It usually begins an instant after the generic alarm on my phone signals the dawn of a new day, and I am rarely disappointed.
“This is stupid. I hate this,” comes a grumble from one corner, scratchy and raw due to the excessive yelling from the day before. “Turn that damn thing off.”
“I am not equipped for this,” a whisper comes from another corner, still covered in darkness.
From yet another corner, “Well, this is just super. There’s nothing more breathtaking than the beginning of another wildly mediocre day in this freak show.”
Here they come. Anger, Fear, Resentment, AND…
“Act normal. It’s really not a problem.”
“Just don’t encourage them. No one has to know. No one will ever understand,” says a stern voice, as morning overcomes the night.
Time to start another day, I think to myself and smile as I turn off the alarm and get out of bed.
It hasn’t always been this way. I mean, it hasn’t always been the case that I could begin a morning this way and smile. In fact, anxiety, depression and addiction were fueled for years by the unrelenting onslaught of negative thoughts in my head, while the issues I had were, in turn, fueled by my constant, toxic supply of negative thoughts.
The idea of the critical inner voice isn’t a new one. A quick Google search will show results for articles and papers that suggest that we can have anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, and anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of those thoughts can be negative. According to research, the overwhelming majority of those negative thoughts are usually the same negative thoughts we had yesterday, and the day before. There is also the popular belief that negative self-talk or critical inner voice, or monologue, has increased sharply in recent years, in large part due to the cumulative effects of the pandemic, social and political division, and the abundance of (and easy access to) critical material on social media.
That seems to make sense. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to be exposed to negative people, places or things for any length of time without absorbing at least some of that negativity. Complicating matters internally, new negative messages are combined with existing material to create a larger sample for the brain to cycle through, apparently over and over again.
So, why smile? After years of research, trial and error, wounds and scars, a little bit of hard work and some luck, here are five reasons I’ve learned to welcome my critical inner voice each morning with a smile.
CBT. Dr. Aaron Beck is known as the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Broken down into terms simple enough so I can use them, CBT focuses on the idea that thoughts influence feelings, feelings influence beliefs, and beliefs influence behavior. The way we perceive or think about something influences how we feel about it. A simple way of using CBT is to be aware of negative or distressing thoughts and examine how accurate or realistic they are. Identify and evaluate the thought “distortion,” or, if you like, the validity of the thought, in order to think more realistically, which can positively influence the emotion attached to that thought or perception. There is a lot of great, easy to use information on CBT and Dr. Beck on the internet, if you’re interested.
Resilience. I’ve been blessed with the gift of longevity, considering the path I’ve travelled. I’ve been given many years and many opportunities to finally arrive at a point where I’ve developed and practiced my own battle plan, and I’m grateful that I get to work on it each day. Lots of people with similar mental health and addiction issues aren’t given the chances I have been given, and I never forget that. Bouncing back from some adversity or a setback becomes a little easier when I look through that lens. Good day, bad day, whatever. I’ll be back, and I’ll get to work.
Defiance. Wait a minute, defiance is a bad thing, right? Remember the four critics we met at the beginning of this post? Their goal is to win. Mine has to be, too. I understand what the stakes are in my walk through life with these guys, and I will use any weapon at my disposal. Mr. Webster defines defiance as “open resistance; bold disobedience,” and I can’t think of a better stance to take against them. For years, I “struggled with” or “suffered from,” and in some circles, I was even considered to be some sort of “victim of” addiction and mental health issues.
Defiance has helped to usher in a new perspective, and with that, a change in the way I approach the same old, chronic issues in my life. I do not struggle with them today. Likewise, I respect what they can do, but I do not fear them. I do not suffer from anything, and I’m not a victim. I don’t sit around waiting to defend the castle, wondering what or who will appear on the horizon or attack under the cover of darkness. I used to. Today, I go looking for them, and I let them know they should pack a lunch. I don’t accept their demands, and I do not bow down to them. Besides, as a depressive, anxiety-prone, recovering addict with rampant ADD, resistance and disobedience have always kind of been second nature, anyway. With a different perspective, I am able to use familiar weapons in different ways. Always go with your best pitch.
Gratitude. It’s probably not what you were expecting after defiance, I suppose. The funny thing about gratitude is, it’s so easy to carry. Entitlement gets to be so heavy, and there really isn’t a good way to carry it. It’s just not a good look. I kept hearing about gratitude through treatments and rehabs and counseling and all that. Can’t you just be grateful?
I always thought that gratitude was somehow for other people, people who didn’t have to carry the stuff I was carrying. I often felt empty inside, aside from the never-ending, always loud, everyone-yapping-at-the-same-time, critical, negative, destructive messages in my head. I didn’t think I had room for gratitude. I didn’t know where to put it, and I didn’t know how to start, until one day, I just tried it. I think it went something like this: This is bullshit, but it’s not completely bullshit. Okay, it’s mostly bullshit. But, within the piles of bullshit, there is undoubtedly some good stuff. One teeny, tiny little thing. That one thing is what I will be grateful for today.
Even in dark times, there is something to be grateful for. For me, the key has always been that I need to be in the position to be willing, and on days where I’m not willing, I am at least in the position to be willing to be willing. I am a work in progress. There are still days like that, days where I think I am owed something or I should be further along than I am, or where I get hung up on comparing myself or parts of me to other parts of other things (one of the many places CBT comes in handy).
It’s still the same old crap I’ve been fighting for ages, but I am more in tune with the gratitude side of life today. I don’t have to fight this crap, I get to fight this crap, and I’m grateful for another day to be able to do it.
Some days I even get out of bed excited about it, right from the start, like a kid staring through the window of a candy store. I have so many things to be grateful for that it’s kind of embarrassing that I didn’t come around sooner. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say.
“What are you so excited about on a Tuesday morning?” I’m going to chase down my demons and rub their noses in it today! Honey, should I wear my plaid shirt or would the striped one be more awesome for demon terrorizing?
Hope. In my experience, hope is where it all starts. It has to. All I needed was a spark, and that’s all I got. There were no angels singing while the gates of heaven opened up. There was no choir, no cheering from spectators, nothing. It was one spark, and it saved my life.
At one point in my life, I was within roughly 30 minutes, give or take, of completing an action that would have been irreversible. It would have been final, and at the time, it seemed completely logical. All the evidence at that moment, distorted as it may have been, clearly showed that it would have been a reasonable, rational thing to do.
For me, hope came in the form of a “What If?” in the face of all the evidence against it. And that was that. Quick. Quiet. I almost didn’t even notice it. I’m forever grateful that I noticed hope that day. Since then, I’ve lived a thousand lifetimes that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and I’m grateful that I get the opportunity to do it again each day. With that one little spark, some nineteen years later, hope has become the foundation of whatever it is that I am today.
If you’re kind of iffy on whether or not Hope is beneficial, Google something like, “What does science say about the power of hope?” You may just be surprised.
I’m no expert on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I’m no self-improvement guru. I’m not a mental health expert. I’m not even an expert on myself, but I keep learning. Maybe some of this stuff isn’t for you. Maybe none of it is. But, if you, or someone you know deals with mental health issues or addiction, my hope is that you find that spark today. If you’re struggling, reach out. If you’re able, be the person others reach out to. You’re worth it, you’re loved, and you matter. We need you. We’re all in this together.