Dealing with Inner Negativity
Reciting prayers aloud in a congregation at the age of eight is part of my faith/religion, and I remember wearing a new dress that my mother had made by a local seamstress. It was a yellow cotton dress with pink polka dots and short, puffy sleeves. The dress had pretty pink lace that bordered the sleeves and the bottom of the dress, which reached my knees.
It was now my turn to sit on the stage, and I was shaking and nervous. The microphone seemed alive and scary, like it was about to zap me. I took a deep breath to calm myself down and kept wringing my hands so the shaking might stop.
I heard the signal to begin and opened my mouth to recite, but nothing came out. I let out a sound from my vocal cords, but the sound was stuck at the top of my throat; I tried desperately to push out the word, and finally I spit it out as if a cork had been dislodged from my vocal cords. After a few words of recitation, it happened again, but then it was different. “A-a-a-a-alha.” I sounded like a scratched record. This kept happening and I was scared. I want to finish now, help! The recitation that was supposed to take 10 minutes, took 20. I thought it’d never end.
When a child says the prayer for the first time, he or she is rewarded with money from immediate and extended family members. As my aunts and uncles came up to me after all prayers were completed, none of them genuinely told me I did a good job. As they handed me money, I heard, “Did you practice enough?” “Next time practice more, okay?” “That is a nice dress you wore today.”
In each and everyone’s eyes, I saw the look of embarrassment, the look of avoiding the subject, and even when they did say I did a good job, they had the look in their eyes that said, “There is something wrong with you.”
As I started becoming aware of my speech and these hidden meanings behind people’s perceptions of me, I formed my own meanings and mental frames that guided my behaviour:
How many times have you said things like this to yourself?
- " What a stupid thing I did!”
- " I'm ugly… lazy… stupid… mean."
- " This is too hard! I can't do it! "
- " I have to do this!" " I ought to…" " I should…"
- " Everything depends on this!"
It’s possible that you are not even aware of the negative inner voices that keep harping at you. These thoughts are an accumulation of judgments we received in childhood, then from our peers, and eventually from ourselves. These thoughts are even more frequent when we're feeling vulnerable or facing obstacles.
This is the inner saboteur at work.
Even during my stay in Kenya last month, I went for congregational prayer and several times I was asked to lead the prayer or read a passage (yes, there’s a microphone). I wouldn’t refuse because I knew I’d be giving in to my fears stemming from childhood, but my heart would start pounding and my memories of stuttering would resurface.
“What if I stutter?”
“They all think I’m this great speaker and I’m going to be caught (imposter syndrome).”
These thoughts and self-talk will not go away easily, but the way to combat these messages is to see them for what they are: unreasonable and irrational.
Being aware of them is the first step.
I began to acknowledge that my negative self-talk and physiological symptoms (heart pounding, cold sweat) were stemming from my childhood memories.
Ask the question, “Where’s this coming from?’
The next step is easy and even fun. Start talking back to those thoughts.
Say things like:
- "It’s okay to make mistakes."
- “I’m not stupid, this is just something new for me."
- “This is not too hard – I just have to take it one step at a time."
- “Everything does not depend on this. If this doesn't work out, I'll find another way."
- “I’ve done something similar before and it went well.”
As I talked back to my thoughts, I started feeling better and one day when I was reading a passage during congregational prayer I did stutter, but it wasn’t too bad and I was fine. In fact, the thought that crept up was “SO WHAT?”.
See, wasn't it fun? Won’t you feel a lot better doing that than giving in to negative thinking?
self talk tries to protect us from taking risks and things we fear, but it also
puts up barriers to opportunities and challenges and changes that would enhance
our lives. Someone once said that four out of five of our fears never
materialize. The fears that do materialize, we can handle, especially after we
build our inner strength.