When I recognized that I was addicted to my anger, I realized it was sustained by my internal narrative. I used a lot of nasty words to describe myself during my mental arguments. As Gary John Bishop said in his book Unf*ck Yourself, we are constantly having internal conversations whether we realize it or not. There was no escape from this negative internal narrative. When I recognized the hatred being spewed at myself non-stop, I knew I needed to focus on changing my internal narrative.
We are dealing with a chronic illness, so we are busy fighting/managing our bodies. For some of us, we are also fighting our minds which makes our journey to wellness that much harder. When our bodies betray us via exacerbations or normal symptoms, it’s easy for our negative internal narrative to rise up and leave us wanting to give up. I wanted to share my experience with my negative internal narrative and how it led to moments of self-defeat. At the end of this post, you’ll find more detailed suggestions for dealing with your own narrative.
Content warning: there will be talk about self-hatred and self-destructive behaviors. In the section “Using the word ‘Hate'” you will find adult language as part of negative self-talk. If you find this discussion triggering, please do not read any further. If you or someone you know engages in self-harm, please know that you can get help.
When the Internal Narrative is Negative
From childhood, I had a negative internal narrative. I was taught from the very beginning that I was fundamentally flawed as a person. Every time I did something “wrong,” it had to do with me being irredeemably bad. Thoughts were not separate from actions, so if I had a negative thought it was the same as though I acted out on it.
As a child, I learned to mentally flog myself. While I was taught that I had the means to get out of my “badness,” I still had to follow a strict code of behaviors, thoughts, and actions. Deviation from that code meant I regressed into “badness,” and I was to prevent that at all cost. Mentally berating myself helped me manage any external conversations about my behavior because I pre-empted the impetus of the discussion. I took the power out of the other side by mentally hating myself and regained a sense of control.
What I was doing in those moments was setting myself up for a lifetime of self-hatred that I am just now starting to unlearn and heal from.
An example: as a child on the playground, someone would say something mean to me. If I had a thought of “well, I hope you fall over and hurt yourself” as a means of coping with my hurt feelings, this was considered a moment of being naughty. I wished harm on someone, and this was wrong by the code taught to me.
Because I wasn’t allowed to have a “bad” thought, I had no way to manage my hurt feelings. Desiring for a bully to get hurt, provided I didn’t actually retaliate, wasn’t a bad thing. It was a healthy way to acknowledge they hurt me and I wanted them to feel the hurt back. It may have naturally led to understanding why the bully was mean: they were already hurting and taking their pain out on me.
Instead, when they said something mean and I thought about them getting hurt; I realized that my desire to see them get hurt was “wrong;” and therefore, the bully was right about me: I was whatever horrible thing they said I was. So it wasn’t just the bully picking on me, I was picking on myself. If I told anyone about the bully and my thoughts immediately after the incident, it was reinforced that these thoughts were wrong.
The internal voice I developed over my childhood was angry and reflected the judgments I heard by adults. Often the judgments weren’t directed at me, but at others in similar situations as myself. I would compare myself to the people in these judgment scenarios and recognize a lot of similarities in myself: “that person claims to be following a specific code of conduct, but look what they are doing. It’s so hypocritical.”
Oh, I would think to myself. I always wanted to do that thing they are doing. I guess that makes me bad because I feel/act that way in private. In those moments, my shame increased and my internal voice would get louder about how bad I was as a person.
This angry, negative internal narrative turned me into a bitter, anxious, and stressed-out person. I burnt out fast. This lead to a deep depression in my early twenties where I struggled to get anything done in my life. Every missed opportunity was not a learning experience but a personal failure. Every failure was fuel to my “I feel worthless” fire. Rather than persevering in the face of self-doubt and failure, I gave in and wallowed in the thoughts of how I was a bad person.
Using the word “Hate”
I’ve avoided using the word “hate” up to this point in my blog because I recognize how problematic it is to our healing and growth process. Hate is such a strong, negative word that it can keep us down when we use it to describe ourselves. Today I have to acknowledge it when describing myself.
I heard the word “hate” a lot growing up. It was usually related to being fundamentally flawed and the code of conduct I was to live by. If my “bad behavior” was seen by that which created the code of conduct they would hate it and me. Many lessons related to how normal human behavior was abhorrent.
Hearing on a near weekly basis how my behavior was hateful to this code of conduct and that it drew me further from the light led me to say things like “I hate myself,” multiple times a day. If that which I aspired to be hated me so much, despite doing what I was supposed to do to be a “good” person, then I had to hate myself.
Every time I did or thought something “wrong,” lead me to feel shame and self-hatred. I had to atone for these bad behaviors and the only way to do so was to internally beat myself up. My internal mantras (some of them):
- I hate you
- You’re a f*ckng c*nt
- What the f*ck is wrong with you?
- Why did you do that you stupid b*tch?
- No wonder nobody likes you
- Dumb/stupid b*tch/c*nt
It was little wonder why I transitioned from this negative internal narrative to self-harm. Because I wasn’t changing the behaviors that led to these thoughts, I had to find some way to externally punish myself to drive the message home.
Needless to say, it did not stop the “bad” behaviors.
By using the word hate on a near daily basis, the word permeated my being. I actually started to hate myself by the time I was a pre-teen. I shifted the hate I heard outside of myself into myself. I mistreated myself, so I started to mistreat others, which in turn caused them to mistreat me, thus perpetuating a negative cycle.
The Unconcious Mind
I was taught to believe that I was fundamentally flawed and not worthy of any sort of redemption, and my unconscious mind internalized that message. When my internal narrative turned negative, it was my unconscious mind speaking to me. I was flawed and bad and therefore should only think bad thoughts about myself.
It’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to reverse that negative self-talk. My unconscious mind refuses to believe what it learned so long ago. Every time I practice self-compassion in the face of negative self-talk, I find it very hard to believe the positive mantra of “no, I actually am a good person,” or “I am a smart b*tch, not a dumb one.”
When I first started working on addressing my negative internal thoughts, it brought me physical and emotional pain to use the words “good,” and “decent” to describe myself. It was the antithesis of the foundation I built myself upon. I felt braggadocios by even considering the idea of applying the adjective “good” on myself.
I am in the process of breaking down the negative foundations built in my unconscious mind. Once I clear out the negative self-talk, it won’t be perfect I will still have my moments where I give into it, I can rebuild with a more healthy foundation of self-love and self-compassion.
Changing my Internal Narrative
Busting through that internal narrative isn’t easy.
I’ve had to recognize that the teachings of being fundamentally flawed are fundamentally wrong. Humans are imperfect, but that imperfection does not make us bad people. We all do things we regret but provided we apologize to those we hurt, we aren’t bad. We are recognizing our humanity and we can grow from that.
Yes, there are abhorrent people out there that do abhorrent things to others. I am not referring to the extreme examples out there. I am referring to our daily interactions with friends and strangers. Many of us will be lucky enough to never experience or be touched by the extreme scenarios of humanity at its worst.
Once I backed away from the teachings of being an irredeemably bad person and the code of conduct I was to live by, I found a good chunk of my personal stress melt away. My self-hatred went from eighty percent down to about twenty over the course of a few days. I felt more at peace with myself and how I interacted with others. I finally experienced a sense of personal freedom for the first time in my life.
I no longer feared my future. I did things for myself rather than out of a sense of obligation. Acts of kindness and compassion weren’t done because I hoped to score points, but because I wanted to do it to help someone out.
I am still flawed. I make mistakes, but I don’t believe it makes me a defective person anymore. Once I recognized that about myself, my internal narrative changed. It’s easier for me to think about myself as a good, but flawed person, and no longer feel emotional pain when I describe myself as “good.” I am better equipped to combat negative thoughts.
So What Can I Do?
This was my story about my negative internal narrative. If it sounds like something you’ve experienced, here are some steps you can take to begin the process of changing the narrative and healing. As I said at the beginning of the post, if you are dealing with a chronic illness, you need your internal narrative working with you, not against you.
- Consider working with a professional, objective third party (therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist/counselor) to help work through the particularly difficult stuff. Getting that outside perspective helps keep you safe and healthy while giving you an appropriate perspective of yourself.
- If you have a chronic illness, speak with your primary healthcare professional for a recommendation. It helps to have a mental health professional comfortable dealing with the symptoms of your illness.
- Identify the source of the internal narrative. Is it a parent, loved one, childhood hero? It may be a combination of sources, but see if you can identify the three loudest.
- This will help you narrow down when certain phrases started playing in your head and what episodes spike their occurrence. It will also help you figure out how to best respond to them. You will respond to the “mom” in your head differently from your “third-grade teacher.”
- Actually, listen to what this narrative is saying. Do not engage with it, agree, or fight it. See what it is trying to say to you. Is it, in its own ineffective way, trying to protect you from something? Is the subtext actually good advice given in a bad way?
- When I call myself names after a conversation I think went poorly, it’s my narrative telling me that I need to consider finding better ways to word something.
- What scenarios cause the narrative to be the loudest? When is it quiet?
- It’s easier to point to the scenarios when the narrative is loud because it’s negative, but we tend to forget the moments the voice is quiet. Take some time today and tomorrow to listen for the quiet moments and make note of them. In the moments the narrative is loud, figure out the exact moment that triggers the negative narrative. It will take a couple of tries because sometimes it’s so frequent we don’t even notice it happening.
- Can this narrative be reasoned with or does it seem absolute? If you can reason with it, then see about responding with self-compassion and love. If it is absolute, figure out why it refuses to compromise.
We’ll work through some of the answers in Friday’s blog post and newsletter. If you haven’t signed up already, please do!
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