The Prompt: If you could quit one bad habit instantly without difficulty, which would it be?
Putting myself down.
When you grow up in a fractured fairytale, you internalize a lot of negative messages that aren’t even necessarily about you – and when you are bullied and abused by your peers, it is worse. Not only does it plant a lot of ugly seeds in your mind, tapes that loop when life goes awry, but it is so unrelenting that it must be real, it must be true, I must have deserved it.
So even though I’ve left those people far behind, I’ve carried their messages forward. They are part of my DNA and have certainly changed my brain chemistry to create more anxiety and sadness. And while I certainly have encountered many people who have had it much much worse than me, that isn’t the most effective way to challenge myself – it typically adds a layer of guilt to the self-flagellation.
Advocacy isn’t an avocation for me, it is a defense mechanism because I’ve learned that there are people who really are out to get you. Not in a necessarily individual manner, but in a systemic sense. And pushing back is a requirement to be a decent human being, at least to me.
When these topics come up, people tend to focus on quick fixes “shut the tapes off” “meditate” “insert compliment” but the reality is that letting go and operating in an entirely new manner is not a quick fix at all. It is a lot of hard work to revisit the old and replace it with the new – a process that itself can cause more traumatic memories to surface. It takes practice and dedication and support, not simply a new attitude.
And sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes you are going through the motions of being positive because it does create some good energy in your inner workings and it might one day “take” – but sometimes, it just takes one little thing to bring it all back.
So how can you help people trying to quit their self-bashing ways?
1. Be kind. Spread kindness into the world. It really matters. It doesn’t have to be every day or your whole reason for living, but you never know how your kindness helps someone remain resilient in the face of overwhelming odds.
2. Listen. It is hard to hear someone describe an abusive memory or experience, especially if you have some of your own that you haven’t worked through. But people need a safe space to share these experiences and perhaps someone to seek out when they are triggered by new experiences. If you can’t listen, then say so and help the person figure out whom else to approach.
3. Gently challenge negative thoughts. When I am feeling bad, I don’t really find it helpful to hear “You are a good person” because that’s exactly the opposite of what I believe to be true. What’s more helpful is “Remember that fundraiser you organized for the school? You helped a lot of kids.” or “Remember when you shoveled your neighbor’s sidewalk last winter, I wish more people did that.” You aren’t telling me I’m wrong, you are reminding me that there is another way to look at things. That’s helpful.
4. Don’t beat yourself up. Set a good example especially if you have kids. This includes the things you post on social media – if you are focused on fitness as the best thing to share about yourself, what sort of message are you sending?
5. Be an ally. If someone is abusive & mean to other people, don’t support them. Walk away if you can. Create an emotional barrier if you can’t walk away. If you join a group/church/organization that emotionally beats up people, you are complicit. This is one of the most difficult things to do because it requires us to assess priorities and make hard choices for us and our loved ones. Participating in the Boy Scouts is a good example – supporting the Washington Redskins keeping their name is another. These are choices that hurt people. And you have to own the hurt you do even if you believe there’s a greater good. You made a choice.
I can’t emphasize this enough. When I look back at some of the awful experiences I’ve had, I more often remember those who said nothing. Teachers who said nothing. Guidance counselors who said nothing. Neighbors. Friends of friends who assaulted me. The entire Catholic Church. There’s a lot of complicity in evil and abuse that goes on every day in our world. And we make choices to be the person who is complicit.
To return to the prompt, this is the bad habit I’d love to quit quickly, simply because it can be exhausting to put in the work necessary to actually quit it in real life.