Negative, bullying, abusive self-talk can corrode your spirit, sap your strength, ruin your focus and destroy your courage. Looking at yourself with hostile eyes and talking to yourself with that old critical, perfectionistic, never-pleased voice can be demoralizing and debilitating. Constant repetition of all your imperfections, mistakes, faults, failures and character flaws can lead you down the path toward isolation, depression and suicide. Don’t believe it? Think of some examples of relentless self-bullying:
- The abused wife who accepts her husband’s excuses and justifications that his verbal or physical beatings are her fault. She’s to blame for his failures; she’s never good enough. If only she were adequate, he wouldn’t be so nasty, vicious and violent. If she talks to herself with his voice, she’ll never leave. If she accepts the guilt and shame she’ll keep trying to please him, but she’ll never succeed. She convinces herself she’ll never make it on her own so she stays and endures more brutality.
- The kids bullied at school who tell themselves that they’ll never be good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough or loved. They think it’s their fault they get harassed, teased, taunted and emotionally and physically bullied. They give in to bullies. If their nagging, hostile, abusive voices convince them that there’s no hope for a better future, they become the next Phoebe Prince, Tyler Clementi or other young suicides.
- The people harassed at work who’re told they’re dumb, ugly, the wrong color, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. They’re made the butt of jokes and threats; their work ideas are stolen; they’re belittled, ostracized, shamed and passed over for promotions. If their self-critical voices convince them to give up, their spirits will die. They won’t be able to summon the will, determination or perseverance to fight back. They’ll feel overwhelmed and unable to learn the skills they need to protect and defend themselves.
- The kids who think the deck is stacked against them. Their parents have treated them badly or one or both have blamed or abandoned them. If they convince themselves they’re stupid and not loveable, they’ll give up. They’ll accept bullying; their own and from other kids. They shuffle through life, putting themselves down, defeating their efforts before they’ve really begun. They lose their fighting spirits; the spirit that will struggle against the conditions and vicissitudes of life in order to make great lives for themselves.
Kids who’ve turned off their engines look and act dull and listless; as if they’ve given up already. You can almost hear their constant inner, self-dialogue. They’re so distracted by the destructive IMAX Theater in their minds that they can’t pay attention to what’s happening around them. Their attention is captured by all the putdowns and listing of all their failures, the magnifying of the problems they face, the making of insurmountable mountains out of molehills, the diminishing of each skill or success, the magnifying of each imperfection. They’re not resilient; the smallest adversity defeats them. Happiness is fleeting; bitterness and depression is their lot. Anything good they get is never enough, never satisfying, never brings joy.
Alternatively, they use their engines, often ferociously, to blame their parents and try to beat them into submission, to extract material possessions and guilt, to vent their hatred of themselves and the world onto their parents or onto the one parent who stays and tries to help them. They bite every hand that’s offered to them. They fight against teachers and against learning a skill that might make them financially and physically independent. They explode with sarcasm and rage in response to the slightest nudging. What a waste.
All the help offered them seems to bounce off. They won’t accept what’s offered because that hyper-critical, judgmental voice knows better.
They have no inner strength, courage, determination, perseverance and resilience. They feel helpless and that their situation is hopeless. They may go down the path to being victims for life. Their self-confidence and self-esteem may be destroyed. Anxiety, stress, guilt, negativity and self-mutilation may be stimulated. They move easily toward isolation, depression and suicide. Nothing will help them until they turn their engines on again.
Compare them to the kids with great engines; always active and alert, always wanting to learn, willing to face and overcome challenges, seeking risk and reward, capable of overcoming adversity. They have tremendous drive to live and to succeed.
These spirited kids with great engines can tax your patience almost beyond its limits, but the reward is so apparent. They’ll make something wonderful of their lives. They won’t give up. They won’t be defeated by defeats.
Our job as parents with these spirited kids is clear: help them develop great steering wheels so they can direct themselves to fulfill the promise of their great engines in worthy endeavors. Whatever direction they travel, they’ll go with passion, intensity and joy. They’ll overcome setbacks by continuing on with renewed effort. As Coach John Wooden said, “Hustle can make up for a lot of mistakes.”
There is no formula to save kids who turn off their engines. Even when you know every detail of their history, there is no formula. There’s only the continued presenting to them of encouragement and opportunity. Sometimes a mentor or coach is crucial, sometimes a small success that’s a surprise, sometimes an example of someone else’s life will catch their attention.
We know that attempts to improve their steering wheel won’t help. No lectures about being better, kinder, gentler people will help. The beginning of a new life for them is the miracle of starting their engines. Then they grab opportunities for themselves. Then we can help them with their steering wheels.