A Lifetime of Negative Self-Talk

And then, how I got better at overcoming it.

It happened on a chessboard. I was around seven years old, playing chess against my dad during a Buffalo Sabres game on a Friday night.

My dad is a gentle, compassionate figure who operated by the credo of “Fish for a man, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime; make a man learn to fish on his own and he’ll either become the best fisherman ever or hate fishing. Toggle between all three methods and see which one works best. Do it at random.”

When it came to chess, my father picked the third route — I would play him, and he would win, and it was up to me to learn from my mistakes until I could beat him fair and square. Over the course of a night, he must have beaten me ten times in a row. At this young of an age, when the lowest of stakes still feel too high to hurdle, this is a fate worse than death itself. I refused to give up until I had won outright. The final time I’d lost, upset and infuriated at my own inadequacy and inability to overcome my own feeble idiocy, I slammed my fist on the chessboard and threw the pieces across the room. I was scolded by my mother, sent to my room, and that was the last chess game I ever played against my dad.

My dad also liked to take us all out on the boat with his friends from work and they’d go water skiing. When I was 10, I wanted to water ski, too. It looked invigorating, exciting, refreshing — wind whipping against your face, water spraying everywhere, moving faster than man can run on his own. One day toward the end of an excursion out on the Niagara, I was allowed to strap on some skis and watch the boat pull away.

“Keep the skis pointed up!” My dad said. “You can do it!”

Within three seconds, I’d lost a grip and fallen. Another try.

Within five seconds, I’d lost a grip and fallen. Another try.

I’d like to tell you that I got progressively better and stayed up longer and longer, but that would be a lie.

“Again!” I yelled from the river, water seeping through my nose and tears dripping down my face.

Over. And over. And over. If I could just keep the skis pointed up and hold on.

It was nearing dusk, and I still hadn’t gotten it. Some 90 minutes had passed, and I was no closer to actually, truly water skiing than I’d been when I started. I had just watched my dad, his friends, his friends’ kids, all effortlessly prop themselves up and glide across the mighty river, taming the wild rush of the wake. I climbed aboard angry, sobbing, furious they wouldn’t let me go all night. We moved away from the river that summer. That was the last time I went water skiing.

Wanna see a trick?” My girlfriend asked me, as we sat at a bar one night long ago. She took a matchbook, flipped the match over with her fingers to graze the edge of the strike-strip, and with the flick of her index finger lit the match.

I proclaimed, “I want to try that!” Big mistake. I flipped the match over with my fingers to graze the edge of the strike-strip, and flicked my index finger. Nothing happened. I tried it again. And again. And again. I grew visibly more frustrated, and I started giving myself angry pep talks.

“Come on, motherfucker, do it! Be smarter than the match! Why can’t you do this? The fuck is the matter with you?”

Nothing. I sat there, for 45 minutes, on the brink of tears, wondering why I couldn’t master this One Weird Trick.

And then I got it. Fluke. Another matchbook discarded. And then I got it again. Fluke.

I spent the rest of the night trying to recapture whatever it was that made it work that one — two — time. Nothing. We left the bar. And I sat in the passenger seat, fuming, wondering why I couldn’t just do that one simple thing. I haven’t tried the matchbook trick since.

As well as being a slightly-above-average writer, I also happen to be a slightly-below-average musician. In my mid-20s, I watched a local band play on the stage at a prominent local music venue. A place that I’d pined to play. The mother of all gigs. They had sold the place out. And they were putting on a decent show.

The raucous crowd clamored for an encore. And they did just that.

Then came the words to a song I could cover. A cover I do capably and am often asked to do by name whenever I go out to play one of my low-rent cover shows that friends frequent sometimes. The crowd went bananas. Dancing. Screaming. Smiling. Singing along.

“You could be doing this exact thing *right now*!” My friends turned to me and said. And I became saddened, irate at myself for failing to capitalize on whatever gift I may or may not have. I haven’t played the song since.

There have been a lifetime of things I’ve tried to do, wanted to do, wished to do, enjoyed trying to do, and frankly haven’t succeeded at — and they upset me disproportionately. Among them:

  • Dance like anything but an uncoordinated white man
  • Any sort of combat or fist-fight
  • Repair common household items or car parts
  • Build things with wood or metal
  • Hit a baseball
  • Hold a baby without it starting to cry
  • Win (or even place at) any marginally athletic competition
  • Sell anything, of any value, at all
  • Getting taken seriously when I want to say something important.

“John, maybe that’s just not your skill set,” they’ll say to me, as they fire me from a job I’m not “suited for” or as they pay their friend to help them remodel their bathtub instead of merely asking me to help them for free, when I would gladly say yes because I want to learn said thing and become great at it.

Or, “You’ll get there,” they’ll say to me, as they go about their lives having other people do that thing I always wanted to do, but to whomever else is actually doing it is just another “thing” on their agenda.

I remember when I would run track or play soccer, and I would watch people effortlessly glide from start to finish, or hit a pinpoint goal on the front line, as I watched from the sideline. No one outworked me. No one out-studied me. I signed up for voluntary soccer camps. I ran extra sprints at practice. Nothing. I wasn’t ever going to run fast enough to be in Lane 4, or play well enough to start on a team that finished 3–13 in the Fall of 1998.

Chess. Water skiing. Lighting a match with one hand. Playing a sold out show. As disparate — and, candidly, not very useful — skills as you can possibly imagine. All things I failed to master. All things that upset me upon finding out I could not master right away. All things that bothered me only when I thought of them, and not enough for me to spend my free time trying to master after being burned by them. Question is: Why?

What does it mean to go after something, fail at it, become irrationally upset at failure, watch people no longer let you try that one thing because they’ve watched you fail at it, and then convince yourself it wasn’t worth going after?

Welcome to the abusive inner monologue — commonly referred to as “negative self-talk.” Oh, we’ve talked about it on this page before.

Negative self-talk manifests itself hardest when you watch other people just “get it.” Watching people buy a home and effortlessly turn it into something that belongs in Dwell or on Pinterest. Watching “style bloggers” amass 140,000 Instagram followers, while your avant-garde Twitter feed stalls out at 900. Watching the C-students in high school out-earn you by becoming doctors (somehow) when you made it a point to graduate in the top 10% of your class, and spent up until age 30 flat broke, thinking you’re some kind of “artist.” It’s not even jealousy — it’s an inward-directed rage at your own life choices, and your punitive judgment of them, that causes you to lash out at others’ successes.

Negative self-talk causes you to become so exhausted from that rage, that irrepressible feeling like the pieces will never fall into place, that you actively stop trying to piece together the puzzle … and you binge-watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt while stuffing your face with pizza — all the while, realizing that the 55 pounds you worked so hard to lose have all come back, because you got complacent and goddammit that’s why we can’t have nice things.

Negative self-talk means thinking this post was so poorly written for someone who’s paid to write things, so damning in its pettiness and so ludicrous and out-of-character in tone, that only a handful will read it, no one will relate to it, and at the very least 1–2 friends or family members will send a text saying, “Dude … that’s about enough out of you” before launching into a tirade about how your “your life isn’t that bad” and “you have no reason to get so damn worked up.”

Negative self-talk means knowing as soon as you hit “Publish,” you’ll spend 30 minutes obsessively checking your post stats for validation, to see if you resonated, to see if anyone cared at all, resign yourself to the fact that it was all just worthless babble, and then retire to sleep at 8 p.m. Central, on a Friday, after you missed work for a “Mental Health” day.

Not all “Mental Health” struggles are created equal. There’s the tortured artist, the athletic comeback story, the actor who beats addiction, the abused who rises up or falls prey to a past they could not control. On the other side, there’s the “Mental Health” people use as gas-lighting to derail conversations about gun control in this country.

What you’ve just read is more your garden-variety “Mental Health” story. The sub-acute version. Too vanilla to be charming. Too vague to be viable for some kind of magic bullet treatment. This is the kind that turns people off, gets people labeled as “odd,” and is the scarlet letter that becomes the first keystroke in their legacy.

That’s what negative self-talk does to you. It makes you think that even the most raw, cathartic, self-aware things you ever write will be judged at the highest level — before you remember that no one will care at all. And it’s almost enough to make you not hit “Publish,” if you weren’t so goddamned tired of the loneliness that accompanies feeling like you’re adrift on your own iceberg, melting as it meanders away from the pole.

All I really want to do is to keep trying at chess. But not enough to ask anyone to play with me. Because anyone who loves chess enough to say yes to me will likely wonder why someone who sucks at it so badly would want so badly to keep trying, and I doubt that anyone would take any interest in teaching me at this age, and so I think I’d just rather not play at all.

And if in the above paragraph you substitute the word “chess” for “life,” then, yes … that’s negative self-talk.

Plot Twist!

All of the above? Yeah, I wrote a year ago, back when things were different. Drunker. Meaner. Rougher. Darker. I left it unpublished because it was too bleak and navel-gazing, and I wasn’t yet ready to go there with y’all. (I would about a month later, as you’re about to see.)

Since then, things have gotten a lot better. How? Well, through writing of course — and other means. Here’s exactly how it went down, with all the helpful tips fit to print, for any of you who may be struggling with the same thing right now. (I’ve been documenting this journey in plain sight for you — I’m not all the way there yet, but it’s an improvement!) Anyway, here we go:

TIP 1: Perhaps you recall the night I gave up downing two bottles of champagne a night.

TIP 2: Start with some easy-win happiness hacks that will trick your mind into being kinder.

TIP 3: I looked inward, looked around, and look forward, and went on an epiphany spree. Here are all of those epiphanies.

TIP 4: Your memories, thoughts and expectations are distortions of the truth, and should be treated as such.

TIP 5: The key to confidence is allowing yourself the room to repeatedly fail at things, incrementally increasing the stakes.

TIP 6: There’s only three real priorities in life: health, relationships and time. It’s okay to let the rest of it go.

TIP 7: Go to therapy. Take notes.

TIP 8: You could stand to improve your diet, and maybe exercise once in a while.

TIP 9: Maybe check your Facebook, Twitter and IG a little less.

TIP 10: Kill your ego.

TIP 11: Cultivate humility, curiosity and empathy. They’re the only three qualities you really need.

TIP 12: Decide what you really want out of life. Say it simply. Remember it easily.

TIP 13: Develop a fuck-ton of healthy self-care habits.

TIP 14: If you’re a sub-par superstar, make peace with being an award-winning supporting actor.

TIP 15: Do the little things well first.

TIP 16: Once you’re self-aware, become self-accountable.

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