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Mind-War

| Thursday, April 8, 2021

I once heard a homily about a man who was instructed by his therapist to sit in the middle of an empty room — alone. For a full hour. No music, no sounds, no movements, no one to accompany him. Just him and his mind, sitting.

This may sound nice at first — I, for one, find myself saying, “I wish I could just sit and do nothing” anytime I feel overwhelmed by the ludicrous amount of things on my to-do list. 

But for a full hour?! In broad daylight? This man wasn’t even allowed to nap. After a few minutes, he started to get anxious. He eventually caved into his discomfort and turned on music. When he reported back to his therapist on his hour-long agony, he was told that he had failed. He had jumped immediately to a distraction, something to tune out the thoughts that he habitually shoved away. They had come crawling back, and there was nothing he could do to halt the tide. Angry thoughts, sad thoughts, self-loathing thoughts. All the messages our minds send us that we wish would remain at a healthy distance. Or at least what we think is a healthy distance.

For me, that distance from self-loathing thoughts — or, as many people refer to it, “negative self-talk” — was eliminated in high school. Every time I was alone driving myself to and from school, alone at my desk doing homework, alone eating at the dinner table — my mind abruptly began yelling at me. 

WHY CAN’T YOU JUST CHEW AND SWALLOW LIKE A NORMAL PERSON? FINISH YOUR DAMN DINNER.

WHY DID YOU SAY THAT AT LUNCH? NO ONE THINKS YOU’RE FUNNY.

YOU KNOW THAT THEY’RE ALL PLANNING TO HANG OUT WITHOUT YOU LATER. 

SHE TALKED BEHIND YOUR BACK AND SAID YOU HAVE A STICK UP YOUR ASS. IS THAT WHAT EVERYONE SEES WHEN THEY LOOK AT YOU?

LIKE ALWAYS, YOU’RE OSTRACIZED. DISPLACED. FROM YOUR FRIENDS, YOUR BODY, YOUR OWN MIND. 

WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT YOU AROUND, ANYWAY.

I was so utterly, perpetually intimate with these screaming thoughts that I couldn’t see around them anymore. They defined my sight. Anywhere I went, they insisted on following. I started to understand why the man from the homily was so antsy, so quick to distance himself from his frightening mind. 

Somebody in my Show Some Skin small group performed a monologue about anxiety and panic attacks, and it has a line that reads, “…it leaves me scared of myself, scared of my brain. I’m literally fighting with myself.” 

When I heard this line at our first read-through, I was yanked back into that space of screaming, self-loathing thoughts. Not only did they trail me like a loyal pet, they transformed me into a being constantly afraid of herself. Always at war, just not visibly. 

As Brandi Carlile (a musician I dearly love) sings, 

“My mind and spirit are at odds sometimes.”

My spirit claimed that I was loved. My mind claimed that I was not. 

My thoughts yelled that I was a fool, laughable and always DISPLACED. UNSETTLED.

I would cry, I would try to take big deep breaths (which never really worked), I would write in my journal. But all that time, I was expecting that these practices would silence the negative self-talk. That the self-loathing thoughts would be exiled to a place so far that their relentless mockery was simply out of earshot. 

This is not what we should hope for. These thoughts will inevitably come, whether they’re self-loathing, angry or sad. Whatever they are, to whomever they speak. They will remain. I’m sure the man alone in the room can attest to that. 

These days, though, I am not tethered to these thoughts. They still yell at me from time to time, but I can finish my dinner without their criticism. I can exist in social settings without them second-guessing every move I make. I can recall that there are reasons why I am a HUMAN and deserve both self-love and the love of others. Not because the thoughts are silenced, but because I acknowledge them and (try, at least) to let them pass in peace. 

Negative self-talk is a common human experience. As it once was for me, it can be consuming, the only means of sight. If it is consuming for you, muster up all the courage you have and tell somebody. That is what helped me regain my sense of self, and I am no longer waging a constant war with my mind.

If you feel as though there is no one to tell, tell a stranger. We all understand because we have all felt displaced. We have all felt bombarded by our screaming thoughts at one point or another. We can’t always halt their tide, but we can attempt to let them pass. 

Margaret Beuter is a part of this year’s Show Some Skin. Show Some Skin is a student-run initiative committed to giving voice to unspoken narratives about identity and difference. Using the art of storytelling as a catalyst for positive social change across campus, we seek to make Notre Dame a more open and welcoming place for all. If you are interested in breaking the silence and getting involved with Show Some Skin, email [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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