I have always struggled with negative self-talk. In fact, I'm not sure what I'd do if I didn't have that critical voice in my head warning me of every potential peril in my path. I'm so used to the non-stop self-bullying that I've even given the voice a name: Meet Shaming Shelly (named after a really mean girl from my third grade class). Shaming Shelly is persistent, loud and crafty.
I have worked hard my entire life to keep Shaming Shelly and her negative self-jabs at bay. I have fought with her vigorously, sometimes screaming (in my head, of course) that I am a good person, that despite all of my mistakes, I do deserve good things, that I am worthy of financial success, of good friends, of love. And sometimes I've yelled her into submission -- for a little while. But the next time I fall, get hurt or find myself facing a crossroads, she comes back, full force, drowning out my self-compassion and filling me with self-doubt.
That's the funny thing about those negative and shaming voices in our heads -- they attack us when we need self-love and encouragement the most. My shaming inner voice has attacked me when I've faced difficult times in my academic life and my career, with my finances and in my romantic life (easy pickin's there), reminding me of every mistake I've ever made and warning me that I don't quite measure up. But the most painful, the most stinging experiences I've had with Shaming Shelly have been about my parenting and whether I've been a good mom. And as a single parent, I am fertile ground for Shaming Shelly's inner attacks (although, I suspect that all moms are fertile ground in one way or another).
One reason why being a mom makes us so vulnerable to self-bullying is because the stakes are so high. I love my son so much that I ache at times, and my fear for him and his future can easily overpower any sort of accurate barometer of how I'm doing (or have done) as a parent. Despite my joy in parenting my son, Shaming Shelly was always there whispering in my ear, reminding me that "good moms" have husbands, and "good moms" get their kids to bed before 10 p.m., and "good moms" don't feed their kids cereal for dinner (OK, it was maybe three, okay 10, tops 20 times, but only when I was really wiped out!). And "good moms" don't let their kids get around the house by walking solely on the furniture (what was I supposed to do? The ground was covered in hot lava!), and "good moms" let their kids cry it out at night and absolutely do not let them crawl into their bed every single night (but he was so cute and cuddly, and I couldn't stand the wailing!).
I despise Shaming Shelly. I want her gone, now. I've wanted to replace Shaming Shelly with Merciful Michelle for decades. And yet, no amount of internal arguing, of promises to be kinder to myself, no amount of counseling seemed to have done anything other than taming Shaming Shelly into temporary submission.
And then I came across the book Reform Your Inner Mean Girl: 7 Steps to Stop Bullying Yourself and Start Loving Yourself, written by Amy Ahlers and Christine Arylo. Now, I've read more self-help books than most of the U.S. reading population. In fact, I haven't just read them, I've written them! But this book is different. First, it's funny. Second, it's packed with clever, creatively framed and easily applied wisdom. And third, it's practical, with fill-in-the blank inventories and handy checklists. And, there are pictures, lots and lots of pictures. Mostly though, the authors (who are successful life coaches) have developed a way of dealing with negative self-talk and that inner critical voice that I believe works, at least it's working for me. So in my excitement about this book I shot the authors an email and asked if they'd be willing to chat on the phone for a bit and share some of their experiences and inspiration for writing the book (that is, after I got done berating myself for not having written this book first).
Both Christine and Amy have a long-standing passion for helping women in a variety of ways and both have also struggled with negative self-talk. Christine had a tendency to compare herself with others, which sometimes kept her from taking risks in her professional life. For instance, in her quest to find other women doing the work she wanted to do, she found Amy, but rather than being immediately excited, she initially felt intimidated and compared herself with Amy's accomplishments, deeming herself coming up somewhat short. "My inner mean girl flared up and started saying mean things like 'you've been wanting to do these programs too, but you haven't! Why haven't you even started? You are so far behind! Now you can't do it!' Amy shared about her own inner mean girl who came alive when she became a new mom, warning her that she could not be a good mom and have a successful career, at the same time.
Amy and Christine ultimately reformed their Inner Mean Girls ® (IMG) and joined forces, creating the Inner Mean Girls Reform School where they help thousands of women around the globe reform their own IMGs through love and compassion, and a whole lot of inner wisdom. Through their work they have identified 13 Inner Mean Girls, each with their own distinct (yet overlapping) "personalities," weapons, toxic habits and "Big Fat Lies." They include an IMG quiz in their book (which is also available online), so that readers can identify their dominant IMGs and start the internal work of reforming them.
My score on the IMG quiz confirmed what I always suspected - I have an Achievement Junkie IMG who uses a Big-Ass Moving High Bar and a pair of "When I Get there" Binoculars as weapons (which would explain the two master's degrees and the PhD). I also have a Comparison Queen IMG who constantly tortures me with her Inferiority Mirror (Facebook is my drug of choice, thank you). Fortunately, I have already done quite a bit of reforming of my Fixer and Rescuer IMG, so her weapon of choice, the Trouble Finder no longer really works on me. But I still have some work to do reforming my Invincible Superwoman IMG, and need a bit of help letting go of my Superwoman Cape and setting down my "I Am Fine" Bullhorn. I was relieved to learn though that other IMGs, such the Doing Addict and the Perfectionist are not taking up too much space in my head (I'm reminded of this every morning when I wake up late and trip over my giant pile of laundry).
Christine and Amy also shared that arguing with our IMGs will never work in reforming them. Instead, we need to come alongside them with lots of love and compassion, because our self-bullying likely began as a self-protective response to getting hurt, most often as children. So all of that self-bullying? Those shaming self-statements? Those self-berating critical insults? They are most often deeply-rooted, self-imposed warnings designed to keep us safe. And with a little wisdom and a whole lot of support, even the most hardy of over-achieving and cape-wearing IMGs can be successfully reformed and given new, more positive jobs.
My IMGs are not yet fully reformed and they continue to rear their critical self-protective heads from time to time, but now, rather than allowing their messages to shame me into submission, I'm learning how to dig into my own superpower tool bag and replace my their "Big Fat Lies" with "Inner Wisdom Loving Truths." In fact, just last week I gave my Achievement Junkie and Comparison Queen IMGs new jobs. They are now CEOs of I've-Fallen-On-My-Face-(Again)-But-Keep-Getting-Back-Up-Yay-For-Me and My-Son-Is-Alive-And-Healthy-Which-Makes-Me-A-Good-Mom (respectively).