There’s something wrong with me. Why can’t I just be like everyone else? If I wasn’t so incapable, I wouldn’t be in this mess. It’s hopeless. I’m always going to be miserable.
It looks extreme seeing this self-talk in writing, but this is actually an under-exaggeration of negative self-talk.
We’ve all seen those pictures that travel around social media. You know the type: a fancy quote about life with a sunset or mountain in the background, or if the creator is feeling motivational, the backdrop may be a guy running. I recently saw one that read, “Be nice to yourself.” Short, sweet, and thought-provoking, but not how I would have said it. Another was phrased, “I choose to be compassionate towards myself.” We’re getting there, but not hitting the nail on the head. “Having compassion for yourself means that you honor and respect your humanness.” This is much closer - compassion and recognition of what it means to be human, the expectation of being flawed, and the awareness that it’s okay. However, there’s still one missing ingredient, an important realization about self-talk not incapsulated by this quote. That is: “It’s hard to be happy when someone’s mean to you all the time.”
This added piece is one we don’t commonly admit to ourselves. The way we speak inside our minds is abusive. It is mean, hurtful, and quite unreasonable.
Really? Abusive? That seems a bit harsh don’t you think? No, I don’t think it is. Abusive is an appropriate description of the relationship we have with our negative self-talk.
According to Merriam-Webster, verbal abuse as a noun is “Harsh and insulting language directed at a person.”
Examples of verbal abuse in a relationship include trivializing, judging, criticizing, degrading, gaslighting, name-calling, and constantly pointing out mistakes and flaws. Though there are elements of an abusive relationship that do not apply to negative self-talk - such as threatening - the relationships are comparable.
If we find ourselves in an abusive relationship, the professional advice provided in the literature is to call out the abusive behavior, remove yourself from the situation, and if possible, remove yourself from the relationship entirely.
It is important to note that if one finds themselves in an abusive relationship, they must find professional help and guidance to properly navigate their unique situation.
For the purposes of this article, we will refer to the words of Dr. Phil: “We teach people how to treat us.” This is not to say the victim is at fault, but the practical advice given to those being verbally abused is to change the nature of the environment, where the only communication tolerated is respectful and peaceful discussion.
In an interpersonal relationship, insisting on such treatment can be challenging. There are other factors to consider that play a role: intimidation, embarrassment, and love - to name a few. In an intrapersonal relationship, however, these factors do not play a dominant role. For this reason, it may be easier to identify abusive self-talk than to identify an abusive partner or parent.
So why have we never considered our own self-talk abusive? Why might you be decidedly convinced that I’m exaggerating, despite the clear comparison I laid out? Even if you think the word “abusive” is too extreme, at the very least one should realize that being mean to yourself - lacking compassion and understanding for one’s own humanness - is a grave mistake with significant consequences.
In my opinion, there are two reasons why we struggle to recognize the abuse.
The first is something we have discussed in the past. We engage in negative self-talk to encourage change. It may not be conscious, but somewhere deep down we have convinced ourselves that we must hate ourselves into growth. We fear complacency, and equate disparaging comments to avoiding complacency. What seems to be unknown to many is that self-compassion is not synonymous with complacency. Quite the contrary: We see time and again that those who engage in self-hate may suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem, or depression. Those who are compassionate towards themselves, on the other hand, believe in themselves, are motivated to grow, and have the capacity to bring others up with them as well.
The second reason is not one I can prove, but is one I’d like to posit as a theory. It is more psychoanalytic in nature, and I’d be curious to hear feedback from readers as to whether this thought rings true for you.
Growing up, children are bound to get in trouble. Somewhere along the line, an authority figure will have to intervene in a troublesome behavior and steer us back to the proper path. It is all too common for these interventions to be completely unproductive and stir us far away from the goal the adult had in mind. “What’s the matter with you?!” “You’re so disrespectful!” “Why are you always in trouble?!” “You clearly weren’t paying attention!”
Do these comments intend to hurt? Of course not. But then what are they? Are they a mere expression of frustration? I don’t believe so. I believe that somewhere deep down, we believe these comments have the power to induce positive change. It is embarrassing to consider, but our expectations appear to be a complete behavioral overhaul by the child after we point out their wrongdoing - almost as if the child will hear our personal attack, reconsider their ways, and improve for the future. Ha!
“You’re right dad! There is something the matter with me. That’s it! From now on you’re going to see a whole new me!”
“I am disrespectful! Wow, I’d never noticed. Well not anymore!”
“I am always in trouble, aren’t I?! Well, that won’t do. That won’t do one bit. I must improve myself and be more obedient.”
“I wasn’t paying attention, you’re right, and it’s a problem. I will look up the nearest cognitive behavioral therapist to learn tools to avoid losing focus, and will contact a local psychiatrist to execute a complete neuro-psych evaluation to screen for ADHD.”
Obviously, these responses are entirely unrealistic; yet, we use these comments as parenting interventions. We are clearly unable to accurately consider our actions in the heat of the moment, but a message is transmitted. It’s not a deliberate message - and when we put it under the microscope it is exposed as silly - but we accidentally teach our children that growth is spurred by unaimed, uncalculated disparaging judgments.
The parallel is clear. Parents commonly say, “What’s your problem.” Hey, my self-talk says that too. A parent says, “Why can’t you listen like your sister?” Hey, I compare myself to my sister too. “If you tried harder, you’d be able to pay attention.” My self-talk says that too! I’m always blaming failures on not being a person who tries hard.
I believe we mistakenly teach children to change themselves using this useless speech. The speech that says they’re not good enough. The speech that tells us we’re not good enough. The speech that tells them they’ll be loveable when… The speech that tells us we’ll be loveable when…
It’s common sense: It’s hard to be happy when someone’s mean to you all the time. It’s even harder if that someone has a secret passageway to the inner-most processing departments of your brain: When that person is yourself. We learned this from our parents, who learned it from theirs, and if we are not careful, we will allow it to ruin our lives, and our children’s lives as well.
We must learn to stand strong in the face of negative self-talk. We must never roll-over and accept this negativity. We are under the impression that our innermost thoughts are truth and that we must wait for them to go away - but this is false.
The story is told of R’ Henoch Leibowitz, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, who went to his father R’ Dovid on a day he was feeling quite down on himself. He complained to his father, “I’m no good. Nothing will ever come of me.” R’ Dovid responded with a series of simple questions.
“Is this feeling helping or hurting your growth?”
“Well, it’s hurting of course.”
“So, is it the yetzer harah, or the yetzer tov?”
“It’s the yetzer harah I presume.”
“So, is it sheker, or emes?”
“So go back to the Beis Medrish and stop listening to sheker.”
R’ Dovid knew that we are never stuck listening to our negative speech. Our negative speech is responsible for untapped potential - worldwide, for countless generations - and is therefore obviously the work of the yetzer harah.
We must be strong. We must break the cycle of negativity. We must model self-compassion and truly be kind to ourselves rather than beat ourselves down. We must notice the cunning plot of the yetzer harah to litter our minds with muck, rather than see ourselves for the greatness we truly are.