Words Create Worlds.

Last week’s article concluded with a reflection on Elie Wiesel’s sacred admonition, “Never ever allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence.”  Surely this admonition was not meant to apply only to our treatment of others.  This week’s article asks us to apply Wiesel’s teaching to that one relationship that shapes all others:  our relationship with ourselves.  This week’s article reprises material that first appeared in a series of SMC videos on the topic of resilience (Words Create Worlds,  April 26, 2020, p. 38).  You can watch it again here if you like.  Thanks for your support of Sunday Morning Café!  

Imagine this scenario: a woman was divorced for three years.  With the help of a psychotherapist, and the support of her friends and family, she was ready to get back out there.  The profile on the dating app interested her enough to make contact.  After much texting and arranging, tonight was the big night:  her first date in many, many years.  As he entered the restaurant, she noticed a kind of, “Not too hot, not too cold, but just right,”  kind of handsomeness.  They immediately fell into easy conversation.  Things were going better than all right until he got up to use the restroom.  She waited, and waited.  He never came back!  Bewildered and crest-fallen, she drove home determined to call her best friend for a debrief and some solace.

After hearing the story, her friend threw her a curve ball.  “I don’t know what you were expecting?  Have you looked in the mirror lately?  You aren’t exactly in your twenties anymore!  And your conversational skills aren’t what you think they are!”  Can you imagine how devastated such a conversation would make you feel?  I have a similar story that actually happened to me.

When I first got to Saint Louis, I was convinced that the founders of this city sat down with a bottle of Scotch and mapped out the road system.  Some streets run diagonally.  Some arc into half circles.  Names of streets mysteriously change on a whim.  Such cartological goings on would be hard for any newcomer, but I was bad at directions to begin with….  There I would be, lost again.  I would find myself pounding the steering wheel, and hear myself shouting, “Wagner, you dumb ass!”  Now just imagine that you had a best friend in the passenger seat shouting at you, “Dumbass!”  Could you imagine how that would make you feel?  When we treat ourselves with subtle, or not-so-subtle humiliations, our brain is paying attention.  Our mood and sense of self change for the worse…every time. 

Cognitive psychologists have long noticed the impossibility of deciding away painful emotions.  If you have ever felt jealousy or anxiety, have you ever tried to simply decide those uncomfortable feelings away?  Impossible!  But what cognitive psychology has noticed is that if you pay attention to the thoughts that attend painful emotions, and furthermore, notice that those thoughts are overly negative or unrealistic, you can amend those thoughts to be just a little more positive, or a little more realistic.  That subtle shift in the internal dialogue can create just enough space for an eventual shift toward a better mood. 

Around the time that I moved to Saint Louis, I sought out a Cognitive Behavioral Psychologist.  He taught me to notice when my internal dialogue (or automatic thoughts) had become overly negative or unrealistic.  Soon, I learned how to catch myself calling myself names.  I learned to talk back to the inner-critic like this, “Tom, you aren’t great at directions, but you are not a ‘dumbass.’  There are plenty of things you are good at.  And you are learning to get better at directions.”  What I didn’t do was learn to praise myself with empty compliments, as in, “Tom, you are awesome at directions!”  The trick that I learned was to amend the negative thought just a little to something more positive and more realistic that leaves enough room for self-compassion and self-love. 

Back to my story about the woman stood up on her date.  In the interest of full disclosure, she never called her friend.  That part is made up.  But can you imagine a woman in a similar circumstance speaking to herself in such a harsh way?  I can because I have done that to myself so many times, in so many circumstances.  Whenever we speak to ourselves in harsh, judgmental, and humiliating ways, it is even more devastating than a best friend doing it, because we are much closer to ourselves than a best friend.

The Neo-Psychoanalytic psychologist, Alice Miller, asserted that all anti-social behavior, like humiliating other people, begins with the internalization of one’s own humiliations.  That unconscious, or semi-conscious voice that compels us to criticize and humiliate ourselves proceeds from this internalized structure.  Want to treat others with more kindness and compassion?  Solid research from the fields of cognitive psychology, psychoanalysis, and mindfulness research indicate that treating yourself with more kindness, compassion, and gentleness is the royal road to treating others better.  

Abraham Heschel, that great Twentieth Century rabbi, mystic, and philosopher once said, “Words create worlds.”   Words also have the power to tear our world apart.  This week’s challenge is to utilize words toward yourself that build up, befriend, and nurture.  This is the foundation from which you and I can build a better world.  

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