Train Your Brain (Moving Through Perfectionism to Create) Episode 3: Self-Talk

by Michelle M. Johnson

I have a secret that I feel it's time for me to share: I'm not very nice.

I already hear all y'all disagreeing with me, "Michelle, you are one of the nicest people I know!" 

And, that's super sweet of you all to say, but nope, I need to come clean and say publicly that I am the most unkind person...to myself, that is.

The truth is I have been known to say some of the meanest, cruelest, soul-crushing things to myself about myself, and my habit is to do this when I am at my most vulnerable: when I am injured or ill, when I am creating, when I am sharing something that I have created to an audience, when I am about to take an emotional risk, when I am struggling to make sense of the world and my life, when I am afraid or uncertain or tired, when I whatever it is I am attempting isn't going perfectly. 

The truth about me is that if daily grades were handed out for negative self-talk, 99.9% of the time I would be taking home top marks.

And, based on my experience as a teacher of all kinds of things (languages, writing, dance, health and fitness, art), working with students of all ages and backgrounds, I am not alone in this deep, dark, terrible secret. Many folks struggle with negative self-talk, so many people in fact that I want to put out there that we seem to be developing a bit of an acceptance of this wretched habit in our culture, because, you know, negative self-talk isn't that big of a deal; everybody does it, and it doesn't really hurt anything or anyone....

Or does it?

Negative self-talk kills more dreams, slays more spirits, and crushes more goals than any other barrier to learning and creative growth out there. 

Perhaps you think I am being a bit hyperbolic? Everyone has doubts now and then! It's what keeps us modest and understanding our place in the world; it's just human nature to be self-critical now and again. We all have a smidge of perfectionism in us about something, don't we?

Okay, but negative self-talk isn't simply doubting ourselves, or making sure we are not growing too big for our britches, or having high standards.

Negative self-talk is about stopping our creative and personal growth by hitting ourselves right where it counts the most - in our self worth, our inherent value as human beings.

I have a go-to negative self-talk phrase. It is simple, it is short, and it is thorough. When this phrase trolls through my head, it is a conversation stopper. There is no room for growth or solutions once my brain has utter these six words: "You are a waste of space."

Years ago, after hearing me refer to myself as a "waste of space" one too many times, my partner in life, Steve, picked up a photo of me as a baby and strongly asked, "Would you call this baby a waste of space?! Would you tell this child she is a waste of space?!" His question stunned me into silence, and eventually brought me to tears. No, I would never, ever tell a child or anyone else under my care, no matter their age, that they were a "waste of space." I would never in a million years be that cruel to another human being! Yet here I was regularly speaking to myself in this destructive fashion, and not only that, doing so when I was at my most vulnerable and defenseless.


My studio space is decorated with all sorts of memorabilia, but none more vital to my creative work than this photo of myself as an infant that shares a picture frame with a school photo of my son, Samuel, when he was 7 years old. When I feel compelled to call myself "a waste of space," these photos remind me to tend to my heart, my mind and my work as I would this infant who can barely hold her head up and this precious, precocious 7 year old who wanted to learn everything, try everything, and was so frustrated when he "couldn't get it right the first time."
In coaching students through challenges that bring out their most vicious self-talk phrases, I have used this counter self-terrorism approach again and again, substituting in whatever defenseless person or creature that I know they respect - "would you say that to your child, your parent, your younger sibling, your pet, your best friend, your fellow student?" And, 100% of the time their answer is "no."  After that moment, the emotional energy they were using to rip themselves apart then gets directed towards learning to see themselves as valuable human beings who are trying to grow, trying to figure out something new.

It is my humble opinion while we may develop useful strategies like my family's "Are you being nice to the baby?" that I just shared with you (that is Steve's catch phrase when he hears frustration coming from my studio), the battle with negative self-talk is an ongoing and ever changing one that never goes away entirely. 

How could it? We are battling ourselves, and let's face it, we're pretty smart!

But, I have found that when we share these wrongly-believed negative self-talk phrases with trusted kindred spirits something magical happens: their power over us lessens just enough to allow us to learn, to create, to grow, to heal, to do whatever challenge is in front of us that triggered our inner dialogue to the dark side.

Case in point is the origin story of the beautiful phrase written in my handwriting at the top of this year's 3rd Annual HCWT Coloring Contest (Online!!) illustration:



This past summer, I had to cancel a much anticipated get-together with a dear friend and her family at the very last minute because I had thoughtlessly over scheduled myself and my family leading into the preparation of having house guests: I had a deadline to meet, the house was a wreck, there were loads and loads of laundry that had to be done, an enormous grocery shopping trip had to happen, and a considerable amount of furniture had to be rearranged in preparation for our house guests as our company had special needs. In my vulnerable overwhelmed state, I messaged my friend begging for a "rain check" as something had to give if we were going to be ready for our house guests. 

And, even though I knew she would understand, my feelings of failure and being a disappointment spilled over into our conversation, and guess what phrase slipped out of my mouth? Yep, you guessed it -  I was a "waste of space." 

Her immediate response was, "Wow. That is really harsh. I think you are a brilliant use of space."

Boom.

I had been trying to erase that particular piece of my life's script for as long as I could remember, and while the words would fade a bit from time to time, circumstances would always arise that reignited their strength and their power....

Until my friend, Melissa Mathews (I always want to give credit where credit is due, and Melissa has given me permission to share with y'all our story and her fabulous words), re-wrote my negative self-talk into this beautiful mantra that I think is true for each and every one of us: You are a brilliant use of space.

This phrase sits at the top of this year's coloring contest illustration because I am a visual person, and for me to begin to believe anything, I need to see it, to read it over and over and over again. Only then will a new idea sink into my consciousness. I do not think that I am alone in being this way, in slowly becoming and believing about myself what I see every day; most humans are deeply affected by what they see around them. My hope with this year's coloring contest page is that loads of folks will spend a good chunk of time coloring this illustration and therefore reading its encouraging words. Yes, I want you all to create some fabulous art out of my black lined drawing, but more importantly I want you to walk away from this colorful experience with something more: the belief that you and your creativity are a brilliant use of space!




Comments

  1. Love this honest portrayal of how tough self-talk is! We are a brilliant use of space!!!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you:) It was tough to write, but I felt proud of how it all turned out.

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