Soundtrack: Florence + The Machine: Jenny of Oldstones
The buzzing of the alarms. Well, one of them. “Get up.” Followed by me, “just a few more…” I have several alarms actually. So this routine could be construed as insanity by Einstein. Each alarm evokes the same knee jerk response. Sort of an auto-pilot at it’s finest. I have heard a few times, from people who know much more about minds, including mine, that we develop patterns that allow us to perform functions without conscious effort. Apparently, the brain is always adapting. It is always trying to be more efficient via routines. I am sure that is where the fight or flight self-preservation comes from. Sometimes the alarm going off feels like that (definitely fight)… Maybe the self-learning routine is why I pull into the parking lot at work and wonder, “How did I get here?” Perhaps it is the fact that I have not consumed the bitter-hot-liquid that contains the nectar of life? I mean, I start the day off with coffee that I pick up at my local Circle K at the corner of my street and road to work.
Before I sweep you away with my romantic affections for coffee, which is quite the swooning tale, I have to exclaim my lackluster enthusiasm for becoming vertical. Back to the alarms… I am surprised that I have never had a noise complaint. I mean, they aren’t subwoofers, but I cannot tally how many times even my iPhone has given up trying. “F#*@ him… he can wake his own @$$ up.” When you hit snooze so many times and out of sequence so it is virtually a beeping loop, even Siri gets confused. “Hey, wake- oh another alarm… wake- and another…” It is like the device overloads and stops. I am that guy. I mean, I do manage to get up, obviously, but getting an early start is highly unlikely. A couple nights ago, I actually set my alarm for 5 am. A moment of “I can do this,” stirred inside of me. “Hey Google, ‘bedtime routine’…” with a question back “What time would you like me to set your alarm?” Confidently, I said, “5 am.” Set. She is so courteous, that Google assistant, “Have a good night… JOE.” She over enunciates my name in a recorded greeting sort of way. The routine. Awareness is starting.
The next morning I woke up well before 5 am with intense abdominal pain. I had to pee. Damn getting older – I never had this problem when I was younger. I always pretended to ignore my elders when they commented on aging. I was sure that I was different. Like a fine wine… meh… like aged cheese (that’s better). Alas, it snuck in. Like a pranking young child, #giggles. I digress… I was alert before 5. So what does an alert person that wanted to get up early the night before do? “Hey Google, cancel my alarm.” Then I proceeded to sleep a glorious hour more. Which, when I stirred again to the barrage of beeps, meeps, errrtzz, and terrible default cellular music, I followed my tradition. It’s a trained response, right? Right.
Get to the point, Joe. Self-talk. According to Psychology Today, Self-talk is “an inner voice that provides a running monologue on [our] lives throughout the day and into the night. This inner voice, combining conscious thoughts with unconscious beliefs and biases, is an effective way for the brain to interpret and process daily experiences.” The article continues explaining that while it can be positive, humans are prone to negative conversations, which do not really reflect reality. McFly – are you in there? (That was a Back to the Future reference, for those that have not been blessed with such rich cinematic experiences. I am getting old. Slowly, but surely, the graying is happening – for the survivors, that is – the rest jumped ship some time ago. Ah – an excellent example of self-talk.)
So back to our story, I am somewhere between grabbing my nectar of the gods and arriving at the parking lot for my work. The self-talk starts early. Little things. Sometimes it is a voice wanting to turn around and head back home. “I can’t do today…” Like trying to pull away from a magnet, the drag drawing you in. On easier days, the fantasies of pillows and a memory foam mattress send seducing vibes. I am never lured back in – only because I refuse to give up – but the voice remains as I pull out onto the main road and drive the distance to work. My Bose headphones rest in my ears with an audiobook playing. Narration fades in and out while thoughts develop and trees pass outside the car window. Positive thoughts tend to be present during the audiobook. Affirmations to the self-help narration. I do that… I can do that… They are momentary and not substantial enough or direct enough to offset the negative. Yet this activity creates a desire to feel something different.
I made a list. Walking through it after talking to my partner. She suggested that I get it out there. Write them down on paper – “name them.” Let the ink bleed for me. Controlled strokes that carve mental facades into reality. Black and white. I knew that I had self-talk and I avoided them if at all possible. Stuffing them away like that extra shirt you are convinced will fit into the suitcase before a trip. Voices of doubt and failure and struggle. A vicious cycle of no, don’t, can’t, and never. The topics vary too. I am balding. I am now middle-aged. I should make more money. Am I talented at what I do? I make too many grammatical errors to write, and who would read it? I won’t be published even if I get to that point. It’s too hard. The person I was before the year turnaround is who I am – I will never escape that. I cannot change. I will fail again. I am not needed in my family. I should be in less debt at my age. I am not attractive anymore. Who will want this “mess?” I will never get ahead. Why don’t I get the break others I know have? I don’t deserve it. And so on… I can honestly say that I have never answered nor felt a “yes” to the mental health questions at a doctor visit: “Do you imagine hurting yourself?” Or “Do think you are better off dead?” Still, the thoughts that I do have are oppressive and painful.
The negative self-talk or self-deprecating thoughts lurk. Striking with stabbing daggers from a hidden assassin waiting for the opportunity. The thoughts are like street lights boldly shining on a small concrete radius. The alleys, corroborating culprits, on paths that do not lead anywhere. Working through the thoughts seems to be a multi-step process similar to the stages of grieving. “I don’t have negative self-talk.” “I cannot do anything right!” “It all makes sense based on…” [Sulking] I cannot escape my own self while crawling deep within me. However, recently, I have had a realization and acceptance of my thoughts. I am coming to believe that they do not define me. The routine that my brain has followed for so long is being interrupted. Stopped by an activist inside my own head, picket sign and all: “I will not take this any longer.”
There are so many books on psychology, on the self, and on self-talk specifically. I have read many of them (through my Bose headphones on my auto-pilot commute to and from work). And I have drawn a line in the sand. We have learned behaviors and subsequent motions, and they are not things we are able to whisk away. We cannot sweep these out the door or put them in a closet. Like an elephant in the room called into focus, we must study it to resolve it. It won’t leave until we understand it. Perhaps journaling is helpful for you as it was for me. But I am learning that it requires action. Focus. Attention paid to the details and listening to voices. It is normal to have self-talk. It is normal to doubt. I am learning that we need to hear what the voice is trying to tell us and I am also learning that what the voice is saying. But it is not a certain reality. Self-awareness will allow us realize the emptiness in the story. Stories, that’s all they are. Just a slanted bias in a fictitious story.
Take a moment to find the topic(s) that bother you or weigh on you. The thoughts that you try to skee-dattle along when they appear or lock in that mental closet. Maybe only consider one topic if you feel unready. (And not being ready is fine too.) Write the stories or one-liners down. What messages is your self-talk sending? Do they have a pattern that can be grouped? A central theme? Stare at the list. Now consider the opposite of the idea (these messages). Which messages does the evidence support? Have grace and empathy for yourself. Don’t patronize yourself – these are real feelings and emotions. Reframe it. What would you tell someone else? None of this is easy and I would be lying if I said that I am cured. Frankly, I do not think there is a cure, or at least not one that I have found yet (I’ll support the Kickstarter for that). The thoughts stem from something – and like the elephant in the room, in all of its awkwardness, we must address it. I have found the ability to like myself over the past year. I believe that I can do things and that I am worth time, energy and effort.
Turn on the lights in your dark streets. Blast lumens down the alleyways you’ve been ignoring. Call the assassin out. You have this, damn it! Now go f@#*ing rock it.