“The most accomplished and beautiful man I know . . ..” This was the generous introduction I received before a speaking engagement. I remember the flood of self-talk that immediately followed. “If she really knew me she wouldn’t say that.” “Wow, she must really hang out with losers, and I am their king.” “Beautiful, pfft! What about the huge zit on my chin and my shiny bald patches?” Finally, “At least she didn’t say ‘talented,’ ’cause today is going to suck.”
Where does this negative self-talk come from? What and whose purpose does it serve?
I was shoveling fertilizer into my garden the other day while meditating on this conundrum. It is amazing what crap comes to mind when you are shoveling poo. Then it hit me. This negative self-talk did not start out fully formed. These were not transplanted thoughts or ideas from someone else; rather, they started out almost innocently, like a dandelion seed gently floating on the breeze after being blown to the wind by a toddler making a wish. Innocent, yet pervasive, plants.
The dandelion seed parachutes into the greenery of my garden and gently alights on the soil. Some unseen force takes over as the seed takes root and burrows deep in the safety of the ground before forcing its way back out into the sunlight. The whole purpose of its existence is to grow and spread.
The same can be said of the weeds that cause feelings of unworthiness: shame, guilt, anger, resentment and fear. Who knows where those seeds come from and what wish blew them into existence. Like the dandelions, they started out innocently and beneficently. Perhaps a parent’s caution about climbing on a rock in the yard meant to keep the child safe, grows into a profound fear of heights years later.
I remember the first time I felt shame. I was young, around five years old, and standing naked in front of the washing machine. I smelled like urine, and all my bedding was being put into the wash. I had wet the bed again. I remember the sound my mother made when she discovered she had another morning of laundry, that clucking sound and then a sigh. Forever, this is the sound of shame for me.
My mother wanted me to stop wetting the bed, perhaps for her own sake, but I would prefer to think that it was for mine, too. Regardless of her reasons, her wish blew a seed into my life garden. Unaware, I allowed the weed to grow and flourish. Whenever something happened that caused my mother to sigh and cluck her tongue, I would instantly be transported back in time, standing barefoot and naked on the cold concrete in front of the washer. Whether it was the time I fell out of a tree or when I cut my chin on a fence or broke a dish, that shame would sprout and bloom. I was unworthy.
These were not transplanted thoughts or ideas from someone else; rather, they started out almost innocently, like a dandelion seed gently floating on the breeze after being blown to the wind by a toddler making a wish.
The older I got, the more the weeds of shame, guilt, resentment, anger, self-pity and self-loathing seemed to propagate. It didn’t matter what or how much I accomplished, there was always an underlying insecurity stemming from one or more of these weeds. The only thing that controlled my weed problem was drugs.
Using drugs was akin to paving over my garden with asphalt. It wasn’t pretty, but it did control the weeds for a while. My drug use also added an earthquake of delusion and paranoia to the mix. Pretty soon the smooth asphalt was cracked and broken by an abundance of those noxious, spreading weeds. None of the ugliness mattered as long as I had methamphetamines in my prison of isolation. I was slowly rotting from the inside out, being overtaken by vines of fear and tendrils of degradation.
It wasn’t until I found myself in a real prison that the fog began to lift. Staring out of my cell window, the actions and inactions that led me to this place became abundantly clear. My supply of blame placed on others ran out. There I was, stuck in the mess that my life garden had become.
Sometimes, drastic measures are the only solution for a garden overrun with invasive vegetation. For me, getting clean was that drastic measure. My first step was to admit that my garden needed a thorough weeding. I had no idea how I would get clean, let alone how I would stay clean. I was oppressed by my fear and self-loathing. I hated my life and couldn’t see a way out.
I had to be willing to start weeding. Getting down on my knees with my hands in the dirt, I asked my Higher Power for the strength to pull out each plant. With the help of some powerful tools, I got to work.
Armed with my Higher Power and the Twelve Steps, I began clearing away the choking weeds that had grown from those seeds planted so very long ago. I was not alone. I had the help of other people in recovery to help me weed my garden.
As I turned the soil, I found my Higher Power was there with nutrients for a better life. I inventoried what I pulled from the ground and replanted or nurtured the plants I wanted to flourish: intelligence, service, compassion and kindness. I knew I needed to be persistent and vigilant in order to keep the weeds of unworthiness from going to seed or taking root again.
When I look at my life today, I am amazed how beautifully it has grown. To be honest, I wish my garden never needed weeding and that all of my assets would grow abundantly, but that is not the reality. Like an actual garden, my life needs daily care and attention. When negative self-talk comes up, and it does, I can’t just pull off the leaves or pretend it’s not there; I must embrace the truth about myself.
Yes, there was a flood of negative self-talk that day after my introduction. I did not deny it or try to mask it. Instead, I leaned lovingly and compassionately into it, armed with the Truth. Thanks to my Higher Power and recovery, I can be seen by others as “the most beautiful and accomplished man.”
Thanks to recovery, I live my life abundantly and fully. Negative self-talk is conquered by positive, affirmative talk. My shame is being replaced with self-esteem. Guilt is thwarted with service, and anger diminishes in the face of love. When I eat well, exercise and care for myself, the extremes of self-pity and self-importance are harnessed by humility, and resentment and self-loathing seem to melt away.
After that talk, I was met with thunderous applause. In the midst of that affirmative praise, I remembered that I am a good and kind person. I am a hardworking employee, a talented speaker, a caring friend and a loving partner to my husband, Travis.
The weed of unworthiness did not paralyze me. Instead, I saw it for what it was and vigilantly weeded it out of my mind.
Dr. George Baxter-Holder, affectionately known as “Dr. George,” is in long-term recovery. He received his Doctor of Nursing Practice from Duke University and is a nurse practitioner in facial aesthetics. He is a published author, speaker, coach, teacher and actor. He is a sought-after expert in recovery, health, wellness and beauty. GeorgeBaxter-Holder.com