing this better/faster/more intuitively?” Or would you say, “That was a good try and next time you will do even better”? We can apply this approach to ourselves in a myriad of ways.
The added benefit of not berating ourselves for our missteps is the exponentially decreased tendency to berate others for theirs. For a person who does not have a character disorder like clinical narcissism, self-compassion only leads to greater compassion in general. When we give up being mean to ourselves, we have stopped the chain of addiction; we have stopped feeding the beast. We “give up” being mean people.
Still, those voices in our heads that tell us how we don’t measure up are jealous guards; they will kick and scream to maintain dominance and will win if we are not vigilant. And yes, it is ironically the people with the purest intentions who will find the idea of not listening to them the most threatening. So try it, but give yourself a limit; for three weeks, try shouting down those ideas about how you are not good enough. If at the end of three weeks you don’t feel any better, quit. Go back to your old ways.
But I think a lot of people will discover, as I did, that this can be a game-changer.
I’m not saying it will be easy; ignoring those voices is hard enough, never mind contradicting them. But for every time you tell yourself that it is okay that you fell, it will be that much easier to get up. For every time you tell yourself that you are okay today and not only in that future utopia where you are your goal weight, earning millions a year and BFF with George Clooney, you are telling every single person in the world that they are okay too.
Give up that idea you had of yourself and how you should be. Accept who you are, and allow everything to be okay.
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