You’re no good! Who do you think you are? How dare you presume to help other people when you can’t possibly know what it’s like for them to live with symptoms! It’s obvious to certain people that you hate them. You’re responsible for their agony. Why do you think you could be a role model? Most people don’t want to hear what you have to say. Maybe it’s true that most people can’t recover.
And so the beat goes on, and on and on. Though I do have faith in my vision of a better life for those of us living with SZ, it’s not always enough of a puffed-up feeling to insulate me when the self-doubt whips at my mind. What causes this critical narrator to harsh on me with unpredictable force? Is this a trait I was born with, or did it intensify over the years as I tried to get approval from my mother, who loved me but didn’t always show her love? I always felt like nothing I did was ever good enough for her.
In my early years of recovery, I had a negative self-perception, even though I did find a full-time job and had a sunny studio apartment. My therapist, A., knew I was hard on myself. With him, and through honest self-scrutiny, I began to develop effective coping techniques.
An effective technique I used is creative visualization. One day, poring through the catalogues that came in the mail, I saw one for the Pottery Barn that had on its cover a modern update on an apothecary chest. Something about seeing a chest of drawers into which I could place things neatly, with “a place for everything, and everything in its place,” gave me an idea. I would visualize the image of an apothecary chest when I was overwhelmed with feelings. When I was sad or angry or beating on myself, I’d store each mood in its own drawer so that it didn’t overflow my mind and take control.
Another picture in my head empowered me, and I created it accidentally. I was at work, and pressed the button for the lobby in the elevator, but when the door opened 19 floors below, a brick wall popped up where the waiting area should be. I was in the sub-basement! Luckily, I pressed the alarm button and the guard sent me back up within five minutes. After this snafu, whenever I wanted to set boundaries with other people, I’d visualize a brick wall standing between us.
One of the first boosters I found for my battered self-esteem was developed with my counselor in the halfway house. He took out a pad and had me write down five positive things I liked about myself. Mind you, I could barely find one! Yet I took him up on the offer: I’m worthy. I’m capable. I’m beautiful. I love myself. I’m happy. Though I felt it wasn’t true, each day I wrote down things I liked about myself, and slowly but surely they came true. Even as recently as two or three years ago, I kept such a “grateful journal” in which I listed at least 15 things I appreciated about myself and what I’d done that day. I bought a cheap but colorful hardbound journal, and wrote in it a stream of positive traits and activities, re-reading them each night to remember I had done good.
How else can we feed and quiet the needy, insecure critic living in our heads? By using what I call a “cheat sheet.” When I fear what other people think of me—a common, repetitive agony—I take out a large index card on which I’ve written down rational responses to my faultfinding. 1. Nobody cares about you because they’re too busy thinking about themselves and their own problems. 2. Everyone has insecurities. 3. I can’t control what other people think of me, nor am I responsible for their pain. Their earliest life experiences shape their beliefs, and they bring this to the table in every meeting with me. 4. I’m not a hateful person, and if I smile appropriately, it’ll put people at ease.
You may need to brainstorm your own index card of truths with a trusted friend or therapist or counselor. The other technique I use when all logic fails and my feelings are in overdrive is a “thought blockage.” My caseworker in the hospital, K., suggested I tell myself, “Stop!” after every troubling thought that pops into my head. This is like targeting ducks in a shooting gallery. To increase the chances it’ll work, I slow down, breathe in deep to the count of three, exhale slowly to the count of four, and deflect from the worry by talking myself out of it. “You don’t have to go there. Think of something else. Plan your evening.”
One day, as I rode the subway, and a tangle of snarled thoughts worked itself on me, I defused it by making a mental checklist of what I’d do when I got home. I visualized myself taking those actions. Another time, as I walked down the street, I replaced a thorny thought with these words in my head (not aloud!) “Love yourself, love yourself.”
Above all other techniques and coping mechanisms, I strongly urge you to join an appropriate support group, and if none exists, work with your local NAMI to start one. You need to attend these meetings regularly, or as often as possible. I know that when I don’t go to the group consistently, I feel like I’m farther afloat and could use the life preserver. One thing that absolutely built up my confidence was to facilitate, that is, lead the support group and guide its focus and direction, acting with empathy and loving concern for the others during each session. Flexing my interpersonal skills this way boosted my self-esteem. I felt respected by others and respectful of myself.
In closing, I’d like to sum up the coping techniques I’ve listed here:
1. Creative visualization.
2. Keeping a grateful journal.
3. Writing down rational responses on an index card and referring to it when the fear overcomes you.
4. Using thought blockages to halt the worry avalanche.
5. Attending, if not facilitating, a support group regularly.
Published On: June 11, 2007