Picked up a cat-‘o-9-tails, tied yourself to a whipping post, and just started whipping yourself silly lately? Ya know, the scourge of I-can’t-do-itness. Or the club of I’m-a-failure. Or the rod of nobody-likes-me. The whip of not-good-enoughness is one of my personal favorites. I just love picking these various devices of torture up on a regular basis and then letting the self-abuse begin.
It might start with something simple and innocent enough, like telling myself I’m stupid because I dropped a cup on the floor in a crowded coffee shop. Sometimes I can let that be the end of the whipping session and distract myself with an email I forgot about or the news feed of the mighty ‘Book. But usually this small “I’m stupid” self-beration is just warmup. I’ll start looking around the coffee shop, pick up the whip of not-good-enoughness and just go to work on myself. I’ll start thinking about how much better at his job the guy next to me must be because of the flashy new computer he’s on. Or think about how the attractive woman across the cafe probably wouldn’t give me the time of day, particularly now that I have dropped a coffee cup and interrupted her important work. Then I’ll think about how everyone in the building is prettier, and how they all probably make more money, and have happier relationships, and would probably hurl stones of condemnation on me if they knew the half of what hides in my closet.
By this time the wounds are just starting to open up, so I often let that particular tape keep playing as if on a loop, or I’ll pick up the whip of not-good-enoughness and start opening up some old sores. “Of course I’m alone,” I’ll think, “because my hair is a real disaster and I’ve never had much of a sense of style. A teacher told me in high school that my gregariousness was going to result in me being a real screw-up as an adult, and damn was he right. Never good enough to make the team. Never good enough to do that yoga pose. Never got the awards in school, hell any recognition really. What is there to recognize anyway?!” Before I know it, a half hour has gone by and I’m just a heap of more wounds and scars than I was before I started.
Tying ourselves to our favorite whipping posts and letting the tapes play is a really tantalizing trap to fall into, and its yields are only more of the same. It is a taxicab of pain and misery that often drives by and invites us in for the ride of sadness, fear, and insecurity.
So what the hell are we supposed to do?
Quitting this cycle begins with noticing its beginning. Sometimes the self-abuse cycle begins with some kind of trigger like a small perceived failure, a mistake, a disagreement, or some other goings on that is spiked with pain or fear. Other times, pulling out one of these whips begins when we are alone and not able to sufficiently distract ourselves, so we start in on a flagellation binge. It is incredibly powerful to simply notice what surfaces in these moments, and our tendency to hop into one of those rides; which unlike the streets of San Francisco, this particular brand of taxicabs are abundant. Every day contains ample opportunities for us to begin beating ourselves to a pulp, and a parallel opportunity to practice noticing our tendency.
The second part of ending this cycle is how we choose to act once we have noticed ourselves reaching for that whip. You control your mind, not the other way around. You can choose- that’s right choose– to begin berating yourself for that perceived failure, or you can notice your tendency and choose to do something different. Don’t get me wrong, this is not an easy decision, because we draw a perverse pleasure from the self-abuse and have become habituated to torturing ourselves in this way. A part of the so-called
pleasure stems from the deep seated beliefs we have about ourselves, such as “I am a failure,” “I am not good enough,” or “(fill in the blanks).” Go ahead, fill in the blanks, I’ll wait.
Becoming aware of our particular whip or whips of choice is an essential component to beginning to end the violence on our fragile selves. This requires mindfulness and begins to build the self-knowledge that creates space for growth, openness, and healing.
The third step in ending this cycle of self-violence is finding healthy alternatives. You will become whatever it is you want to realize for yourself (in fact, it’s happening right now), so if you focus on what a failure you are, guess what? Instead, when you notice that the cycle is about to begin, focus on the opposite. If you are feeling like a failure, spend a moment with a recent success. If you are feeling inadequate, remind yourself of a time when you felt abundant. As you find alternatives for the negative scripts playing in your mind, you will begin ending this self-abuse, and actually creating a healing salve for your wounds.
The tendency may feel so strong that you just cannot bring yourself to focus on anything but the negative script, so you might need to call for back-up. This may mean literally pausing to call a lifeline, someone who you trust, someone who lifts you up. It might require diving into your bag of self-care tricks, be it treating yourself in some small way, or pampering yourself in a really big way. If your bag is feeling a little empty right now, stay tuned for the upcoming blog post on self-care.
You can stop the all too familiar patterns of self-flagellation. Go ahead, be a quitter. I dare you.
Jeremi McManus is a Relationship Coach, Psychotherapist, and Couples Therapist who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own ups and downs in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field. If you feel like you could use some perspective, he looks forward to hearing from you. Jeremi is a Licensed Psychotherapist and delighted to call San Francisco home.