Toxic Self-talk Cloaked in Objectivity

When I was 13 years old, Jack, the brother of my band’s bass player, told me about a book, “How To Be Your Own Best Friend.” Since then, I’ve known the importance of avoiding negative self-talk.

But knowing and doing are vastly different. I went ahead and indulged in “analytical” negative self-talk without realizing what I was doing. Now it’s an ingrained habit, and here’s how it all happened to me.

I pride myself in being objective and value it beyond almost everything else. This ingrained mindset came from my blessed atheist Dad and his constant intellectual influence. He was a medical doctor with Boards in 3 specialties, including pathology, the field I wound up in and finally quit, thank God.

Of course, objectivity is the only way to overcome your blind spots as you search for truth.

And while it may be humanly impossible to be truly objective, it’s a worthy goal, sort of like getting the perfect truth onto a patient’s surgical pathology report despite the fact that human error in the laboratory is known to be beyond eradication.

So with Dad’s influence on top of the influence of the fundamentalist Christian religion I joined at age 14, with all its “infallible” messages that I zealously devoured, learning how despicable and abhorrent it is to take any credit for the talents that God has given me, I did two things that, in retrospect, were psychologically, socially and professionally stupid.

  1. I developed a blind spot to my own negative self-talk by accidentally hiding my self-criticism behind a veil of false objectivity.
  2. I swallowed the evil notion that it’s uniquely displeasing to God if I should ever credit myself for anything good I’ve done or will ever do. Along with this came the concept that it’s pleasing to God if, at the end of each day, I searched for my “sins” and felt maximally guilty while begging in a pathetic inner voice for forgiveness for anything negative I had done that day. The perverted logic was: “the closer you get to God, the worse you’ll look in your own eyes.” Which meant that the guiltier I felt, the more God liked me. Sort of like the publican and the Pharisee in the temple? (Luke 18:10)

I swallowed the Guilt Cool Aid almost every night of my life for years, probably decades before I was able to see the absurdity of an intelligent, loving God wanting this kind of self-destructive prayer.

To be fair, it’s pretty obvious to me that the Christian fundamentalists I’ve known over the years have done a million times more good in the world than harm. Unfortunately, that’s the “baby” and most of the sacred doctrine that seems to produce the good deeds is the “bathwater,” at least as far as I can tell now.

So in a perfect world, we would look up to the glowing example of all the fundamentalist Christians that I’ve known, rather than despising them for their odd narrow-mindedness and essential hypocrisy that being human brings. And I think the often-mentioned crusades, used to put down Christianity historically, should instead remind us of the hundreds of millions more who were killed in the name of fundamentalist Marxism.

I guess rational thinking is required, no matter what belief system you choose.

And I’ll admit, there are arrogant people out there who have pathologically unrealistic self-confidence, a dogmatic, controlling attitude towards others, and an unshakable belief that they are always right about everything they think, say and do.

Such people would probably benefit from a dose of the fundamentalist Christian self-talk poison that I swallowed. It would be medicine to them and maybe bring some relief to the “little people” they steal from, abuse and kill.

But few of us (besides politicians and world bankers) are arrogant and dangerous to such a degree.

Most of us are more attuned to reality, more vulnerable to guilt, and could probably benefit by improving our self-talk or at least learning to recognize when it’s destroying us from the inside out.

If you’re half blind to this venom the way I am, the challenge is worth accepting. There’s much to be gained.

For instance, just this morning I heard my inner voice, the person I assume is me, saying that I’m lazy. It flew past me at first. I didn’t flinch or even notice it. But in a few moments, its echo caught my attention and I finally recognized it as negative rather than objective. I stopped my train of thought, backed up and ask myself if I would say such a thing to someone I loved and cared for, someone like my son or daughter.

Hell no, I wouldn’t! I love my suddenly adult kids unconditionally!

So I literally talked to my subconscious mind.

This is a little off the beaten path, but here’s an accurate and helpful glimpse of the human inner landscape as I see it…

The subconscious mind needs to be treated like a beloved dog or perhaps a domesticated dolphin. It needs simple logical explanations spoken in easy words with clear messages delivered with honest supportive emotion.

I apologized to my inner Labrador Retriever.

My subconscious mind is not an inner child, by the way. It’s been around the block with me, rejected by its peers at every job I’ve had, considered a failure by loved ones despite objective success, considered a weak pathologist by surgeons despite the fact that the opposite was objectively true, at least to the few pathologists who worked closely with me and could judge the quality of my work intelligently.

This morning I told my dog-like subconscious mind that it had done plenty of hard work all of its life.

I reviewed the evidence.

I pointed out several of the many people we’d helped together over the years when nobody else was willing to do the extra tedious work – the extra hours it takes to find one or two pre-malignant cells on a pap test where thousands of normal cells hide the rare villains and dozens of normal pap slides hide the few abnormal cases. The extra hours it takes to review other pathologists’ surgical slides for them, slowly and thoroughly, to search the literature to find better diagnostic accuracy, to search and find the missed positive lymph node or the focus of residual cancer that the faster pathologists tend to overlook again and again.

When you do this for pathologists who are also your bosses (as they’ve always been for me), they don’t necessarily appreciate your help or take a liking to you for saving their cookies. At an emotional level, they often seem to resent you. And they virtually never thank you for finding their mistakes.

It’s human. But diligence helps cancer patients survive, and it takes a non-lazy pathologist to stay at the scope and do this work when there’s no extra external compensation, only lonely hours away from home and a reputation for being slow.

After this unusual inner monologue, I felt better. A little stronger and more open to sharing the whole story with you.

I hope it helps you recognize the inappropriateness of “objective” inner criticism when it’s not really objective at all. And I hope that next time you catch yourself being cruel to your inner best friend, you’ll apologize in detail and really mean it.

Morrill Talmage Moorehead, MD



7 thoughts on “Toxic Self-talk Cloaked in Objectivity

  1. Hey, thanks so much for this, man! I’ve had a similar background with a rigid form of Christianity, though I agree that they have done more good than harm. Too often, people are blinded to the good that Christians do, because the stigma of the dogma stands in the way. I was also told about that book many years ago, when a friend recommended it. I’ve thought about it again in recent years and have wondered if it is still in print. I really enjoyed this post, and will definitely follow you now. Thanks again, and God bless.

    • God bless you, too. And thanks!
      It’s interesting how similar these parts of our background are. I wonder what else we might have in common.
      I still haven’t found a spiritual group that fits my odd set of open-minded beliefs about reality. I really miss the sense of certainty and singular purpose that I had for a while as a new convert to Christian fundamentalism. “Instant inner peace and every step you take has got to be approved,” as Bob Dylan put it in “When You Gonna Wake Up?”. (Looks like Robert Zimmerman changed his words to this phrase when he sang it live.)

      • I just listened to the live version, and yes he did change those lyrics, something about every breath leading straight to death (or something along those lines.) But I do understand that tightrope that we felt we were always walking in fundamentalism, every step delicate and precious, always feeling like one is about to slip and plummet down to the depths.

        Off -hand, I think another thing we might have in common would be the influence of our atheist fathers. I also engaged in much “negative self-talk” without seeing it as such, or quite realizing how much it had to do with my early discouragement in life. I thought I was being “logical and analytical” — or, as you say, objective. And I probably was, but there was no love in that picture, only rigor and reason. Certainly no self-love.

        I also think that people of such backgrounds gravitate toward the logical structure of fundamentalist Christianity. We clung to the sense of absolute certainty in it all, as though we needed that kind of Rock in order not to lose our bearing. My wife and I were torn apart by the effects of that unflinching., unwavering form of deity and piety. I think it had a lot to do with our divorce, thirty years ago.

        If it helps to encourage you, an incredible set of circumstances brought Jan and I back together after thirty years apart. We found that through different paths, we had alighted on pretty much the same spiritual place. We looked at pictures of us back in the Day, and saw ourselves as trying very hard to be people whom we were not. In being closer to our real selves together, our love had grown, and this of course cannot help but have a positive impact on our grown daughters.

        Myself, as of the past two years, I’ve been going to a Presbyterian church. I think that the kinds of Baptist and charismatic or non-denominational churches we used to attend served a purpose, but were probably not the places in which two people so young and impressionable could have thrived. It might be a good thing for you to explore some of the more mainstream (I hate that word!) denominations, and you may be able to find a body of believers that will suit your more open-ended spirituality — approximately speaking — as it has evolved.

        My forty-two cents! Take care and God bless.

    • So glad you found it helpful. Thanks for telling me.

      I was an adult with grown children by the time I had my first dog and fell in love with her. I could NOT believe how intelligent and loving an animal could be. She opened my eyes to the nature of the mind and the reality of unqualified, boundless affection.

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