When you’re spending time alone, show yourself some compassion
In this day and age, across much of the developed world, we are bombarded by phenomenal amounts of input; here in the UK we’re exposed to around three and a half thousand marketing messages each day, trying to persuade us to want all kinds of things we didn’t know we needed, plus TV, radio, newspapers, books, and conversation. There are words everywhere.
On the ocean it is very different. There was very little input, and almost none of it is verbal. When there aren’t as many words coming in, you find that you start paying a lot more attention to the voices inside your own head — which is a mixed blessing. If you ever have a desire to get to know your inner demons, I can highly recommend spending over a hundred days confined to a rowboat with no stereo, and for the last twenty-four days, no satellite phone.
It might sound a bit weird talking about voices in your head, but we all have them — it’s not a sign of mental illness. So the first thing to do is to acknowledge their existence, to know that it’s normal to sometimes feel conflicted. It often feels as if there are two different viewpoints fighting for domination inside your skull.
But like all of our internal issues, the best way to handle them is to turn around and shine a bright light on them. When you don’t look squarely at something but only glimpse it out of the corner of your eye, it’s easy to imagine that it’s much bigger and scarier than it actually is. Picture the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his curtain. Once you pull back the curtain you find that your big scary demon is just a silly little man producing special effects deliberately to scare people.
Why the Brain Loves to be Negative
Our brains have an overwhelming preference for focusing on the negative, at the expense of the positive — and that goes for our internal reality as well as what is happening around us.
The reason we’re like this is easy to understand. This negativity bias is an evolutionary survival mechanism — way back when, we didn’t need to think about the ninety-nine percent of things that were good and safe and fine. We needed to focus on the one percent that could go very wrong, like the sabre-toothed tiger that was heading our way. The brain’s perception of reality has not evolved for accuracy — it has evolved for survival. We still have this tendency to focus on the problem — if we get nine positive pieces of feedback and one negative one, it’s the negative one that sticks in our mind. Sounds familiar?
As Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, puts it, those who are “more attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased the probability of passing along their genes. Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”
I found it got worse when I was under stress. These voices in my head, or the unruly crew of my internal ship, as I thought of them, would react to my stress like they’d had six cans of Red Bull. They would start running around like madmen. If you’ve seen the animated movie Inside Out, you can probably picture the Fear character, who freaks out at the slightest provocation. Yup. Along with Joy, Anger, Sadness, and Disgust, they have quite the party in Riley’s mind.
It’s not a comfortable place to be, when you feel like your inner voices are all fighting with each other, especially when the negative ones — the voices of self-doubt and self-criticism and I’m not good enough seem to be winning.
One of our lizard-brain structures, the amygdala, is the switchboard responsible for assigning an emotional tone to the information flowing into the brain, and directing an appropriate (or occasionally inappropriate) response, such as approach, avoid, or move on. It is neurologically predisposed to label experiences as frightening and threatening — in other words, it is hyper-vigilant for danger. Once it has flagged an event as negative, it immediately stores it and compares it to the record of old painful experiences, and if it finds similarities, it signals alarm.
But — and here’s the kicker — while our implicit memory registers and responds to negative events almost instantaneously, it takes five to twenty seconds even to begin to register positive experiences. The race is rigged in negativity’s favour.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson writes that the human nervous system “scans for, reacts to, stores, and recalls negative information about oneself and one’s world. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. The natural result is a growing — and unfair — residue of emotional pain, pessimism, and numbing inhibition in implicit memory.”
We also tend to see people who say negative things as smarter than those who are positive. Think about it for the moment — in meetings, who gets treated as the greater authority — the cheerleader, or the snark? Depressingly, no matter what Teddy Roosevelt says, too often it is the critic that counts.
Dealing with Demons
So how do we deal with this? There isn’t a miracle cure, but knowing that as humans we have this predisposition makes it easier to handle. Self-knowledge and self-awareness about the way our brains work helps us deal with those pesky demons.
But most of all, what worked for me was good, old-fashioned self-compassion. I would talk out loud to myself as I would to a friend, sympathising with myself when I was finding life hard going. “Poor little Rozzie,” I would say. “You’re having a bad day today. But keep on going, tomorrow’s another day.” (I also learned to forgive myself for offering trite homilies of advice — after all, we would never reject a friend’s sympathy on those grounds.) When I managed to finish the last rowing shift of the day, which was always a struggle, I would be my own cheerleader. “Nice work, girl! You didn’t want to do it, but you did!” I would give myself a pat on the back, because there was nobody else around to do it.
It’s especially helpful to say these things out loud. Sometimes our brains are not so smart — it’s almost as if they simply love to hear reassuring words, even if the words are coming out of our own mouths. Doesn’t matter. The brain hears them as if someone else had said them, and enjoys its little moment of basking in love and compassion.
We can’t always choose which thoughts come up, but we can choose which to pay attention to. Pick one of the positive ones, and say it out loud to yourself. Beam some loving-kindness towards yourself, and give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it. Become your own best friend.
What is your inner dialogue like? What are the things you say to yourself? Are they things you would say to your best friend? If not, why not? Why do you say them to yourself?
If your best friend was having a hard time, what kind of things would you say to them? How would you feel towards them? Might you feel compassion, sympathy, love? Do you say and feel those things towards yourself? If not, why not?
If you were having a hard time, what would you want your best friend to say to you? Say some of those things to yourself now. How does it feel to receive those words? Would you like to hear them more often? Is that something you can do for yourself?
Please sign up to my mailing list at www.rozsavage.com to get first notification of future excerpts, videos, and publication details. Thank you!
And stay safe, sane, and as happy as you can in these interesting times.
 “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.” Etc.