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Negative Self Talk in Survivors: Techniques for Reframing

Long discussion of counteracting negative self talk for survivors of abuse, behind the cut.

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Reading this, I’m reminded immediately of my boyfriend. He and I are both freshman in college. Recently I found out he was abused as a child by his older sister, and now suffers from depression. As a result of this, his self esteem is very low. A common habit of his is to constantly be putting himself down, saying that deep down he is awful. And I do spend hours trying to make him feel good about himself. Is this a different situation because he is depressed? Is there a better way to handle it?

He really, REALLY needs a good therapist. And what’s happening now where you’re constantly responding to his “I’m terrible” by praising/loving on him is understandable but from a functional perspective long-term not helpful. He needs, NEEDS therapy, and you trying to make him feel better in the moment this way is not a good substitute for it.

His feelings are understandable. They’re a really common side effect of childhood abuse. But you cannot fix the underlying problem, and you don’t have the training or the tools to “make it better” in healthy ways.

It may seem counterintuitive, but if your response every time he says “I’m terrible” is to work really hard at making him feel better, you’re setting up a feedback loop. Not only that but you lose credibility with him. It is a REALLY toxic dynamic and doesn’t work well in long-term relationships.

This does not mean “never be nice to him”. It does not mean “abandon him when he feels like a terrible human being.”

It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t love him as much as you can and do.

But it’s a very, very hard lesson and one I did not learn fast enough at your age… NOTHING you as a 18 or 19 year old teenager can do is going to “fix” him. That’s not your job.

It is natural and human and a sign of being a good person that you want so desperately to help him feel better about himself. But what he needs is to learn how to reframe things, to stop the negative self talk from inside himself, to counteract it with messages that help him close the wound and stop it from bleeding rather than scratching at it.

“I’m terrible” is like picking a scab too soon. The wound underneath can only heal so much if it’s constantly getting reopened and re-cut.

Here are the things I personally say to abuse survivors, and if you tell him these things, you can tell him they come from another abuse survivor. Feel free to copy this and send it to him.

1. What happened to him was not his fault.
2. He did not deserve it.
3. His feelings about it are exactly what I would expect from most human beings who went through what he went through (and I don’t have to know exactly what he went through to know that self-loathing and depression are natural responses to abuse). Anyone who went through what he went through would probably have a hard time with it.
4. Having a hard time with it does not make him weak, it just makes him human.
5. Even though his feelings are a NORMAL response to ABNORMAL stimulus… that doesn’t mean that they’re accurate representations of reality. Abuse is something we have a hard time getting our minds around, and because human brains work the way they work, we tend to try to make things make sense. Even when they don’t make sense. “I deserve it” makes it less incomprehensible, even if it’s completely wrong.
6. What happened to him is hard to grapple with because it should not have happened and does not make sense. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, simply that his brain is struggling, not because it’s weak, but because this shit is legitimately hard. “This situation is objectively difficult and anyone would have a hard time dealing with it” is probably the most useful thing anyone’s ever said to me about dealing with depression.
7. Even if this hurt him, even if it broke him, even if he will never quite be who he would have been without it… that does not mean that his life is over, or that he can never experience joy, or that he doesn’t deserve good things, or even that he will be a less valuable person because of it.
8. Our experiences change us. Healing is hard. But it is not a lie that the process of healing can make us more than we would have been without the damage. I find the concept of Kintsugi very comforting.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kintugi.jpg

Self talk is the best way out of the spiral he’s in, in my experience. One way of getting started is to use a technique described on tumblr not too long ago, of giving that “voice” that says that a different persona. In the Check Please fandom, it was “Chad the Lax Bro.”

I think my husband uses Donald Trump. If you envision the negative voice as someone who you a) dislike, b) distrust and c) do not respect, it becomes much easier to dismiss.
“I’m a horrible human being.”
“Shut up, Donnie.”
“I’m terrible.”
“Fuck you, Chad.”
Seriously, once you start getting into arguments with the part of yourself that starts the negative self-talk, the battle is more than half won.
“I’m awful.”
“Shut the fuck up, Milo, I’m a goddamn ray of fucking sunshine and you know it.”

(Seriously, the only upside of the current  political situation is that there are so many easy examples of people whose credibility is nil. “Every word you say is bullshit, Kellyanne and no one trusts you. If you said the sky was blue, I’d have to check.”)

Self love doesn’t always come easy after abuse. Sometimes it feels completely foreign, unnatural. And he can’t really sit around and just wait for it. Sometimes it requires work. Sometimes we have to fake it until it’s a habit. And no one else can do that work but the survivor.

Your job is to love him. To offer whatever support is within your reasonable means to give. To listen.

But this is not a kind of emotional labor that ANY teenager is well-equipped to handle without help. There’s a black hole there that’s very hard to escape, and it’s almost impossible to function in a black hole because everything is so distorted.

He needs to learn to stop the voice before it comes out of his mouth. If what he needs in that time is love and support and buttering up, it’s okay for him to say, “I’m feeling down and I’m struggling and I could really use a hug.”

And if he can’t get those words out, it’s okay to set up a signal. Something positive he can say to get the response he’s getting now when he says “I’m terrible”. It could even be as silly as “Martin Shkreli raised the price of my neurotransmitters again.”

And then you can say, “What a bastard. Here, let’s cuddle and make some endorphins. Fuck you, Martin.”

Published in assvice Health Lessons for my kids Life Mental Health

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