It’s so important that we’re gentle with ourselves. When it comes to feeling good, it’s all in your head – literally. That’s why my S.M.I.L.E. acronym for emotional wellness includes Listen To Loving Thoughts. What we think matters more than we believe.
I usually LOVE to cheer people on, whether in an audience or standing on the sidelines. Encouraging people was my niche for most of my life. But that cheerful, encouraging attitude disappeared when I became severely depressed.
(The following is an edited excerpt from Learning to S.M.I.L.E. Again: 5 Simple Steps Toward Joy. To learn more click here.)
I saw times I’d tried to accomplish something and failed, so I became scared to try again. My mind told me, “You’ll probably just mess up, so why bother? Why try to be happy when you’re a failure? Why smile when things are so hard?”
When I lost my true self to the illness of depression, I had to rediscover myself, but in many ways, I had to reshape and remake myself too. I needed to become someone who was smoothed out and flat again, after being emotionally crumpled into a ball, thrown into a trash can, and burned into ashes. Seriously. Metaphorically, that’s how I felt. Somehow, I had to turn that pile of aching, tired bits of dust into a functioning piece of paper again. It was hard to believe that was even possible, but I needed to believe it if I was going to do it.
A part of me thought I would always have a tendency to go back to those depressing habits. I knew I needed to be vigilant when it came to my mental health if I wanted to stay sober from self-destructive thought patterns. Mentally relapsing and giving in to those negative attitudes was tempting because it was familiar and comfortable. It was natural for me to see my cup and my value as half empty. Deciding to “Listen to Love” was a key part in avoiding those destructive habits.
Whenever I began thinking something that wasn’t loving, that was hammering at my emotional soul, I chose not to listen to it. I wasn’t going to believe it. I wasn’t going to let it linger. Those thoughts needed to be sent AWAY. Period. It didn’t matter if they were true. It didn’t matter if I thought they were justified. If they were unkind, negative thoughts they didn’t belong in my powerful, sacred mind.
To do this I used visualization. My mind had hurt me, but it could help me too. Mentally, I would turn these thoughts into paper airplanes and throw them off on a strong breeze. I would visualize locking my mind shut with a key, like an impenetrable safe that couldn’t let in discouragement. Sometimes I would mentally set the bad thoughts in a distant tree and tell myself I would deal with them later, knowing they would leave if I didn’t give them any attention. Eventually, they would fade or fly away because they weren’t strong enough to stay. The winds of a busy life and other more important mental priorities would blow them away.
Other thoughts didn’t leave as easily. Sometimes I had to be vocal to remove the negativity that flooded my mind. I remember one date night when I learned how powerful my voice could be. It was an evening where everything seemed to be going wrong. The kids were fighting more than usual. The sitter was late. Not as much was in the checking account as we’d thought there was. On top of all of that, I was feeling incredibly insecure. I felt afraid to go into any restaurant. I was intimidated by the other people who would be there, the big crowds, the pretty faces, and the loud conversations. Also, I was still trying to lose weight. I didn’t know what restaurant would allow me to stick to my healthy diet while also serving the hearty meal my husband wanted. It all felt like too much to deal with.
When we finally made it out the door and on our way to dinner we spent over 45 minutes driving around town, pulling in and out of restaurants due to my irrational fears. My depression and anxiety was almost crippling at this point. My long list of what-if scenarios combined with my pessimistic attitude was preventing us from enjoying the night together. I don’t remember the details now beyond the fact that my husband and I were both intensely frustrated. What I do remember is thinking the depression and anxiety were going to end my marriage if I didn’t learn how to deal with them.
My husband finally pulled over on a side street and started yelling, not at me, but at the negative voices in my head.
“Get out! Leave us alone! Eva, tell them all to go away and get out,” he said, his blue eyes wide with desperation.
“I’m trying,” I cried, wiping my tears as I attempted to salvage my eye make-up, but I didn’t try very hard. My heart wasn’t in it. Who cares about my make-up? I’ll look awful no matter what. Everyone in the restaurant will probably look prettier than me. These were the bullying thoughts my defeated mind was allowing in.
“No. You’re not trying,” he continued. “Because you’re listening to the negative voices in your head more than you’re listening to me.”
His words hit me like a slap in the face because, though it hurt to admit it, they were true. For close to an hour he’d been reassuring me that I looked great, that I could choose the restaurant to ensure there would be food there I liked, and that I had nothing to worry about financially because it was okay if we spent the little money we had allotted for our date. I hadn’t trusted him though. I had believed all my worries instead. I wasn’t unified with my husband. I was unified with the depression and anxiety because I was giving in to them. It didn’t matter whether the negative voices were “right” or “true” because listening to them was hurting my precious relationship with my husband.
A new conviction came over me. It was my turn to yell.
“GET OUT of my head and STAY OUT!” I screamed at the demeaning thoughts. “You DON’T belong here! I AM worthy! I am a daughter of GOD, so I AM enough! Get away and STAY AWAY!”
I exhaled and held my head in exhaustion. Tears rushed down my face as I blinked, listened, and looked around. My shoulders shook. I felt some worries crawl away while others crept back in, so I yelled again.
“YOU DON’T BELONG HERE! I DON’T DESERVE THIS! WE DON’T DESERVE THIS! GET OUT AND STAY OUT!” I was exhausted physically from all the crying and panicking, but my head was clearer and my conviction was stronger. I WAS going to beat this. I felt a few lingering doubts still trying to penetrate my mind. I responded immediately.
“GO AWAY! GET OUT!”
Silence. Whether I had sent away my own insecure thoughts or actual evil spirits, I don’t know. To be honest, it doesn’t matter. In that moment, I regained my confidence. I had won my freedom back. I turned to my husband and began to cry again, quieter, and calmer as he embraced me. He held me close and kept me safe as I rested. We prayed together, expressing gratitude to God for the peace we both finally felt. Then, my sweet husband carefully looked me in the eyes.
“Do you still want to go out?” he asked. “It’s okay if you don’t.”
“Yes. Yes, I do. Definitely.”
Using the passenger mirror, I cleaned up my smeary mascara and freshened up my face, but there was nothing I could do about my puffy eyes. For probably the hundredth time that evening, my husband told me I was beautiful. This time, without all the other overwhelming thoughts and voices, I listened and I believed him. Soon we were driving to dinner, able to enjoy our evening together. It ended up being a wonderful night out together, one worth fighting for.
Those negative thoughts would come back, but they didn’t ever have the same hold on me like they did before. I was stronger now. Their efforts were less effective. I had the upper hand because I was now committed to my own rule, Listen to Love.
As I’ve thought about both this experience and my participation in sports teams, like I mentioned earlier, I’ve learned something that’s really helped me. In those activities, I would never have expected to see a member of the opposing team standing in my own team’s huddle. I never would have let them in! It wouldn’t have made sense to. The opposing team wouldn’t want to cheer me on or encourage me. Also, I wouldn’t want them knowing the plays my team had prepared. They’d only try to sabotage them. They would weaken my confidence and resolve because that’s what an opposing force does! They don’t help you win.
Letting negative words in, trusting them, and believing them was like inviting an opposing team member into my huddle. It was like welcoming an enemy spy. No army in the world would willingly do that. We stay safe by patrolling our borders and keeping the opposition out. I think I had actually become more comfortable mentally when I was behind enemy lines, in a team huddle with voices and thoughts that would just keep me down, because then I couldn’t sink any lower. I couldn’t get my hopes up and then be disappointed, because I was ALWAYS disappointed. It seemed like a safe, though sad, place to be. But that was a lie. It was not safe. These thoughts and attitudes of self-hate were slowly killing me.
I’ve become a strict person when it comes to who I’ll let in my team huddle, or in other words, my mental circle. It doesn’t matter where the thought came from, whether it’s from a friend, family member, the media, an article, or even my own mind. If it’s negative, it doesn’t belong in my huddle. If it’s from the opposing team, I don’t believe it. If it weakens me, it gets kicked out of my circle. I only want supportive, empowering, encouraging voices surrounding me. Anything else does not make the cut!
Sometimes I can’t easily block the blues out. I have emotional scars from the trauma I’ve been through that resurface. I have physical scars from surgeries that can make me feel insecure. I could let both these realities get me down, but I try not to. I try to replace negativity and fear with gratitude and faith as much as possible. I try to push out any thoughts that don’t show me, or others, love. It’s only possible to think one thought at a time, so I focus on thoughts that bring me joy. I forgive. I foster a mental haven. I cheer myself on! I choose to be deliberate, brave, and to see the possibilities my circumstances offer, one thought at a time.
If you have wounds, physical or emotional, believe me when I say scars are beautiful. They really are. They show you’re a fighter. They show you’re still going. You can be healed and still have scars. You can be healed and still have painful memories from past experiences. Those memories give you an opportunity to connect with and inspire others who are still hurting. The pain and healing you’ve gone through allow you to offer the hope of recovery to someone else. Every team has had losses. That doesn’t make
them weak. Each time you get up and keep playing in this game of life, you show you’re a champion. As hard as it may be sometimes to not be able to change the past or completely forget it, if you did, you would not be able to offer hope to others, including yourself. That voice of empathy, compassion, and encouragement is the loving voice that you need in your head. It’s the voice of a team player, of gentleness, faith, and power. It’s the voice of a winning teammate.
…even though I’ve been in very dark places mentally, places I’m ashamed to admit sometimes, I don’t need to hide that truth. Perhaps I’ve been broken. Perhaps I’ve felt shattered. Perhaps I’ve believed the enemy’s lies. Putting together all those pieces of a broken dream is brave! Anyone who keeps trying when the odds are against them is courageous! Anyone who can admit they’ve felt fragile is fearless! Everyone loves an underdog who makes a comeback and you are going to make your comeback.
There may be times when you wonder if you’ll ever feel the same joy again after dealing with abuse, anxiety, or depression. I don’t necessarily believe you will feel the same again, but that’s a good thing. I believe you will feel better than before. I believe you will succeed in ways you never could have had you not had those experiences. I believe after healing, and even sometimes during the process, you will feel like the warrior you are.
Stand in the center of your team’s huddle, surrounded by uplifting thoughts, words, memories, and angels that support you. Listen to them. Believe them! Don’t let any negative thoughts squeeze in. If they do get in, send them away with love. With a somewhat sassy, positive mental tone I’ll think or say aloud to myself, “Thanks for trying, Lies! Your efforts to pull me down remind me of how important I really am to the universe, because you wouldn’t try to hold someone back unless they were meant to do great things! Thanks for confirming my awesomeness!” That’s what I tell the opposition and darkness that tries to silence and undermine me. You can too.
Don’t be afraid of your scars. Being human is beautiful. Being aware of your emotions and frailties is a precious strength. Recognize it. Value it. Use that awareness to keep fighting! In life, in your mind, you are both a player and the referee. Use that red card if you have to! Get rid of the players that don’t play fair. They don’t deserve to play in your league. You can regain joy when you listen to the loving voices that are on your team and kick everything else off your mental field. Remember that and keep your heart, no matter how fragile, in the game. If you do, you’re sure to win.
P.S. For more support and to see the Listen to Loving Thoughts photo gallery, click here.