In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris offers many techniques (based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) for dealing with depression- and anxiety-related thoughts that get in the way of you living your life to its fullest. I’ve found ACT to be quite helpful in dealing with the lying, sabotaging voices of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. One of Harris’ techniques in particular has been on my mind lately. He suggests that you take the unhelpful, self-destructive, negative thoughts that recur in your head (“Why try to make friends with that person? Nobody really likes you.” “Don’t bother applying for that job. You’d never get it anyway.” “Wow, you’re so fat and ugly! Could anyone actually find you attractive?”) and repeat the thoughts in your head over and over in a silly voice or as a goofy song. Take away the seriousness of the thoughts, turn them upside-down, and take away some of their power over you.
It recently occurred to me that this is a lot like Spider-Man.
One of Spider-Man’s signature traits is his wisecracking, mocking his opponents when they fight. He refuses to be completely serious or take his enemies too seriously. He does this in part to throw his opponents off, to keep them distracted and off-balance. He also does it to keep himself from getting too overwhelmed while fighting. Making fun of your enemy, refusing to give them the respect and seriousness they demand, is a good way of taking away at least some of their power over you. This is how I’ve dealt with bullies in the past, especially ones who were a lot bigger and more physically imposing than me. Instead of just giving myself over to anger and fear in the face of a strong, terrifying antagonist, I would play it cool and laugh at their attempts to intimidate and control me. Of course, even if I was playing it low-key and silly, inside I was furious, terrified, hurt. But not giving the bullies my fear and anger helped me feel better about myself, like I was internally stronger than them.
If I could do this with real people who were threatening me, why can’t I do this with the voices in my head that also try to intimidate, control, and undermine my best intentions? Aren’t one’s negative, self-sabotaging thoughts basically you trying to bully yourself? And aren’t bullies a lot like a hero’s rogues gallery, a collection of enemies that try to pull you down and keep you down? Aren’t I basically fighting Doctor Depression and The Fear-Master and The Insecurity Blanket? They’re strong and they’re sinister and they’ll do anything to get me to lose. They make me furious, terrified, hurt. But one thing I’ve got that they do? A sense of humor. Wit. Absurdity. The problem with taking these villains seriously is it gives them more power and can send me into a downward spiral. “I keep thinking shitty things about myself! Not only are the voices right, I do suck, but I suck even more because I can’t get these mean voices to shut up! I’m so weak!”
Well, maybe I’m not strong enough to silence the negative voices completely. Maybe shutting them down completely isn’t even the point. The point is, I’m strong enough to keep fighting, and I’m clever enough to fight with style, to dance around them, mock them, tease them, take them down a peg or two. “Hey, Doc Depresso! Why so glum, chum? Here, I’ll put a smile on your pretty ugly face!” “Yo, Fear-Master! You sure are good at baiting me! You’re like a…master baiter! BAM!”
Hey, whatever works, right? Excelsior!