They say that emotional abuse is some of the worst, because you are consumed by your own thoughts. Everyone who has experienced it, knows that at least that last part is true. Even when you have removed your abuser from your life, have set up boundaries and have created new bonds of friendship… sometimes the abuse still continues in the form of your own thoughts.
Luckily, there are strategies to break the thought loop, and get back to living your life of freedom.
My own head was quite a hostile place for a long time. The toxic messages ingrained by my parents’ abuse were just on repeat. Sometimes I was not even aware of the thoughts hitting me, it was so normal for me to think this way.
Not until quite recently – some years after breaking contact with my parents – did I realize I was afraid of sitting on chairs in other people’s homes. I would usually opt for the sofa, or sit on the floor if I could get away with it. I did not even realized I was doing it! Let alone be aware that every time someone offered me a chair, I would think: I had better not, I am so heavy it is likely to break.
The trauma is linked directly to an incident where my sister asked me not to sit on her chairs, because one had once broke while I was house sitting for her. Since then she would hand me an old chair instead.
I have been told I was overweight since before I was even born, so it all tied together nicely. The realization that I was afraid of chairs, made me realize how often my brain tells me: you are fat. Which – I just want to emphasize – is a different thought than: You are overweight. Fat holds a lot of judgement and negativity.
Negative thoughts stick around because we believe them, not because we want them or choose them.
Andrew J. Bernstein
I think it is obvious that we would all like to stop these negative thoughts from occupying our minds. Now that we have gained our physical freedom, we really want emotional and mental freedom too, right?
Okay, so let’s take it from the top.
1. Becoming Aware of Your Thoughts
This may seem obvious, but it is really important. Self-awareness is key to all your healing and recovery efforts, and maybe to life itself. So get into the habit of checking in with yourself regularly. Such practices as mindfulness and meditation can help with that.
Mrs. Mindfullness, Melli O’Brien, explains it like this:
“Notice that many negative thoughts mostly flow from two directions. The first is dwelling on the past—maybe you ruminate over mistakes, problems, guilt and anything in your life that’s did not go the way you believe it should have gone. The second is worrying about the future—fear of what may or may not happen for yourself, others or the planet. […]
When lost in negative thinking we tend to be so engrossed in thoughts that we completely lose touch with the simple beauty and aliveness of the present moment.”
No need to build a meditation room just yet. Just have little moments of quiet where you check in with yourself. Five minutes for a cup of tea while staring out of the window, a nice walk with the dog… these are all perfect times to reflect and connect to our own thoughts.
2. Challenge the Thought, Out Loud!
Once you start hearing these thoughts, challenge them! I am not kidding, do this out loud. Calling out the thought, the situation, the irrelevance, the judgement. Find a way that you can lovingly nudge yourself away from the thought.
Once I became aware that I quite often interpreted harmless remarks from my partner as “you are fat”. It could even be him holding my hands and playing with my fingers, since my mother used to refer to them as “sausage fingers”. I started responding to my own thoughts: So, what you are NOT saying is that I am fat. It took my partner a while to get used to it, but he would confirm that he was indeed not even trying to imply that. As I started doing this more often, I realized the frequency with which I misinterpreted became less and less.
The Anxiety Network suggests you say: SO WHAT? Whenever you have a negative thought, or get caught in the emotion of a past event, tell yourself: SO WHAT? Again, out loud. And, they say, then find yourself something to do.
I agree with them on that one. If the thought loop overwhelms you, one of the best ways to stop the onslaught is to occupy your brain elsewhere. In 10 Ways to Evict a Bully from Your Mind we list some ways of doing just that.
3. Rescript the Thought
The negative thoughts we have are typically irrational thoughts. They are expressions of pain, fear or anger. In order to reprogram your mind, it can help to rescript those thoughts with rational equivalents. It is like the difference between thinking you are fat, or you are overweight. The first is an expression of perceived failure (believe me, it is) and the second is a statement of a current physical state.
We have discussed this translation at some more length in Help! There Is a Bully In My Head. There are some more examples there too.
4. Examine the Thinker
Dave Ursillo introduces Eckhart Tolle’s concept of Examining the Thinker in his article 6 Ways to Break Any Cycle of Negativity.
“Examining the thinker is to imagine your mind as a part of you — not who “you” are — like your hands, which you can look down upon and watch, although you are attached to them and control their movements.”
Like in the chair example, there was an underlying though to my discomfort at using other people’s chairs. In turn there are underlying thoughts and emotions even to the thought: I am fat. Like I said above, it is an expression of perceived failure, of being unworthy and unlovable. There is a lot of stuff going on there. By taking a step back, and examining your own mind, you can dig a little deeper and gain understanding of triggers and undercurrents.
5. Fill Yourself with Positive Reinforcement
“Create an inventory of positive truths about yourself and your life. It takes a little bit of effort to remember the positive aspects of your life, but it is well worth the work,” says Lifehack on How to Stop the Negative Spin of Thoughts, Emotions and Actions.
Two of my favorite ways to fill my positive inventory. The first is to create and repeat positive self-affirmations. They are tagged around my desk and kitchen (because that is where I spend most of my time). I create new ones every ones in a while, so that they don’t go stale. They last longer than bread, but not as long as crackers (so refresh them every two or three months). We describes a method of creating self-affirmations in The Basics of Coping With Emotional Abuse. I particularly like this method because it relies on your own perceived successes, and so you already have “evidence” build in.
The second way to keep my positive inventory topped up, is to celebrate my achievements. They can be large or small achievements, simply adjust the abundance of your celebration. Did you lose 10 pounds? Big celebration. Did you manage to cook a perfect souffle? Little celebration. You get the drift. It is all about noticing, and acknowledging the things that are going well in your life. This is what will counteract the self-depriving thoughts.
I am not saying that this is a quick and easy fix, but it is definitely worth the effort.
A positive mind is a much happier place to reside.