We make our own misery. Life is hard enough, but we make things worse by exaggerating our failings and piling up proof of our deficiencies. In a particularly bad mood, we can slip into a litany of missed opportunities, slip-ups, failures of nerve -- while giving ourselves hardly any credit for obstacles overcome and small victories attained on the way to where we are.
At 83, a woman told me she had finally outgrown the business of trashing herself. "I'm so much more peaceful. If I think any bad thoughts, I tell myself to shut up." Accepting herself at long last, she decided to stop focusing on what she was lacking and to make the most of what was good in her life. She only wished she had done this sooner.
When I first heard about the idea of thought-stopping, I was in my mid-20s. I was taught to watch for negative thoughts, especially those that my mind produced like a recurring chant. When you caught such a disparagement, you were supposed to banish it and then replace it with a specific encouragement, an affirmation of yourself that you firmly believed.
My first reaction was dismissive. This sounded like a mish-mash of platitudes on the level of "You are your own worst enemy" and "The power of positive thinking." But I did decide to pay more attention to the presence of self-defeating sentences floating around in my head. I found plenty of them, especially if I were in a low mood or had just suffered a significant disappointment. There they were, ready at a moment's notice to further darken my view of myself and my prospects.
Where do these condemning ideas come from? They feel like seepage from some kind of vault of negativity, maintained unwittingly. A taunt leveled in the schoolyard from a girl bully, an impatient remark from a stressed math teacher, a haze of rejection from a boyfriend who had vanished without explanation -- these and others had gone into my vault and stayed for years. In that airless sequestered atmosphere, there had been no diminution of their power to undermine my self-confidence.
Pulling these out into the light of day, taking a look at them when I was in good spirits was instructive, even revelatory. I was quickly able to put them in their place for what they were -- barbs that had landed during times of vulnerability, small hurts that had come to loom too large. Rationally speaking, the girl bully insulted everyone she didn't favor; that math teacher was frustrated, pressured, and insensitive; the disappearing boyfriend was all of 16 and clearly not prepared to be in a relationship. OK, clear enough. But would I be able to shrug these off in a darker state of mind?
The aspect of the thought-stopping I had most resisted proved to be most useful -- having a well-rehearsed positive sentence ready for opposing the negative one. The key is to come up with something affirming and convincing enough that will work when we are down.
I went back further into a painful memory. The girl bully had been making fun of my clumsy swing of the racket that sent our only ball hurtling over a fence and into a canal, ending the game. I was a klutz. At the time, the laughter and mockery chorused by all the girls tied into previous episodes with missed balls and hapless swings. In the ensuing years, each further act of athletic unskillfulness had gone into the vault. There was much more stored there than I had realized.
I had to think long and hard to think of a way to oppose the accumulated evidence of my ineptitude. Finally, I felt the truth of a simple observation: "You are good at other things." This was accurate, and there was no answering doubt to undermine the force of this statement. It has worked for years now, whenever I happen to get corralled into a physical game of some sort. To this day, I am able to be light-hearted with my wild swings and missed balls. I lead the laughter.
It is much harder to challenge negative appraisals of our lives as a whole. Over time, judging our attainments as insufficient can turn into a more stringent and pervasive negativity, a blatant declaration of defeat. A Seattle electrician mastered his trade and earned a decent living for his family, but in his fifties considered himself a failure in his true vocation as a musician. On the weekends, he had been a bass player in a band that was booked widely for local gigs but never reached a regional, much less national, fan base. Their self-produced CDs remained piled in boxes in a basement.
When it is someone else's life, we can see how pointless it is to focus solely on what is missing and not to savor what it has taken to get this far. We can see the folly of overly high expectations. We want to shake him and say, "Look -- you have remained faithful to your talent, developed it, and made the most of it, all the while supporting and raising a family. You should be proud of yourself."
All-or-nothing standards leave no room for the satisfactions that are well within our reach. I asked this man, "If your life was your son's story, would you call him a failure? What would you tell him?" He was startled. I saw a realization move through his gaze. After a long silence, he said, "I would tell him that he had stayed true to himself, that he had worked hard and made time for his music in spite of everything, in spite of so many pressures."
Releasing ourselves from self-condemnation is a choice. We are capable of recognizing an inflexible, unworkable framework and throwing it off, like the 83-year-old woman who wakes up every morning in peace. It's time to grant ourselves a reprieve.
Copyright Wendy Lustbader. Adapted from: Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.