A friend of mine recently came to me with her heart broken. The man she had just spent three years of her life with suddenly decided, out of the blue, that he no longer wished to be an active member of their club made for two. By way of informing her of his decision, he simply walked out of their apartment one day, disappearing into the blue like the ghost of a man he was.
You can imagine this didn’t go over too well with my friend. After the initial storm of shock and despair subsided, tempered by many bouts of crying and copious amounts of liquor, there finally reached a tipping point. Eventually my friend turned to me one day, dry eyed and steady, reaching for the water rather than for the wine bottle, and said, “You know what, even if he came back at this point I don’t want him anymore. How dare he treat me this way? That I just can’t forgive.”
True to her word it marked the end of that relationship (though it took some time, her wandering guy eventually did try to come back to her on the ‘I was lost and confused but now I’m certain, please forgive me’ card. She rejected him anyway). I’ve never been more proud or happy to see her standing so firmly in her own personhood, demanding from the world to be treated as she deserves.
My friend is not unique in her ability to stand up for herself. We have, in all of us, the innate instinct for self-preservation. It may not always feel that way, given that in our day to day lives we don’t always defend ourselves, like if you find out that Stacy from Accounting was spreading rumors about you at the water cooler. But just because you cowered and didn’t say anything then, doesn’t mean that if you suddenly were to come face to face with an angry bear you won’t automatically turn and run (or enter the fetal position, which is probably the better idea).
The point is, we automatically feel when someone else is doing something towards us that is negative or hostile. We don’t like it, and for the most part, we don’t allow it. We will take action to change the situation, whether by confronting the person talking the smack, or by easing ourselves subtly out of their shit-talking reach. Though whatever action we take may not always happen right away – as with the Me Too movement, it has taken years before some women finally spoke up – from the moment an offense takes place we feel it acutely. And we don’t like it immediately, whether we choose to act directly or not. We are wired for this, our inner alarms are raised.
There is, however, one sneaky devil that always manages to get past our defenses. It makes a home on our shoulders, lazily relaxing while sweet lies drip out of its candy mouth, smearing the surface of everything good that we want to bring out in our lives. Its words ring out like echos, bouncing off the walls of your consciousness until you don’t know where it ends and you begin. A ceaseless string of attacks disguised in the garb of a friend, patting the security guards on their backs as they infiltrate past your defenses. You look fat, it says, He doesn’t like you. You’re not smart enough to get the job. You’re too poor to fit in here. This is the old boys’ club, what’s a mere woman like you think they’re going to accomplish here, eh? A never ending stream of negativity, by day, by hour, by the minute.
Who do you let talk to you this way? Your lover? Your friends? Your family? Even if someone else is abusing their power and making you feel powerless, even if outwardly it appears like you are not taking any action, if someone else were to treat you this way your inner being will be screaming. Your imagination will run rampant feeding itself on imaginary tales of revenge. Your whole body will be preparing to fight, if not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then the next day. You are ready to defend, even if that desire has been buried deep down by fear and shame it doesn’t go away, you cannot burn out the flame.
But when we try to take up arms against this inner demon inside ourselves, it is as if all our weapons suddenly fade away. If we automatically jump into a fighting stance upon hearing the terms You’re fat or You’re ugly coming from someone else, similarly we will fall into a meek and docile slouch when the same words come up from our own selves. Just like we fling back our hair and diva glare at anyone who dares to say we are unlovable (“Just watch me bitch, I can get whoever I want!”), we will snivel and bow down to the voice inside who says to us the very same (“You’re right, who would want me? I will be alone forever.”).
It is a battle we cannot win, because the enemy is too sneaky. It has gotten behind our lines and blended itself in to look just like our own garrison. Spies in amongst the troops; we listen to them like we listen to our own captains.
So the first step to rooting out this treacherous and clever enemy is to pinpoint that it is one. We cannot fight an enemy we cannot see. You must recognize the devil first, hear its telltale signs the next time it tries to sneak in under false pretenses. Listen for it. Any word or phrase that leaves you feeling little or less, capture it in its tracks. Put those words into someone else’s mouth and have them say it back to you (or simply imagine them doing it). How did that feel? If the answer isn’t fantastic, then you know you have a rat in your traps. Put that word or phrase onto your blacklist. Tell the sentries to be on the lookout. Because you can be sure that if it appeared in front of you once, it will do so again. But now you are a little better prepared. You can start to recognize that this kind of self-talk is not your friend. And with the wool pulled away from your eyes start treating it like the enemy instead.
It is not just for you alone, either. Nobody is an island of their own of self-doubt, self-hatred, or self-sabotage. We all suffer from it. Once you become aware of the damage you do to yourself, bring this awareness to the benefit of others. When you hear a friend taking a dagger to their self-image with their own words, don’t just placate them – stop them.
“I’m not even going to ask for that promotion, what’s the point, there are so many talented people on the team and I’m just the weakest link.”
“Hey, nobody talks to my friend that way, not even you yourself, do you understand?”
It may sound silly, but isn’t it better to place your bets on silly than on demeaning and hurtful? We live in a world where we depend on having two eyes open, always looking out at our lives and assessing, evaluating, and forming judgments. But what often escapes our notice is the most important viewpoint of all – a mirror inside reflecting back to ourselves. How we look to ourselves is the most important. Knowing who we are and how we work is the key to finding peace and happiness, from the inside, then out.
“Know thyself.” – Socrates
Just as we will vigorously defend ourselves, and our loved ones, from outside attacks, we need to take up just as brazen and loud a battle cry for fighting the demons within. No more self-hatred. No more allowing those around us to shamelessly put themselves down. We need to defend just as strongly against the inner voice saying ‘I’m not enough’, as against the shitty guys and gals who come into our lives then walk out without a note or a phone call. Enough is enough. Put your defenses up!