Waiting to cross the street recently, I overheard a young man telling somebody else on the phone that he or she was “a thick”. He said it several times, and aggressively, for good measure.
The lights changed and as we all scurried across I wondered how often the person on the other end of the phone had been told that about himself or herself. And indeed I wondered how often the young man in question had heard it said to himself, perhaps in the home.
Some of us are more resilient than others. One person can be told repeatedly that they are “a thick” or something similar and shrug it off, either at the time or later in life. Another takes it to heart in such a way that, years later, they don’t realise that this description of themselves is playing into how they are now in everyday life.
I don’t mean that they are dishing out the same level of verbal aggression to everybody else, but rather that they continue to see themselves in the light of that harsh judgment. Perhaps they don’t realise what is going on or why they feel down so much of the time.
Probably, in the end, it’s what you say to yourself about yourself that counts most in building up that idea of who you are.
It’s useful to pause and notice the stories and judgments that you repeat about yourself. The purpose of such an exercise isn’t to brood on these repetitions, but to realise what’s going on and to contradict the critic in your head even if you have to do so again and again.
Sometimes, you’ll hear the critic if you’re lying awake at night unable to sleep and the judgments begin to seep into your brain like a toxic tide coming in slowly. When that happens to me – it’s normally about the things I have failed to do – and if it’s not too far from rise ’n’ shine time, I get out of bed and start my day. As I go through the morning routine, these gloomy thoughts fall away and I can start to feel better about myself.
I think our pandemic experience is a bit like lying awake at night while troublesome judgments about oneself seep in. Left without our usual means of expressing ourselves in social activities or in the workplace, we can too easily open the door to depressing thoughts.
I think it’s worth bearing in mind that those judgments are not necessarily any more valid than the judgments you make in the middle of the day when you’re feeling better about yourself. Thoughts are just thoughts and they often don’t reflect reality. Treating them as if they are terribly important and terribly real and must be listened to is a mistake that we all make all too often.
Thoughts are like rumours in the mind, sometimes true and sometimes not, wrote Prof Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman in Mindfulness. Yet people often torture and torment themselves by re-running very painful thoughts about themselves as, for instance, failures or a waste of space.
If they could even pull back to that neutral position of saying that, well these thoughts might be true but there again they might not, they might begin to open the door to making peace with themselves.
Perhaps they could begin to make choices reflecting a kinder view of themselves. Good choices can help us to navigate our way to a better place. We must acknowledge, of course, that our choices in the past were not always completely free. The kind of choices you made were influenced by what you had been told about yourself or the world. Circumstances, too, may have reduced the scope of your choices.
But understanding that you can make choices that are not dictated by the worst things you were told about yourself – whether by you or somebody else – can open up a door to liberation.
Even the young man on the phone might benefit from it.
Padraig O’Morain (Instagram,Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org)