A middle-aged woman came to me because she was depressed. She had been divorced for several years but had not been able to get over the loss of her marriage, and suffered from loneliness and self-blame. When I met her, the most striking aspect of her presence was that she mumbled whenever there was a pause in the conversation. This mumble was very rapid, very soft and I couldn’t understand it. When I asked, she would reply, “Oh, nothing.” Over time, as I gained her trust, she finally told me that she was calling herself “idiot” over and over. The target of her venom was herself. She was an idiot for losing her marriage, for not having found a new and better relationship, for being lonely, for being depressed, etc. She was cursing herself. As long as she cursed herself she prevented herself from considering her actual abilities and gifts. The harangue replaced and prevented consideration of ways to solve her problems.
My strategy with this woman was to undermine her conviction of her worthlessness with my continued interest in her. By repeatedly asking her what she was saying, I oriented her to the self-cursing as a real thing that had power in her life.
Although the effect is partly hidden, cursing yourself has the same visceral effect as someone else cursing you would. It wounds and creates disruption. Many don’t realize they are being harsh with themselves. But their friends and lovers do.
One man who cursed himself had raced on ice skates in his teens. He won races against competitors his age. Then he learned that the world champion, a man in his thirties with years of racing experience behind him, trained at his ice rink. The adolescent raced the world champion and, when he couldn’t keep up, gave up competitive skating for good. This teenager’s older self who told me the story still cursed himself because he could not keep up with the best in the world. It was not reasonable expectation. The teen lacked the experience, strength and endurance that the older skater had built up over years of training. Even comparing himself to other skaters his age might have been a mistake. Perhaps the most reasonable comparison would have been with himself: “Am I improving gradually over a period of time?”
A coach could have helped this teenager, but he was going it alone. He was isolated and had nobody to direct him toward reasonable goals. Thus, he had no one to help him contain his disappointment and rage at being easily beaten by the champion. In his rage, he stopped skating, throwing away a part of himself, an activity that had been important to him. This is an attack on the self.
Being human we learn by making mistakes. So accepting (forgiving) these mistakes makes sense. Small children are often quite relaxed about their mistakes. A healthy infant just developing the ability to stand or to walk will fall over and over again without protest. They fall, get up and fall again, as if they know that they have to fall many times before they get good at standing. We should only be so patient with ourselves.
One day in the summer of 2016, I watched a baseball game. The batter hit a slow dribbler down the third base line. The Phillies’ third baseman charged hard towards home plate, reached down with his bare right hand and picked the ball off the ground. He was basically upside down with his head and arms almost on the ground. From that position he threw to first base, getting the runner out. Think about how many times he must have failed at that or a similar play to pull this one off so well. Those failures, and the willingness to feel vulnerable in making them, were part of that man’s road to excellence.
Dr. Robert Blair is a clinical psychologist who works with adults, teens, and couples. To make an appointment with Dr. Blair, use our “Request an Appointment” page or call us at 610-626-8085.