How I Stopped Hating Myself and Became Useful

Because self-pity and self-loathing are still self-obsession.

You won’t get the job.

You’re not capable. Not competent.

For a second I nod along — I know! — then I catch myself. My inner critic is the most negative, frightened, damaged part of me. The part that laughs at tragedy and enjoys drama, and watches disaster death counts rise, exhilarated. The part that longs to throw this body away, to destroy it slowly, that’s had my ear since my ear could be had.

It isn’t easy to change mental channels, but I try.

I am useful and capable, I tell myself because I need to take back power at Brain HQ. And because I am discovering that affirmations, cheesy as they sound, work.

Denise Jacobs wrote a whole book on the topic, Banish Your Inner Critic: Silence the Voice of Self-Doubt to Unleash Your Creativity and Do Your Best Work.

“When we focus on something, everything falls away until that one thing exists for us, and we see that item clearly to the exclusion of everything else. This can be true when we reach a state of creative flow, but unfortunately is equally true for the times when we are in the throes of negative self-talk and rumination.”

You have to replace the old thought with something new. I mean, try not thinking about a kitten in a cape. Not possible. You have to contest your negative inner voice with something true. Think of recent concrete examples that prove this. For instance, I am useful and capable might be: I helped X get and stay sober. I took care of Y’s children. I led those teenagers to create that anthology.

Do other people have these battles, I wonder? It’s tiring and upsetting, and it steals time from preparing for the interview. It could easily ruin my chances of being successful. The struggle makes me want to cancel. And it makes me want to drink.

For a minute, I give up. Lying back on my Airbnb bed, I feel the weight of all the bad times pulling underneath me. How much of my life I have wasted!

Melancholia, my old friend, threatens to swallow me, and I wonder if I should be on anti-depressants (again). Maybe the libido dip is worth it for the psychological equilibrium. Or perhaps I am supposed to feel this stuff?

In my first months of sobriety, I separated the voice of my so-called alcoholism in order to disempower its suggestions.

“But how do I know which voice is my alcoholism?” I asked my sobriety coach.

“Easy,” she said. “It’s obsessed with getting you to drink alcohol.”

It crops up now with a suggestion.

D’you feel sad, baby? ’Cause cold white wine solves that.

Oh, come on, alcoholism. I’m three years sober. Wine isn’t an option for me anymore.

But you know it is.

All of the things I’ve learned from spiritual teachers tell me I can choose how I feel but when these feelings hit I don’t believe it. Sadness is the bricks and mortar of this town, I think, as I lie, staring at the ceiling of my cottage. The thought isn’t true, but its melodrama is irresistible. I can feel myself being pulled down into the hopelessness of self-pity. How familiar it feels.

This is why I used to drink. Three years later, I’m still learning why.

Whenever I go somewhere by myself, my psyche suggests beer. Whenever I have an emotion — good or bad — my psyche suggests wine. When my inner critic pulls me down, my alcoholism sees its chance.

Booze fixes this and you know it!

This is a good time in my life — I have an exciting job opportunity, I’m in a beautiful relationship — but my so-called alcoholism doesn’t care about that.

As far as it is concerned I will always be the girl who gets overlooked so I may as well drink my face off.

Everyone else does, and nobody would mind. You were never that bad to begin with.

I have to redirect my attention over and over and over. But I keep at it. Because I have committed not to drink just for today, every day for over three years now, and my life has improved exponentially. And because the women who helped me get sober promised me that affirmations work and I trust them.

Denise Jacobs explains:

“Concentrating on our shortcomings bars any thoughts of what we are actually good at from entering our consciousness. To begin to see where our cup runneth over, we need to manage our attention and shift focus.”

Write the feelings down, consider what might have triggered them. There is healing and power in naming and understanding how you feel. Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize our (and others’) emotions and to use them to inform our thinking. This can then influence the actions that we choose. Instead of snapping thoughtlessly at our partner, we might take ourselves out for a walk. Instead of going for a pint we might call a friend.

“Emotional intelligence represents an ability to validly reason with emotions and to use emotions to enhance thought.” — John D. Mayer

I am learning, when crippling doubts and Imposter Syndrome strike, to recognize, acknowledge, and then, contest, them.

Now, for instance. I feel scared and vulnerable about the attention I am going to get during this interview. A perfectly reasonable response to out of the ordinary pressure. I think my flaws are going to prevent me from succeeding. Okay, I’m listening. And here’s where it twists. Because as soon as they meet me they’re going to realise I’m not capable of operating at this level. That I am faulty in a deeper way…

My psyche seizes the opportunity to hijack a temporary and regular feeling, fear of failure, into a constant and unwavering, unhelpful belief.

I have to talk myself out of it, the same way a dear friend would if I accidentally let my toxic waste thinking slip out when I was with them.

Unlike the voice of my ‘alcoholism’ which was there all along, I had to build this one from scratch. I used my kindest, most empathetic friends for inspiration, and then, after I met him, my very sweet and silly boyfriend.

Hang on a minute, bab, let me just stop you there ’cause you’re being really hard on yourself. They’ve invited you here because they think you can do the job. They think you might be a great fit. They were so impressed by your covering letter, which is full of examples of how you are already ‘operating at this level’ that they wanted to meet you. They’re keen to find out a little more. All you have to do is show up as yourself!

It’s boring and repetitive, and I resent that it’s necessary, but each time I do this, I weaken my inner critic’s influence over me. At the same time, I strengthen my emotional intelligence.

In other words, I grow stronger.

When I first came into recovery, my first sobriety coach pulled me up on this tendency to be hard on myself.

“Self-pity and self-loathing are still self-obsession,” she said, gently.

Until that moment, I had struggled to see how I was selfish. It was a revelation.

Go outside and focus on the world beyond you. Think of ways you can be useful. Don’t shame yourself for feeling pain. Turn your attention to something positive or neutral. This takes practice, but it is possible. And it gets easier.

What you focus on you get more of. So turn your attention to something good. Strengthen your ability to shift your own attention. It might not feel like it, but you have power over your thoughts. Meditation helps you build it.

Every time you tell yourself your ancient, tragic origin story you entrench it more deeply inside you. When the fact is, it likely isn’t even true.

There are flowers on my Airbnb desk, and I can hear, downstairs, my host teaching herself Welsh. Sun shines in the sash window, and in the distance a dog barks. Outside my body, there is no painful emotion. I focus my attention there. I push myself to get ready, to go outside.

As I walk to the river, I reflect. What are my feelings trying to tell me? Returning to a place where I was sad has brought up painful feelings. That seems reasonable enough if inconvenient. I can acknowledge these feelings without letting them ruin my day.

I buy fish and chips and walk to the quay where I eat with my feet dangling over the river. Herring gulls circle and I check whether anyone is around before throwing them a handful of chips. I watch the feeding frenzy.

So long as I don’t feed the sadness when it comes I can keep moving forward into this different life. I practice talking to myself nicely.

You have so much to offer. You care so much about other people. You love inspiring them. You see the best in them. You want to help.

Watching the gulls fight I focus on everything good: hot salt and vinegared chips, blue sky, bobbing boats, wisps of cloud, sobriety. There are so many things I don’t know about yet, good things I can’t imagine. Look at how far I have come! Staring out at the horizon I smile.

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Author, educator, truth-seeker. Writing my way to freedom or thereabouts. Talk to me @cjflood_author. She/her/they.

By Beautiful Hangover

Stories about quitting drinking in order to become a more authentic version of yourself. Take a look.

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