We hear a lot about being in a toxic relationship, but usually it involves another person. Interestingly, often the most toxic relationship we can have involves our relationship to ourselves. Toxic self-relationship is driven primarily by negative self-talk; the stories we tell ourselves based on the fixed beliefs we gathered over the years that we are ‘less than’, somehow inadequate or simply not worthy of love, respect or esteem.
These stories come out of how we were treated over time by caregivers, coaches, teachers and even peers. As these stories burrow their way into our psyche—good, bad or indifferent—we interpret them, allowing them to shape our self-perception. When those stories are less than ideal, our experience of ourselves can negative. For instance, a woman whose mother always said to her, “It’s a good thing you’re smart,” eventually starts to hear, “You aren’t pretty.” By the same token, the man whose father consistently said, “That glove is going to get you into college,” eventually starts to hear, “You’re a dumb jock.”
Recognizing and Addressing Negativity
In some ways, these misinterpretations aren’t an accident. Humans are hard-wired to discern the worst possible outcome in any situation; it’s something called a negativity bias, which is part of our little built-in survival kit. Since we no longer have to worry about environmental threats, like saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths, we have, over time, shifted our focus to look for social threats.
It doesn’t take much for us to get pushed from neutral into a negative space, particularly as children. If someone in our life whom we value or feel has power over us makes a negative comment or consistently ‘one downs’ us—even indirectly—we can very easily take that on and it has impact on us. Over time, the negativity we’ve taken on can become part of our personal mythology and, by association, a part of the narrative that informs the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in the world.
What are some of the expectations or assumptions you have about yourself that, upon closer examination, might not stand up to scrutiny? Are you really lazy, or are you a perfectionist who gets paralyzed by fear of making a mistake? Is it that you’re shy, or are you an introvert who harbors a certain amount of social sensitivity? Are you rigid and inflexible, or controlling because you are afraid you will do something wrong or be judged?
When we stop and think about the negativity of our personal narrative, we can begin asking ourselves the question, “Is this really true about me?” We need to bring acceptance and love to the child inside of us that developed this negative belief system in order to survive. Often, we need help and guidance from a counselor to navigate the old negative belief systems to really be able to download new software into our brains and beliefs and stories we tell ourselves. It can take time to shift our beliefs to new loving ones toward ourselves but you are worth the time and effort.