Learning to love myself has been a journey without a destination. Just as with a marriage or a friendship, there is no magical target where you sit back, quit working and say “we’ve arrived”. Like all relationships, the dance that goes on in your own head and heart with your own ‘self’ morphs and changes as often as you learn, grow, or feel. Like all relationships, it is constantly evolving or decaying, depending on how we choose to treat it. I’ve even found this true of the relationship I have with my mother; after her passing, my attitude toward her, my understanding and feelings for her have continued to evolve (even after her death). For so long, I believed my attitude toward my own self, that voice in my head, was just a given part of who I am, but like any relationship it can turn in an instant thanks to our own choices.
I read this entry about The Mean Voice over at Emma’s Hope Book today, and needed to share it with you all. Ariane wrote some very honest stuff about the daily struggle with a mean head voice. You should go read it–especially if the phrase “mean head voice” resonates with you at all, sure did with me. Go ahead. I’ll wait back here for you.
In the wake of my autistic burnout, I had to come to terms with a lot of loss and grief in my life. I found that constantly living behind the socially constructed masks to fit my many social roles left very little substance underneath my carefully constructed and well-thought out scripts. I had a lot of them: things a good mother says, things a good wife says, things a good professor should say. There was very little room for me. No one knew ME, and the relationships that I did have were as shallow and predictable and unfulfilling as that constantly rotating series of masks. My head voice was my only true companion, and it was brutal to me.
Even I didn’t know me.
I got to a place where I felt so alone, so abandoned and so worthless, I actually began to fear for my life. In fact, in the wake of one huge meltdown, I actually contemplated ending myself–thought it completely through, even resolved myself to act on it. Then I realized how silly and illogical that reaction would be to any amount of emotional upset. True, the root cause was my then-husband’s continued emotional abuse, refusing to give merit to my feelings, let alone my attempts to express them–it wasn’t just a hurt feeling or two, in other words, it was some deep, visceral stuff. I had enough composure to realize one person’s opinion of me was just one person’s opinion of me, and I had had just enough unconditional love in my past to pull me from the precipice of suicide.
(Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Shorty, where ever you are–you literally saved my life that day, although you don’t know it.)
It was on that bedrock foundation, the foundation of emotional rock bottom that I realized my choices at that point: end myself or change. Up until that point, I had tried to take the middle road: endure. I never wanted to find myself contemplating my own end, ever again. Yet, I knew if I stayed with this person, who questioned my worth, my voice, the expression of my very being, that I would spend much of the rest of my shortened life locked in the bathroom, tossing coins for razor blades or pills. Logic said that was a stupid option. In the moment I realized I wanted to live, I also realized that my feelings, my expressions of self and my own identity DID have value. Never again would I allow him to treat me as if I did not. Then I realized the most important thing of all.
If he was not allowed to treat me like that, no one else should be. No one ever would be able to again. I wouldn’t allow it.
So…why would I allow myself to treat ME that way?
That began a truly rapid inner revolution for me. I started to be aware of when that head voice was berating me, tearing me down, calling me worthless. The first step, as Ariane points out, is to know it’s happening. You can’t make choices or change things when you are unaware of them. The second step she lists is acceptance, acknowledge your are in a dark spot and don’t let it be a judgment on yourself. For me, this was an act of listening. I would ride my bike for miles, and just let those dark thoughts wash over me–not wallowing in them, but truly listening to the message behind the mean. We lash out at others (and ourselves) when we are in pain and don’t know how else to make it better. That head voice is no different. In those early days, I would look for the hurt beneath the inner insults, because I was interested in healing the underling cause, not just removing the symptom. The third step Ariane writes about is action, which is really why I wanted to share my own journey with all of you.
The action piece can be tough. You have to be willing to do things differently. You have to choose to have a different relationship with yourself. You have to decide that you are worth loving, befriending, and nurturing. And you have to commit to that journey, because the work of it never ends–there is no final destination, no haven where all that hard work ends. It’s a process, not a product. It took quite a few baby steps to tame that head voice, and each new day we work on new things together; it will never be complete. I will never be complete. That’s actually pretty exciting.
Here are some of the steps I took to reprogram that voice. I’m sharing them so others who might be headed for that bedrock have some tools to help them rebuild the relationship they deserve to have with themselves.
1. Listen to the mean thoughts, but don’t take them at face value. Take that statement of “you can’t ever do anything right!” and react to it as if it came from the mouth of a tantrum throwing toddler who says “I hate you!” to Mom. Hear the feelings, not the words. Acknowledge the hurt, the pain, the fear, the frustration and try to fix the root problem. This usually goes back to self care: are you hungry, thirsty, tired, stressed, hot/cold, need to pee, sick, emotionally overwhelmed, stressed, overscheduled? Start dealing with the easy problems first. Realize that some of these things (like stress) cannot be solved right away. Progress is all that matters. Take a baby step at every possible opportunity. Forgive yourself the words, the way you would a toddler, but acknowledge the feelings behind them.
2. Start giving the mean voice boundaries. Once you can see the bad thoughts for what they are, once you realize that there are feelings and sensations behind them that need to be addressed, it’s time to school that head voice and teach it to speak to you in a more civilized way. I used to stop mine regularly when the tantrum started devolving into: you’re worthless! you can’t do anything right! Would you let someone else talk to you this way? I hope not. You would probably refuse to spend time with someone who always talked to you like this if you couldn’t get them to stop. Why allow this kind of dialogue to abuse you right where you live? I used lots of tactics to derail the mean voice at this stage, from saying stop to pointedly focusing on something else to finding something positive to dwell on instead.
3. Flip the coin on the mean voice. Coins have two sides. Most things have opposites, and if you’re familiar with the concept of yin vs. yang a lot of what I’m about to say will make sense in light of that philosophy. ASDies tend to engage in a lot of binary or black and white thinking. We tend to see things as being either one way or the other, having difficulty with shades of gray–yet balance, living a moderate life, means avoiding those extremes. My emotional darkness was crippling me, and I knew survival meant finding a tolerable, steady state of gorgeous gray. So, when the mean voice got nasty, I listened to the spirit of it, acknowledged the hurt, maintained boundaries of basic politeness and then…deconstructed the mean statement logically. The mean voice is fond of making statements that are so dark the exaggeration begins to make them untrue. I made it an exercise to find the truth in the exaggeration. If it screamed at me about how clumsy I was when I couldn’t get my change back in my wallet and people queued up behind me at the grocery store, I would take a deep breath, and then take a stand. True, I would answer, I’m slow at putting this money away, in fact, I dropped it. But look at my sense of balance on my bike–a clumsy person could not navigate a 9 mile descent alongside a gravel littered highway in traffic and stay upright at 40 miles per hour. Each time a truly negative thought ran through my head, I would acknowledge the grain of truth in it, point out that it was an exaggeration and then consciously flip the thought around to a truly positive thought. There are two sides to every coin, and most likely the objective truth lies somewhere in the middle. Every weakness we have can actually be a strength, every strength can also be a weakness. Seek the truth in middle ground.
4. Forgive yourself for having imperfections. It’s really okay to have flaws. It’s really okay to be different. It’s really okay to be YOU. Our differences make us beautiful. I found the thing that took the greatest sting out of my mean headvoice was not being hurt every time it pointed out a shortcoming. That has been a journey and is very much a work in progress–it certainly wasn’t the first action step I was able to take. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to get embarrassed, you’re going to fall down a lot. It’s part of living. Judging yourself for being imperfect only makes you more so, because it empowers that mean voice to take you down bit by bit. Forgive yourself, forgive your headvoice, and figure out how to get up again when you fall. Spend your energy on rising, on doing better, not on where you landed or falling further. If you must examine whatever gave your headvoice power over you (you missed your bus, you broke a favorite vase, you lost your temper), focus on ways to avoid the situation next time, but forgive yourself first for not being perfect.
5. Constant vigilance! No matter how well you reprogram and civilize that mean headvoice, remember that there is no final destination. It will always be with you. I learned the hard way that expecting the mean voice was under control was the easiest way to fall into a very dark place. Remember that it will likely fall into old habits just when things are most tough for you. Don’t let it surprise you. Be prepared. Plan ahead and have a strategy in place to help you get back on track. If you do find yourself dealing with a raging mean headvoice, then don’t be afraid to go right back to the beginning and have another go–there is no destination, no race to a finish line, there is only progress toward self-love. Be patient with yourself and where you are in that journey.
I write these things not because I have any answers, but because I know how difficult this journey can seem and just how hard it can be to get help from others when you are sabotaging yourself from the inside out. It’s a devastating spiral down to emotional bedrock. You aren’t alone, and you can make it better. I write these things because sharing my journey might be a way to extend my hand to others who have fallen victim to themselves. One day, being human, I’ll need that same hand offered to me. It’s only a matter of time.