Or how to interrupt your internal negative critic.
As much I said this post is a continuation on the professional interrupting idea from last time, I have to acknowledge that this is also about the nature of emotion and how it can interact with stress and trauma and every day decision making. So, that’s a huge undertaking, and we all might fall down the rabbit hole together if I can’t keep it all on topic…
Alright, caveat aside, let’s jump into it.
A word that I think helps explain the following conflict is borrowed from literature. And not surprising at all I guess is that in my own fiction I was somewhat good at writing about this. The word is interiority. It is everything that goes on in the character’s mind/head that only you the reader get to experience. It’s a great word. One of the best maybe. It’s a word Donald Trump wishes he could use.
Within the interiority of our own mind there is not just one voice that talks to us. There are a multitude. Walt Whitman was right. When we are hungry, our hunger gets our attention. When we are excited, we hear from the enthusiastic voice. When we are angry, we think angrily. When we are in the mood for love, our inner playboy/femme fatale is the one talking to us. No better recent example of this exists than the recent animated movie Inside Out.
Some of us, depending on our early childhood environments, attachment styles, and many other factors, can have a different kind of interiority. That’s okay and normal. People who are on the Autism Spectrum for example would have an interiority different than someone who was diagnosed with Borderline or Histrionic Personality Disorder. I know it can be rather intimidating when psychology is always talking about what is normal. Think spectrum of a rainbow, my friends. Please don’t feel shame for who you are. Fuck shame, right?
A key contributor to a lot of mental health issues can be laid at the feet of one pernicious aspect of our interiority. Negative self talk. Negative self talk doesn’t care if you can run a seven minute mile in the rain. Negative self talk doesn’t care if you sold more cars this month than your closest competitor—Fritz—at the Subaru Dealership. Negative self talk doesn’t care what your spouse or partner said about how you are the best in bed.
Negative self talk cannot be reasoned with because it is not a “reasonable with” part of you.
Negative self talk is your very own emotional cocktail of fear and anger within the interiority of your own mind.
So what does any of this have to do with interrupting, Henry? And where is the car accident you promised us?
Step one is to acknowledge negative self talk exists. If you don’t agree then I have some unfortunate news to share.
If you don’t think you have negative self talk, it is probably because the negative self talk is transmitted so fast and you react to it so quickly, you don’t even hear what is being said to you. Consider road rage. Consider anytime that your own reaction surprised even you. That is negative self talk at the speed of thought. Which is quite, quite fast.
Step two is to pay more attention to your own interiority in order to notice the amount of negative self talk that can be happening all the time.
Step three is to interrupt the negative self talk. An easy suggestion is within your interiority you talk back to the negative self talk. You tell it to calm down. You label it is as negative self talk and imagine putting it all in a small box and closing that box. You respond with validating self compassion. You try to balance the amount of positive and negative self talk going on. Because only you can do this. No one can deal with your negative self talk better than you can. It’s why those of us who meditate and have meditation practices are so much better at dealing with negative self talk than those of us who do not. Yes, I am giving you my endorsement. Go, meditate. Please. Just finishing reading this before you go.
But enough abstraction. How about a real world example? How about a car accident for example?
Unlike what can often be shown in films and television, the moment that my car was hit by another car (several weeks ago, nobody was hurt, I am fine, etc.) was not a silent, frozen in the moment snapshot of white noise and stunned silence.
I didn’t even see the other car until after it hit me. As soon as I did see it though, I began a tirade of intense swearing that my Croatian mother would be so proud of. I am pretty sure I almost broke my steering wheel with the amount of beat down I gave it in those first few moments after the accident.
I was mad. I was pissed. I was however directing my anger and frustration at the accident itself. Not at myself—not yet anyway.
The point I want to make is that despite the accident happening, I immediately expressed my emotional reaction to it happening. I didn’t hold any of it in. And as a result, something interesting happened.
For about 24 hours I felt oddly fine about the accident. I was safe, the other person didn’t have a scratch on the car or themselves, and my car insurance would take care of the repairs to my car. I didn’t really want to talk details about the accident, but that may have been a little bit of shock. I didn’t want to relive the accident so soon after it had happened.
And there is a good reason for that. That’s where we have to jump back into our interiority.
After about a day, my reaction to the car accident started to change. What happened? My negative self talk kicked in.
As much as my immediate emotional reaction to the accident was, for lack of better wording, immediate and genuine and honest, it was also appropriate for the moment. I was practicing a kind of here and now focus. I let myself be mad and that helped me process the immediate experience. It stinks to get into a stupid car accident. I would say I felt equal parts anger and, unfortunately, shame and embarrassment.
A day later though, instead of being mindful and keeping my self and my interiority in the here and now, it started to drift towards future paced complications.
Me (pervasive negative self talk): Shit. How am I going to get to the gym now? How am I going to get to the grocery store? This messes up my self care plans. I don’t need this. And screw taking the bus. This is a total nightmare. I have no freedom. Life is hard. I better get on the phone and order some Fire on the Mountain. I should also Netflix all of Daredevil season 2. And play lots of video games.
Me (responding to negative self talk): Uh, crap. This is exhausting. And hard. I don’t want to do anything actually. I’m a terrible person for not keeping all of this together.
And then what happened?
Long, long story short is: I lost pretty much all the mindfulness to the emotion of the accident and let my negative self talk that was obsessed with details and problem solving overwhelm me until I had a fight/flight/freeze up kind of response. And I froze.
Me (avoiding my feelings): If I just sit here and not do anything, then I will be okay.
Me (starting to see through my own bullshit): I don’t know if this is working the way you want it to work. In fact, your solution seems to be making you miserable. You can still go jogging. That will make you feel better.
Me: Oh, I guess. I’ll give that a try. But I won’t like it!
And I slowly got out of my fight/flight/freeze version of emotional avoidance.
The good news is I was able to watch my own anxiety/fear reaction after the car accident. And that experience illuminated how I can experience strong emotion and the anxiety it can cause. If this son of an immigrant can do it, I believe that you can too.
Well, I think more interruptions are planned for next time. I have a lot more to talk about, I think, and I ran out of space for all of it here. See you soon. Hope you have a happy April.