We all have a tormentor, an inner critic that shames and belittles us. What and who is responsible for these often-painful self-perceptions—cultural and societal messages, a difficult childhood, a chemical imbalance? Or is this behavior innately human? I’ve observed in both life and in practice that the struggle with our own harsh internal dialogues is a universal one. The human mind is an amazing, creative force, but it has a dark side, a propensity to turn on itself.
But why? Some believe our brains are simply internalizing negative beliefs about mental health perpetuated by culture and society. The cycle is a vicious one, causing individuals to feel even more isolated, marginalized, and less likely to reach out for support. In this view, the stigma we feel inside is created by an outside force standing in the way of people seeking the help they need.
While that experience certainly exists, I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective on mental health-related stigma. What if it is in part internally driven? What if the same brain that inherently self-torments also misleads us into believing it is society alone inflicting the suffering? Could we be dishonoring our internal experiences, thereby compounding the problem?
If we could adopt this more dynamic perspective, our efforts to reduce societal stigma would be enriched by starting with ourselves. After all, you can’t expect to impact societal views if you are unable to shift your own personal attitudes, beliefs, and actions. But where do we start? What does becoming more objective with our thoughts and feelings look like?
- Acknowledge your emotions. Taking a closer look at how you respond to your uncomfortable emotions is a critical first step. I cannot think of a single case in which the person I was working with came into my office exhibiting radical acceptance and compassion regarding their thoughts and feelings. It’s our relationship to any given set of emotions that predicts how well we heal or how much we continue to struggle. When you experience a strong emotion, slow down and take a moment to explore. Many of us have a tendency to talk right over an emotion trying to reveal itself, or to engage in some distraction-oriented behavior, instead of just being “with” it.
- Label your emotions. Give a name, a title. Doing so makes it real rather than abstract. It often takes away its power, thereby allowing you to become more present.
- Scan your body—literally. Note where the emotion seems to show up in the body. Is there tension in a specific area? Do you feel butterflies in the stomach? Do your palms sweat or do you feel a lump in your throat?
- Trace the feelings. Trace the emotions, thoughts, and accompanying bodily sensations back to an earlier time in life. Many times, if we step back, we begin to see a pattern of response triggered by a particular type of event or set of internalized beliefs.
- Defuse from your thoughts. Finding the right interlocutor is key for this step. In order to create some mental space between the thoughts and the self, I encourage the practice of saying, “I’m having the thought that ________.” This can be effective for lessening the intensity of emotions, though it’s not the sole purpose. It’s essential in the final step that you notice the thoughts you are having not only about the content of your mind, but also the actual process of slowing down to authentically experience the emotions.
We can’t respond to our emotions like an autoimmune disease, which attacks a person’s own cells and organs mistaking them for the enemy, and expect an improved mental health climate.
It’s in this space, of initial resistance and then gradual acceptance, that a new relationship to thoughts and emotions can be established. I find this process is generally a novel experience for those I work with in therapy. They often have never really slowed down and fully come into contact with their feelings. Anyone can do this multiple times a day until it begins to feel more natural. While at times this can be uncomfortable and intense, this practice tends to slowly but surely foster more tolerance around feelings. It also tends to loosen the grip of shame, opening a path for real self-exploration and healing to occur.
The only way to better understand and extend compassion to others is by first learning to do it for ourselves. We can’t respond to our emotions like an autoimmune disease, which attacks a person’s own cells and organs mistaking them for the enemy, and expect an improved mental health climate. Overcoming self-inflicted stigma takes more than just being aware it exists and setting intentions to overcome it. It takes the courage to look at the ways in which you may be actively practicing self-rejection and inadvertently rejecting the experience of others. If you struggle with your thoughts or emotions, and especially if you carry a lot of shame around them, I urge you to seek support from a mental health professional.
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