Survivors of abuse do not learn self-care or self-love. What you learn instead is quite the opposite – abuse to yourself. Emotionally beating yourself up, placing unrealistic demands on yourself, being self destructive with alcohol, drugs, food, work, money, sex and love addiction. or in your choices in relationships, self-harming behaviors or attempted suicide or in feeling suicidal. One thing is clear, an inability to value yourself, nurture yourself or love yourself.
How do you learn to treat yourself differently? In my own experience, I had to practice a little at a time. I began by looking at my addictions and seeking recovery for them, developing a spirituality based in love and forgiveness, and slowly identifying negative beliefs that live deep inside me, such as I am not good enough. I’m unlovable. I’m shameful. I’m inadequate, which surfaced regularly in the beginning of my recovery.
The following are examples of negative beliefs: I don’t deserve love; I am worthless; I cannot trust myself; I am a disappointment; I did something wrong; I am different; I deserve to be miserable; I am a failure; I should have known better; I am weak; I cannot succeed. These beliefs can be identified easily because they come up regularly. Pay attention to some phrases you attach to your situations.
When negative beliefs surface It is important to ask yourself, “When did I start to believe this about myself?” How old do I feel when I have this negative belief? Do I feel younger, and if so, do I have any memories attached to them? Do feelings surface? What sensations do you experience in your body with each thought? Do you feel tight, jittery, anxious, tingling? Are you holding your breath?
Noticing and writing down negative beliefs I attached to a situation was important. For example, I might have shared at a meeting and then afterwards I thought I was inadequate. My share was not good enough. The thought led to my emotional experience of shame and a desire to hide, which was a result of my abuse. My abuse left no room for me to evaluate myself clearly since it was a conditioned response. I began sharing in meetings about the aftermath experience of inadequacy and shame. People would come up to me in meetings of Survivors of Incest Anonymous or in any other 12 step programs, to tell me how much they valued what I say. Sharing honestly about myself and getting feedback helped motivate me to look at my harsh, negative self talk.
I also wrote about each situation in which these thoughts surfaced; what the belief was and what it would be like if I believed differently, always turning it into a positive thought. I did not suddenly believe it, of course, but the act of practicing turned a negative belief into something positive. I am not good enough became I am good enough, which led to change. I also wrote about how I would feel if I attached a positive belief about myself to the situation, which helped me to create another outcome.
People I work with often ask if they can change negative thinking. My first response is, “Are you tired of your negativity and, secondly, are you willing to practice a different behavior?” Only through repetition and practice do we change conditioning. For instance, if I were consumed with negative thinking, I would say the Serenity Prayer over and over again to disrupt the negative thoughts – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” These words resonated with me at the time and it was a prayer often said in twelve step meetings. At first it seemed that I frequently had to repeat this prayer, and repetition paid off because I was unwilling after time to entertain my negative self talk. I slowly trusted that my recovery voice would intervene, so at some point I stopped.
Practicing different behaviors leads to those behaviors becoming your own. Do not wait for change to come about. Seek change by taking responsibility to do something different. Whether it is practicing a thought, a feeling, or a behavior, the act of practicing leads to change. Over time we heal.
I suggest you look in the mirror and say something positive about you. Not just your physical appearance, but rather look into your eyes and see deeper down into your soul. What do you long to hear? At first it can feel silly or embarrassing but the act of doing this leads to you becoming a better friend to yourself, not one that whispers in your ear all that is wrong with you, but one that appreciates you and sees the good. If you don’t value yourself, how will you believe that others do? Start practicing today – not tomorrow.