I can tell when I’m in a mental rut because my inner voice harps on me all the time. It defaults to a negative view of every action or decision I make. It chides me, questions me, mocks me openly. It also tries to convince me that others perceive me in the same disapproving way.
At morning drop-off, I start imagining that onlookers are thinking: “Yeesh, a ball cap again? Doesn’t she ever wash her hair?”
When my son is upset and I’m trying to help him calm down, I feel sure the prevailing bystander opinion is, “Ugh, that kid is a mess. He’s obviously been too sheltered from the real world.”
Even when I go for a run, I’m certain the people in passing cars are laughing openly at my plodding, tortoise-like pace.
In fact, it was the running hang-up that led to a breakthrough. While I was driving, I saw a woman running on the path alongside the road. I didn’t really take note of her face, her age or how fast she was going. My only reaction was to wistfully think: “Oh, I wish I were doing that right now.”
At that moment, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t judging the runner, her pace, her body shape or her outfit – all the things I imagined people were critiquing about me. I was admiring her ability to organize her life enough to be out there. I yearned to be doing the same thing.
The wake-up call continued when I was grocery shopping and heard a toddler screaming. I didn’t stare or have condescending thoughts of “that mother has no control over her child.” My instinct was to look away and continue shopping, to give her some privacy to deal with the situation. My dominant emotion was sympathy, as I remember all too well how hard that stage can be. Again, there were none of the harsh, judgemental sentiments that I assumed were silently directed my way when I was in a similar position.
Analyzing my own reactions showed me that people in the outside world likely don’t have a problem with me – chances are, they barely notice me at all. All my negative perceptions were self-imposed. I needed to smarten up my inner voice.
The notion of having a positive voice in your head – or self-talk, as it’s also called – might conjure up the Saturday Night Live skit called “Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley.” He was the guy who earnestly told himself: “I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it – people like me.”
While Smalley’s self-help guru character is intended to be exaggerated and comedic, the premise behind his “affirmations” has some actual merit. There are benefits to having an upbeat inner voice, such as higher self-esteem and a greater willingness to try new things. To be clear: I haven’t authored a book on this subject and I have no expert qualifications. I can, however, share some simple suggestions from one parent to another, if you’re looking to lift your mood or treat yourself more kindly. Here are some things to try:
Play the “What would you say to a friend?” game. If a friend admitted to feeling down in the dumps, you would immediately be encouraging and supportive. Unfortunately, we rarely show ourselves the same courtesy or forgiveness. Imagine what you’d tell a beloved friend, then try to take the advice yourself.
Get some rest. Small problems often seem bigger when you’re tired and worn out. Go to bed early or take some time to unwind and relax. Read, have a bath, take a walk, do yoga – whatever fills your bucket. You’ll likely have better energy and a more positive outlook afterwards.
Put a positive spin on things. There’s a great running expression that no matter how slow your pace, you’re still lapping everyone on the couch. Remind yourself of the useful and important things you are doing, rather than the things you’re not.
Reframe your decisions. For example, rather than feeling embarrassed about wearing a ball cap to hide my unkempt hair, I can remind myself that I didn’t have time to brush it because I was listening attentively to my son as he opened up about a school-related worry. I can always wash my hair later, but I can’t always be there for him.
Keep things in perspective. The stress of day-to-day life can be exhausting, but as my mom likes to say, “it’s better than being in the hospital.” Try to remember that there are other parents and families who have to cope with more upsetting and challenging circumstances than yours.
Drown yourself out with music. Sometimes being alone with your thoughts can be a nuisance, especially if they’re in a negative tailspin. Music can be a welcome distraction and an instant mood booster. I recommend a classic hit from a favourite boyband or something you know all the words to so you can sing along.
Start a “happy file.” When you receive a card, message or photo that warms your heart or makes you feel good about yourself, keep it somewhere special. Refer back to it on days you’re short on confidence or feeling a little blue. You can also send a spontaneous message of appreciation to someone you care about, to give both of you a little pick-me-up.
These are just amateur ideas to help turn pessimistic self-talk into positive, productive thoughts. Hopefully you won’t need to resort to talking to yourself in the mirror like Stuart Smalley, but if you do, doggone it – that’s fine too.