I know first hand what it means to be my own worst enemy. I know what it feels like to wake up every morning with thoughts racing, a mental playlist of one-liners determined to break me before my feet hit the floor. I have been victimized by my own mind, trapped and paralyzed behind metaphorical barriers which logically didn’t exist.
In truth, I was the only thing standing between where I was and where I wished I could be.
I have been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember, and as such, any tiny failure was blown out of proportion in my mind. If I made a mistake or somehow embarrassed myself, the event would play over and over in my mind for days on end. I can still remember a faux-pas I made in class fifteen years ago, and I’m still mortified by the memory. I have trouble letting go.
Once messages work their way into my brain, they loop on repeat, unforgiving and unrelenting.
I didn’t acknowledge this destructive habit until treatment. Before then, what I felt was an intense and buzzing whir in my mind, blazing red hot whenever I was hurt, stressed, or angry. A wave of anxiety would hit and I would react viscerally, usually engaging in negative coping methods to quiet the chaos.
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Being in treatment forced me to stop and assess the thoughts during the assault. I learned to stop panicking and start listening to what my brain was telling me. One of my first weekends there, I sat for an hour writing the phrase “I can’t” over and over again in my journal. My wrist hurt and my pen ran out of ink before I finally stopped.
I stared at the pages and began to bawl. This was not what I wanted. I was more than a forsaken mind, empty heart, and tired soul. I tore the pages from my journal, shredded them and turned a new page where I wrote as a headline “Lies My Brain Tells Me Are True.”
I never showed anyone that list. I searched for it while writing this article, but thankfully I seem to have destroyed it sometime in last four years. I’m grateful for this, as it was not at all kind.
Somewhere between my peaceful childhood and the tumult through which I was living at the time, my brain had been hijacked. Be it from my own perception of my perceived flaws, my struggle to establish an identity, my low self-esteem, internalized comments from others, messages implanted by society and the media, or a combination of them all…that page was a character sketch of a lazy, incompetent, hideously heinous, despicable monster. It was no wonder I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror if this was who I truly believed myself to be.
Recovery began the moment I realized, even at my most shattered and hollow, I was never any of those things. Recognizing the disparity between my mental self-image and reality allowed me to begin to correct the inconsistencies. But how does one even begin changing their mental self-talk?
It takes an incredible amount of strength and tenacity to turn an internal dialogue from seething lashes of “you’re worthless and unlovable,” “what a ridiculous mistake,” “you’re a disaster, no one respects you,” and “you can do more, you can do better” to peaceful encouragement such as “there are people who care for me,” “just another chance to learn,” “laugh it off,” and “just breathe.” It will not happen simply because we want it to.
Many professionals along the way have given me the advice to stop the thoughts in their tracks – identify the negative messages and shut them down. They are correct, it is effective.
My best days prove me capable of halting a downward spiral. On those powerful days, if a fitspiration quote blindsides me full force, I’m able to recognize it for what it is (namely, a myth someone has devised to convince themselves they’re somehow improving their life) and counter it with a positive mantra (such as “my body is healthy and I am happy” or “health is more than an exterior physique”).
But those best days can be few and far between, so what of the not-so-great days? What happens when the challenges seem far too overwhelming? What if the thoughts simply won’t relent?
When banishing the lies proves too much of a challenge, I’ve learned to fight fire with fire. The maelstrom of chaos hits and I feel anxious, but I try my best to pull out and identify the hurtful falsehood causing me grief. I may not be able to annihilate it, but I can shout back. I can counter it with hope and truth. I can fight and keep pressing my mind to retaliate against the forces holding it hostage. I can refuse to become a victim of my own self-doubt.
The harmful thoughts might still be there, but they have infinitely less power than if I let them consume me entirely.
Some days, I climb into bed and pray for silence because it feels as though I have been fighting myself all day long. But as time passes, I am becoming more proficient at promoting positive mantras and minimizing the damage from downward spirals. And with every great victory, I believe in myself a little bit more — a little bit which might be the tipping point in my next crucial battle (self-esteem is self-made, after all).
It may not seem so, but taking a stand against “I can’t” is possible. Whenever it dares impede, please laugh. Because “I can’t” is nonsensical and illogical. Those words are lies which have no place in our vocabulary. Shut down the insecurities and build a new life – one of truth and bravery. Break down the barriers and break free.
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