I usually observe Lent the same way that most Bad Catholics do: by stuffing myself with sugar on Pancake Tuesday, and then again on Easter Sunday, and conveniently ignoring everything that comes in between. But this year I wanted to do things a little differently: I decided to use Lent to quit my tendency towards negative self-talk. I’d read somewhere that it only takes 21 days to make or break a habit—if that was true, then doing so in 40 days would be a breeze, right?
I was wrong.
You’re supposed to sacrifice something you love for Lent, so it might seem weird at first glance to give up something like negative self-talk. Shouldn’t I have given up wine or chocolate or three-hour Epsom salt baths? I mean, sure, but none of those things feel as indulgent to as talking trash about myself. As embarrassing as it is to admit, on some level negative self-talk feels really, really good. I mean, bad! But also good, in the sense that it satisfies some very messy core beliefs I have about myself. Maybe “good” is completely the wrong word; what I mean is that it feels true.
It’s hard to stop telling yourself things that feel true
It turns out it’s really, really hard to stop yourself from saying things that feel true. Even as I tried to keep my thoughts about myself positive, I would catch myself thinking, “You’re profoundly unloveable and you’ve tricked everyone around you into thinking you have value.” If I was struggling to finish a draft it was some variation of: “Your writing is stilted, dull and relies on bad clichés.” I would wake up at night thinking, “You’re a bad person who deserves bad things.”
Those statements felt as accurate to me as “the sky is blue.” Have you ever tried not believing that the sky is blue? You can’t. Even if you tell yourself over and over that the sky is green, every time you look at it you’ll automatically think blue. I had that same gut reaction every time I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t a worthless waste of space. OK, I would think, that’s nice and all but we both know that I am.
The grooves that these thoughts run in are deep—I’ve been carving them at least since my high school days, if not longer. The words “Anne does not work to her potential” probably appeared on every high school report card I ever received. They were said at every parent-teacher meeting, along with, “Anne is bright but doesn’t apply herself.” One particularly vindictive teacher told me that I was “bright not smart,” further clarifying that smart people turned in their assignments on time and kept tidy notebooks. That same teacher would make me come to his classroom once a week after school, ostensibly to help me organize my notes. In reality, it was an excuse to stand over me and berate me for half an hour.
“You’ll never get anywhere like this,” he would sigh. “You’ve got brains, but you refuse to use them. One of these days you’ll decide you’re finally ready to buckle down and do some work, but by that time it will be too late.”
A different person might have heard these words and been angered or humiliated into action, driven to prove this teacher wrong by suddenly becoming a highly accomplished student. I was not that person.
It’s easy to assume the worst
Instead I internalized them. Eventually I had heard the same refrain so many times that it just became another item on my personal mental inventory. The fact that I don’t work to my potential was just one more static fact about me, just like my brown eyes and the scar on my left leg. For the past 17 years, I have known that nothing I do will ever be good enough, because it was Writ In The Stars that I am a person who does not try hard enough. I will never be as successful as the nebulous, imagined other self all those teachers saw in me. She is always just out of reach, smiling and winking at me from the parallel universe where she has a postgraduate degree and a book deal.
The thing about potential is that everyone was eager to tell me that I wasn’t achieving, but no one seemed to be able to tell me how to get there. I mean, they told me things like, Do your homework every night and Turn in your assignments on time and Don’t wait until the night before to start a big project—but that advice was useless to me. I knew I was supposed to be doing those things, but I didn’t know how.
That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Just go home every day from school, sit on your bed and open your math book. But somehow I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t as if I enjoyed doing badly in school or being scolded or, worst of all, hearing how disappointed everyone was in me. I didn’t get off on being contrarian, I just couldn’t get my act together. What was even wrong with me?
Depression, probably. Anxiety. I don’t know. I didn’t recognize back then that my inability to get my work done was probably related to my mental health, and even if I had known this I doubt I would have had the vocabulary to describe it. Also, I was a surly, intractable teenager. I wasn’t the type to ask for help and, frankly, if I had I’m sure most people would have assumed that I was just trying to shirk my responsibilities. Anyway, I’m sure on some level it made me feel better to think of myself as a brilliant screw-up rather than a person so profoundly incompetent that she couldn’t even do something as basic as homework.
I’m not a teenager anymore, though. I can’t keep just shrugging my shoulders and saying, “I don’t know how to deal with this.” It’s true that I genuinely don’t know how to deal with this, but that’s not a good excuse. I am an adult and I have different resources at my disposal and it’s way past time for me to figure this out.
But it’s powerful when you start being a little gentler with yourself
As my 40-day challenge draws to a close, it’s still incredibly tempting to call myself names rather than actually deal with my problems. It’s familiar to the point of feeling automatic; sometimes I don’t even notice what I’m doing until I’m halfway through my personal catechism of failure and self-blame. But that doesn’t mean I can’t change; in fact, believing in the possibility that I don’t have to be like this is, in some ways, the strongest antidote around.
In the process of unlearning the toxic things I say to and about myself, I’ve realized that gentleness breeds gentleness. Or, to put it another way: if I approach quitting negative self-talk with rigidity and anger, then I’m just feeding into the same unproductive system. What’s the difference between furiously berating myself for accidentally calling myself a failure and actually calling myself a failure? Not much, really. So I’m experimenting with being kinder and expecting less of myself. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it.
Next Lent, I’m just going to give up sheet masks and call it a day.
Read more from Anne Thériault:
We’re Only Having Half the Conversation We Need to About Mass Shootings
Remember the Women of the Montreal Massacre by More Than Just Their Names
The Way I Was Treated at a Hospital After My Suicide Attempt Was Humiliating