In the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower, there is a scene in which the protagonist asks his professor about why we pick people who treat us like we’re nothing, and his professor answers: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Of course we do. I’ve experienced this in my own life. Over the course of many years, I can clearly see how my circumstances always mirrored how I felt about myself. It was reflected in my relationships, in how I treated my body, and in my internal world and self-talk.
I believe that how we see and feel about ourselves is the foundation, a blueprint if you will, from which we form other relationships and how we move through life. As you read, keep in mind that this is meant to be a guide for reflection and increased self-awareness, not self-judgement, so be gentle.
You may think to yourself, “I don’t really know what kind of relationship I have with myself.” Well, it is always reflected in your life. I don’t mean by the physical appearance but rather, how you truly feel about your life. Is it abundant with joy, laughter, adventure, meaning, health, connections, deep relationships, etc.? Are you creating new memories, or do most days feel gray and dull and you’re just ‘trying to get through it’?
Below, I’m sharing a few ways in which you can better understand your relationship with yourself. Keep reading and notice if there are any patterns you recognize in your life.
How you talk to yourself every single day.
By this, I don’t necessarily mean speaking out loud to yourself (however, it could be), but rather what is that little voice in your head telling you most of the time; what kind of thoughts roam around your head. Do you tend to shame yourself, be judgmental, and self-critical? Well, we all do at times. But would you generally say that you like yourself or that you are your own worst critic? Are you overly focused on your ‘weaknesses’ and have a hard time letting go when you do or say something you thought was embarrassing? Are you trying hard to convey and maintain a certain image of yourself and struggle to show any “flaws” and “imperfections?” If you’re struggling to have an answer to these questions, imagine looking into your own mind. Spend a day just observing your thoughts. When you notice your mind wander, bring your attention back to observing your thoughts. Simply be curious as if you are meeting yourself and your inner world for the very first time.
Your actions and behaviors.
Do you spend your 24 hours on things that make you feel fulfilled at the end of the day, or do you end up feeling regretful, beating yourself up, and feeling out of control most of the time? Do you honor your passions, values, learning, and growth, or does it feel like you spend most of your days avoiding life and discomfort? Write down all of the things that you do during the day. We are creatures of habit, so what you do day-to-day is likely the same, hence, think of a typical day. Take a look at your list. Does it reflect time spent intentionally and meaningfully? What is something you would like to include more of in your days, and what seems to get in the way of you doing that? If you frequently feel like you’re just floating around from one thing to another, this exercise will give you a chance to slow down and chose what you want to be doing intentionally.
How you treat your body.
Also, how do you fuel your body? The way you nurture your body is so important. It will be the difference between feeling energized or depleted. Your body will rebel against not having good quality nutrients, or not having enough movement, or sleep. It will always tell you whether it is treated in the way that will propel vitality or fatigue, exhaustion, or lethargy. There is really no way around this one. For example, with our thoughts, over time we can learn how to change our thinking, but you can’t eat garbage and trick your body into believing that’s it’s good for you. What you put it is what you’ll get out, every single time. There is a plethora of research supporting the benefits of exercise and nutrition on mental health. This not to say that simply because someone works out and eats healthy it can be assumed they have a healthy mind and a healthy self-image. Another note, people have different nutritional needs and activity levels, but generally speaking, most of us have an idea of foods that make us feel sluggish and tired. I’m yet to see a person that thrives on a fast food diet.
Relationships with others.
Think about your current or last romantic relationship you had. How did you feel around this person most of the time? Did you feel like you can truly be yourself around them without judgment, or did you constantly have to watch what you said or did, felt flawed, or not worthy enough? Were you able to say ‘no’ to things that didn’t feel right, without feeling guilty? In a healthy relationship, one can compromise without feeling like they’re giving up themselves and their needs, and one is able to create boundaries still knowing they are valued and loved. Another important aspect to think about is, whether it seems like you keep attracting a specific type of a person over and over again. If you keep attracting kind and loving people and have great relationships, I’m guessing you’re not even reading this. But if you feel like you’re treated poorly and something feels wrong in your relationship - it’s an indication to listen to your gut feelings. Also, you could end up in a relationship with someone who appears like a decent human, but you either sabotage that or think that if this person was so great, they wouldn’t be with me.
If any of these resonate with you, there is a theory discussing this phenomenon. It’s called self-verification theory, and in a nutshell, it postulates that people prefer to be seen in the way they see themselves, and they will seek out interactions and people that will confirm their own self-image. Wait, what? For example, people who think positively of themselves will prefer to be around people who also see themselves positively. Ok that makes sense, but, when people have a negative self-image, they will prefer people who see them negatively, because it creates predictability.
Think about the areas of your life in which you feel like you are settling, giving up your needs and wants, or feel like there is more you could do, have, or be. Stay tuned for part two where I’m going to expand on how we create our self-image.
If you are a high-achiever and always have a long to-do list, it is likely that you are familiar with a nagging voice that just won’t let you relax. The one that keeps telling you that if you take time to slow down, everything will fall apart. The one that steals the peace of your present day and convinces you that if you worry some more, you might come up with a solution to all your problems. The one that tells you that who you are isn’t good enough, so you need to read that next book, attend that latest self-development course, be better, do more, and follow in the steps of others who seem to have cracked the code so they must know better than you. Then, maybe, you will finally feel content and confident in who you are. Then, you will be happy, fulfilled, and will be able to relax.
I call this nagging voice a thieve of joy and peace. It creates rumination, overthinking, and self-judgment, and it takes over so fast that before you know it, you are down the rabbit hole chasing and wrestling with stories that either belong to the past or to the future. It arises in thoughts, feelings, sensations, or images that trick us into believe that their messages are facts and that what they’re telling us has merit to it.
Oftentimes, in attempts to silence that voice, you may put a lot of effort into trying to predict possible outcomes and do everything to control the situations you are about to face. That control seemingly keeps your anxiety at bay because it creates a false sense of comfort and predictability. But the more you do to placate the internal anxiety, the more tension, panic, and fear it creates, leaving you unable to deal with things you didn’t anticipate.
If you grew up in constant scarcity, your life narrative becomes one of struggle and hardship. This script says that, only through hard work can you have the life you want, only after suffering can you experience ease, only if you are constantly ahead is when you are not falling behind. Then finally, you may come out the other side as a victor. But unfortunately, this story doesn’t end there. Instead of relishing in that victory, celebrating yourself, and soaking in the good moments, you start anticipating the next struggle. You anxiously wait, unable to relax because you learned that you need to be prepared, you need to control, put effort, try harder, and do more… or you will fail.
You may notice this voice or sensations most clearly when you sit down to relax and do anything that’s not considered “productive” by our standards. That little voice might say “what are you doing enjoying yourself and being all self-indulgent?” It might be telling you there are things you COULD or SHOULD be accomplishing instead of just being and not fighting the next big fight and suffering.
Throughout my life, the narratives that fueled me were ones of an underdog. Opportunities appeared only after struggles. I was fascinated by stories of those who made it through major adversities and came out on the other side, not merely surviving, but thriving! My mom and I would watch the Oprah Show on our old black and white TV, and I would be completely drawn into the story my mom was telling me about Oprah and how she made it through it all. That was the first seed planted in me that if I just work hard enough, I can succeed.
In different chapters of my life, I was constantly searching, working hard, unable to relax, and being pulled towards the next big thing. Constant anxiety made it difficult to truly celebrate all the accomplishments that seemed so distant at one point. Had I not had this voice pushing me and nudging me, my life would have been very different and perhaps I wouldn’t have accomplished most of the things I dreamed of.
But at some point, I noticed that this feeling of restlessness felt unnecessary, draining, & tiresome. It kept arising any time I would slow down and relax. As if I anticipated that the good things in my life were about to last only for a short while and my next struggle will find me unprepared. I kept having to remind myself that this is an old voice that doesn’t serve me anymore, and that good things can last and don’t always have to be preceded by difficulty and lack. Letting go of the control became an intentional act of self-trust and faith that I deserve peace and happiness even when I don’t suffer.
If you find yourself constantly controlling every little action and putting a lot of effort into predicting outcomes, you are not allowing for effortless opportunities to come to you. Sometimes the most difficult act is to let go and simply trust; to notice the anxiety and let it be there; to hear that little voice saying you’re not good enough, and believe you are in spite of it, to notice the discomfort of your feelings and further lean into them.
A few tips for dealing with the internal critic, anxiety, & overthinking.