I’m not sure how many times I’ve said that to myself in the midst of a colossal failure, or even a small misstep. “I’m an idiot” “I suck” “I’m terrible at this” “I can’t do anything right” – Pick one, I’ve said it to myself. I acknowledge this and I’m working on being more consciously aware of my own self-talk.
But when I sat next to my 9 year old as he said it, it struck a chord in me so deep that I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I know I’m not the poster child for positive self-talk but I thought those demons were mine and mine alone to struggle with. I didn’t consider that my children may have the same torture.
Now, many of you who actually know my son would say, “are you kidding me, that kid doesn’t have a low self esteem problem!” Right, he doesn’t have a self-esteem problem, maybe he does have a false confidence and bravado problem from time-to-time. But, this…this is different.
We have voices (aka demons or gremlins) in our heads that only we can hear. Sometimes, the arrow on the meter with those voices can be very self-deprecating. It can be the person staring into a mirror thinking “OMG, I’m fat and pale and disgusting” or the kid at bat in a little league game thinking “you’ve never gotten a hit off this pitcher, what makes you think with the game on the line that you have a shot in Hell?!?”
The scene where this all started was in our basement over a contentious WiiU battle between my son and I. I started crushing him. The excuses started: “this game is glitchy” and “my controller isn’t working right”, etc. Then he was defeated by himself: “I suck”, “I suck at this game”, “I’ll never be good at this”. I was caught between wanting to say, “oh please, get over yourself” and knowing that I can/could easily say the same things at any given moment, even in totally small irrelevant situations.
Whether or not this is going to be an issue with him in the long run, I’m not entirely sure. He’s entering into a year where he’s trying a new sport, stepping up to the older side of the team in baseball, moving up to a bigger school in the Fall. Pressures are starting to get real.
I want him to be able to walk away from the plate in baseball after being struck out thinking (a) “damn, I tried my best, next time I’m swinging at that low pitch” rather than (b) “I suck at baseball.” Or after getting a low grade on a quiz thinking (a) “ugh, that wasn’t my best grade but I know where I screwed up” instead of (b) “I’m so stupid and such a failure”. It’s the difference between (a) “damn, lost that one” versus (b) “I’m such a loser”.
It may come as a surprise to some people, but not everyone looks in the mirror in the morning and can say with great ease “I’m awesome and I’m going to conquer everything that comes at me today!” Sometimes making your brain send you the right message takes a lot of work. A lot.
Why this is so important to me is where you end up after choosing (b) over and over again – you end up fighting yourself more than anything else. Choosing (b) all of the time leads you into a place I like to call the “pit of blue funk.” It’s a tough battle to overcome the external challenges when you are getting ZERO support from the internal voices. You want to quit. You want to believe that you suck at “everything”. One failed attempt at some tiny little immaterial challenge leads your brain to tell you that you are a complete failure at every. single. thing. in. your. life. It’s really ridiculous, and it really sucks.
As I said before, I’ve been there and I’ve made some choices in those situations either on the tennis court, the soccer field, in school, relationships, career and even in parenting. It’s far easier to say “I suck at this” than it is to actually consider a mistake sometimes. What logically follows that rationale? That it’s easier to say “I quit” than “I need to work harder”.
And that’s what worries me about how my son can say it to himself. Watching him is like watching a short screenplay of the negative self-talk process. He can go from “I’m awesome” to “This sucks” to “I suck” to “I’m quitting” in no time flat. That’s going to wear him down quickly.
So, I’m living and learning and I’m now learning more out loud so that my kids can see the process. For now, I can just say to me, and to my boys over and over again: