Anyone for Charred Apricots?
By Jill Woolworth, LMFT
Yesterday, I watched an attractive middle-aged woman back her convertible out of a driveway. A car zipped by on the main road and she had to brake suddenly. “@*$%!” she exclaimed angrily to no one in particular. Her face looked contorted for a few seconds before she zoomed off.
What message did her body receive? How was her cortisol level? Her anxiety? How did she interact with her family later that evening?
I wonder about the messages we feed our ears. We’re aware of the deleterious effect on our psyche that comes from watching and listening to bad news and violence, but do we consider the bad news and violence that we speak over ourselves? What do we feed our ears and the ears of those we love?
Not long ago, I looked in the bathroom mirror at my middle-aged body and critiqued its flaws. It was not a kind review. Most women reading this article and their husbands can imagine my remarks. I felt bad. I then leaned over to blow-dry my hair. This facilitated good drying and avoided the ugly woman in the mirror. I found myself singing a praise song. I caught a glimpse of myself a few minutes later and noticed that I looked pretty good for a woman of my age. What changed? Only the message I was feeding–literally singing into–my ears. I was surprised because my singing wasn’t intentional.
I met with a female client shortly thereafter who was distraught because she couldn’t lose x pounds. She described herself to me as fat, unattractive, disgusting and a few other pejorative adjectives. She was in tears. When I asked her what was really true, she was surprised. By the end of our session, she came up with a mantra that she decided to repeat morning and night when she brushed her teeth (in front of the mirror). “I am a curvy, healthy, attractive woman.” Months later she had lost some weight and felt better. What changed? The message she told herself.
A male client relapsed with a prescription drug addiction after nine years of recovery. It had cost him his job. He called himself a loser, a phony (he was in a 12-step program sponsoring others), hopeless and disgusting. When I inquired how long the relapse had lasted, it was a month. He was two weeks clean by the time he came to my office, but the messages he continued to tell himself were slathering him in shame.
We talked about the tendency of recovering addicts to wipe the slate clean of anything good they’ve accomplished when they have a slip, to think of themselves as a giant zero.
Shame feeds on negative messages, typically exaggerated lies. We think negative messages will motivate us (or our children/spouse/employee), but the opposite is true. Shaming causes blood to flow away from the creative, compassionate frontal cortexes of our brains to our fear center. “We’re not good enough. We’ll never be good enough. I can’t change. S/he won’t change. S/he will never love or appreciate me.” We freeze (depression), we flee (shut down, addiction) or we fight (anxiety, blame). We speak a tragedy into reality. We hide from the mirror or turn shame into blame.
The words we feed ourselves and our loved ones are either change-generating blessings or shaming curses. “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth, but only that which is helpful to build the other up that those who listen may benefit.” Eph. 4:29. “The other” includes ourselves.
As I wrote this, I finally smelled the apricots I was stewing on the stove–burnt to an almost crisp because I forgot to put them on simmer after they came to a boil. The kitchen smells pretty bad. It made me smile to think of all the curses I might have said over myself. “Stupid idiot” was an old favorite. I chose to say it’s funny rather than an indication of my incompetence, stupidity, etc.