The prison within ourself

by Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Have you ever wondered why we impose impossibly high standards, then criticize ourselves when we inevitably fail to meet them. We torture ourselves with defeatist images, imaging ourselves failing the promotional exam or messing up when giving a presentation or public speaking. Like the bully who slowly breaks down the will of his victim, over time these negative messages become reinforcing: We fail because we’re telling ourselves we’re going to fail. 

Fortunately, just as we can fight back against firehouse bullying, we can fight back against our inner bullies too.

Understand where it’s coming from
Like a judge who sentences someone to jail because of a crime committed, we sometimes “sentence” ourselves because of mental stories we create. Growing up with an overly critical father may leave us with feelings of inadequacy, so we sentence ourselves to, “I’m not good enough.” A family that doesn’t express love in the home can lead to a sentence of “Nobody loves me.” A lack of emotional support can result in a sentence of “I’m on my own.” Unfortunately, these self-imposed sentences can be life sentences if you’re not careful. The first step in freeing yourself is understanding what factors in your life may be feeding that inner bully, leading to those sentences.

Watch for problem behaviors
I recently read this great article by Harvey MacKay that explored why we’re so hard on ourselves. MacKay stresses the need to be aware of an overly active self-critic. When you’re lying awake at night, are you thinking about what you did wrong during the day? When facing important events, such as an interview or new work assignment, do you imagine yourself failing? Do you routinely hold back from giving your opinion, even when asked? When you think about taking a risk, is your first reaction to avoid it at all costs?

Work on silencing the inner bully
If you’re prone to self-criticism, it can be difficult to stop, but ultimately it’s just like any habit: You need to engage in routine positive behaviors that counteract the bad habit. It will be difficult at first, but if you keep at it, you’ll soon find yourself defaulting to more positive thoughts.

So what behaviors should you cultivate? One popular tactics is called “Three Good Things” and it’s super easy: Every night before you go to bed, you think of three things that went right that day or made you happy. (Bonus points if you write them down!) Another tactic MacKay recommends is developing a mantra of sorts that you repeat whenever you hear the negative voice creeping in: I can learn as much from my failures as my successes. I am grateful. I’m not going to compare myself to others. I’m better than I used to be because I’m committed to learning and growing.

It’s also important to learn to regard mistakes as part of a natural growth process. Making careless errors or the same mistake repeatedly is, of course, a problem. But one-time mistakes that happen when you’re learning new skills or trying new things is perfectly natural. Focus on resilience—the art of “bouncing back”—rather than avoiding failure or difficult experiences.

Have you imposed a “sentence” upon yourself? May is Mental Health Awareness Month. With a little “good behavior” and discipline, you can free yourself from the prison in your mind. You may want to consider professional help from a licensed qualified mental health therapist to help break the chains!

Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale.. He also is a consultant for www.Cordico.com