“Everybody hates me.” The words come out of my 5-year-old’s mouth, and I don’t know where she learned them. She certainly has never heard the word hate in our home. She just finished her first year in the public school system, which could account for the new vocabulary. She could have heard it from a story that was read to her there or from a peer. She could even have heard it at her father’s house where she has three older brothers and different playmates. I only know where she didn’t learn it, but the fact that she’s learned it at all is heartbreaking.
Those aren’t the only phrases that leave her mouth that leave me concerned. She has a clear inner dialogue that tells her that she’s unworthy, that she’ll be left out, and that others don’t like her. I know I’m her mother, and therefore biased, but my daughter is the friendliest child I’ve ever known. She will go up and introduce herself to children on the playground, asking their names and if they want to play with her. When I have lunch with her at school, nearly every class greets her by name with big smiles. Her teachers adore her, and every single teacher in the car rider line at the end of the day lights up when they see her. My child is universally loved, not just by me.
As a single mother, many would point to my parenting as the problem. After all, her father and his family only have her two weekends each month. But I can assure you that I work to build my children’s confidence and self-esteem. It’s something that I focus on, and I incorporate it into our every day routine. Self-love and self-care are paramount in my household, and yet she already has a fully functional vocabulary of negative self-talk.
It makes me wonder if we’re born with it or if we just absorb it from the world around us. There are certainly households that are toxic, teaching us that we’re not good enough and pointing out our every flaw. But when I know that’s not what is going on in my house, I have to wonder where these thoughts come from and, more importantly, how I can help her un-learn them. That is, learn a new vocabulary to counteract those negative thoughts.
Positive self-talk and affirmations were the first strategy I tried. As a former family therapist, I have a few tricks up my sleeve when it comes to coping strategies and addressing this sort of issue. Still, it’s disconcerting to see such a loved child have this strong sense of inadequacy. I talk to her about her strengths- building up the idea of her strength, courage, humor, kindness, generosity, and intelligence rather than just telling her she’s adorable (although I tell her that, too). I remind her of all the people who love and support her. But sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
As adults, most of us have some version of the same dialogue. We tell ourselves that we are somehow inadequate and unworthy, judging ourselves by our worst flaws rather than our best qualities and judging ourselves far more harshly than most people would. If we learned it as early as my daughter has, we can’t expect to un-learn it in a day. Or in a month.
There’s this idea that it takes twice as long to lose weight as it took to put on. I have no idea if that’s true. If it is, I wonder if it’s the same with learning to love ourselves. I hope not. If most of us spent 30 years or more learning it, it would be a shame not to be able to truly love ourselves until well after our retirement.
Everybody hates me. Nobody loves me. It’s a refrain heard in my home on an almost-daily basis. As an adult, loving ourselves can be incredibly challenging. But how can I teach my child to love herself, to assure her that she is loved, if she doesn’t see self-love practiced around her? I can’t protect her from messages that she’ll internalize at school or at anyone else’s home. I can’t keep the words out of her head, but I can help her learn new ones- an entire vocabulary of self-love and appreciation to battle the ones that wage war inside of her.
As adults, when we want to un-learn those thoughts, we have to do the same. We have to flood ourselves with the vocabulary of love and appreciation rather than hate and shame. We have to fire back at the negative vocabulary wherever it comes up. I recently had an experience where negative self-talk hit me suddenly and shocked me with how fierce it was. I was kayaking for only the second time in my life when I accidentally splashed the tour guide riding tandem with me. I automatically apologized and said I was just bad at kayaking, something I didn’t intend to say- or even think- that just popped out of my mouth. She corrected me, and I realized that the impulse to be sorry and assume I’m bad at things comes from the same place as my child thinking she’s somehow inadequate when she’s a wonderful little girl. I was actually quite good at kayaking, particularly on only my second try (the first being nearly a decade ago).
Barbie (yes, the doll of our childhood) recently did a vlog on the Sorry Reflex, how most of us (particularly girls and women) apologize relentlessly for normal things that happen. She challenges us to go an entire day without apologizing unless that apology is a sincere one for doing something that’s actually wrong. It undermines our confidence to have an apologist mentality, and it comes from a system of negative self-talk inside us, as if we’re apologizing for existing. We need to learn to recognize the negativity of this talk so we can learn ways of counteracting it.
My 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Malone, took it a step further. She taught us that even when we’re in the wrong we should say “I apologize” rather that “I’m sorry.” I apologize expresses regret for our action while I’m sorry implies that we, rather than our actions, are wrong. It’s not just semantics either. Words are powerful, and we need to learn to recognize when our vocabulary is undermining us (or the little people in our lives who are watching us).
It’s more than just apologies and the idea that we’re somehow inadequate. Negative self-talk can also be cultivated with the way we talk about other people. Gossips, beware! I understand the allure of having news to pass on. After all, most of us grew up with the telephone game, which was supposed to teach us that the words we say can grow and change when we spread them. We were supposed to learn that it’s dangerous, but I think most of us learned that it’s fun. Plus, the media promotes men and women talking negatively about one another, and reality television has also made negativity and poor behavior something that can earn one a celebrity status.
With these ideas deeply embedded in our culture, it can be difficult to recognize that the insidious nature of gossip harms more than just the object of our gossip. When our children hear us talk about others in a negative way, we normalize this vocabulary. When we criticize how others look, talk, or behave, we basically give them permission to do the same. They won’t always apply it to other people either, which is bad enough. They often apply it to themselves. When they hear words like stupid, ugly, fat, or (the one I hate more than almost anything) retarded (libtard qualifies, too, just so you’re aware), they think this is an acceptable vocabulary to apply to themselves or others.
Maybe we think it’s cute to discuss other people in this way (it’s not), dehumanizing and demeaning others. But it’s much less cute when it comes from the mouths of our children. Or it should be. If our world seems like a hate-filled place right now, it’s not just because of the media or our culture. After all, we are participants in our culture. We can’t fix a flawed school system or correct our children’s peer group, protecting them from words and attitudes we don’t agree with. We can, however, make sure that our homes align with our values.
This means more than just not allowing our children to say certain “bad” words. It means more than encouraging their self-esteem and self-love. It means that we promote our own. It means that we stop talking bad about how we look. It means that we quit gossiping about other people. It means that we are careful with our vocabulary- not to be politically correct but to teach our children (and to learn ourselves) a better way of living. It even means going a step further and actively promoting positive words and actions.
One friend of mine regularly hosts events where she holds up signs on a downtown street with positive messages, letting those waiting in traffic know that they are valued and appreciated. Another friend makes it a point to complement people throughout the day, even if it’s just telling someone that their shoes are cute or they have a wonderful smile. These people are radiating goodness because it’s important. This is how we teach others to be good and kind, by embodying those values- not by preaching them. It’s painting a rock with a positive message and leaving it to be found by someone who might need it. It’s holding open a door or offering a smile to a stranger because the world needs more of that.
We can’t fix negative self-talk and the issues that come with it in a day. But we can start in a day. Today, we can make it better. Tomorrow, too. We can be more aware of the words we’re using and how those words influence our own lives and any lives that ours come into contact with in a day. We’re not perfect, and when we mess up, we can apologize. But we can also take a page from Barbie’s book and stop saying sorry all the time.
The words we say matter. We’ve learned how to hate ourselves, and now we must teach ourselves to love. Ourselves. Others. The world around us. We can’t fix the world in a day, but we can begin to change how we live. It ripples out with a greater power than we’ll ever likely know. But it starts with us. Today. Right now. With me. So…
If no one’s told you today, you’re valued. You matter. You have a wonderful smile. Have a beautiful day!