I recently took a 23-and-a-half-hour trip across the country with my sister. We started out in Virginia, and our destination was Keystone, Colorado, where she was moving. We drove through so many states: West Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas. We stopped on a clear, cold January evening in Topeka halfway through our drive, and we awoke the next morning to a snow storm. I got so anxious. My parents called us to tell us to be careful and to make sure I was appropriately worried. I felt like what I perceived to be my sister’s chill attitude did not merit the horrifying weather.
I realized that all I really wanted was for someone to say to me, “You can do this. You’re a good driver. You’ll be ok.” So I realized that the only one who could say this to me was myself. So I said it to myself.
There’s self talk and there’s talking to yourself, and traditionally they seem to function in two different ways. Self talk is deep and mostly subconscious. It’s the voice inside your head that can be kind or cruel. For women especially, negative self-talk seems to be a real epidemic. For codependents, it’s often a skill that we’ve honed in order to survive.
Talking to yourself is something you do out loud when you’re deciding between two paint colors at the hardware store or watching a political thriller. It’s a tool that people use to help them through a cognitive process.
What if we brought that inner voice out into the cold light of day to see what glorious things it might do for the brain? I’m talking about processing your emotions out loud.
Let’s say you just went to a party at a friend’s house where there were lots of people you didn’t know, and as you’re leaving, you notice an unpleasant and indefinable feeling. You don’t like unpleasant feelings so you try to swat it away. You turn your music on loud or listen to a podcast as you drive back to your house. You turn the t.v. on when you get home, and you fall asleep in front of it. The unpleasant feeling lingers because you didn’t process it.
I’ve done that so many times, and it just ends up trapping me in a boring emotional cycle that leads to an overwhelming sense of shame. My brain is just trying so hard to make sense of it all, so shame finally chirps in and says, “You know why you’re feeling this way? Cause you suck. Nothing you can do. Get over it.” Shame has the last word and, although I now feel like a pile of poopy, I’ve made what I believe is sense of an unpleasant emotional situation in my head.
What if instead of turning on the music when I got into the car, I just sat there and said, out loud, “Why do I feel this way?”
ME: Well, what is it that you’re feeling?
ME: I’m not sure. Insecurity? Anger? Maybe a little sadness?
ME: Hey, why do you think you’re feeling that way?
ME: I don’t know. I hate parties, that’s why.
ME: Why you hate parties?
ME: Cause I’m so awkward and people don’t like me and I just feel like I’m holding in my farts the whole time.
ME: How do you know people don’t like you?
ME: I don’t know. I just feel like they do!
ME: You know what? You ask a lot of freaking questions. I’m feeling insecure, ok? I’m feeling angry because I’m not good at connecting with people even though I really want to. I’m feeling scared because I don’t want to be lonely.
ME: Oh? Aren’t you going to tell me what to do about it? How to fix myself so I don’t feel like that?
I know I’m no Aaron Sorkin, but I think we can all imagine this conversation happening inside our heads. If instead of leaving it inside the brain, where it feels expansive and unreal and hazy and dream-like, we take it outside and really let the cogs and pistons and other mechanical words fire away at it, we might have a chance of avoiding the Long Ride to Shame Valley. Now it doesn’t mean we fix the problem. For me, it means acknowledging the unpleasant-feeling emotions and letting them have their say. It means trying to understand why I might have those emotions in the first place, and recognizing that, while they belong to me, they are also a product of the wiring of my brain, genetics, history, hormones, past trauma, too much Nutella, etc. I have the choice to let them go.
And while letting them go sounds like it’s as easy as letting go of a balloon, it’s not. It takes practice, but it is possible.