A thing happening slowly isn’t always bad. It gives us a space to grow ourselves, or a relationship, or our own thoughts on a big decision. But sometimes, the problem with certain things happening slowly is that, over time, they can balloon into something that has more power over you than you can control. Take a negative word, for example, that you heard when you were younger, a word you may have heard more than once. Something seemingly small that stuck with you in spite of other good things. Now, no matter how far you push it down in yourself, that word just sticks like gum that got itself wedged in the crevices of the bottom of your sneakers.
But it’s just there and doing nothing, you think.
So, you let it be.
It’s not just there and doing nothing, though. It’s festering, even as you grow, fed by other “gum under the sneaker” words and less-than-joyful experiences. Through its silent spread, you don’t realize when its influence over you grows, even if the weighing thoughts and the difficult feelings weren’t there before—they weren’t, right? Soon, you think that word’s an undebatable part of you, something you just have to live with, because heck, life isn’t perfect, right?
It may not be perfect, but it’s no reason to let yourself be swallowed by cycles of harmful thoughts and self-perception—a notion logically correct, yet something I didn’t realize until relatively recently, well after one of my most difficult semesters in college. Throughout the past couple of months, many negative ideas I had of myself that were internalized for a long time began bubbling to the surface. In every interaction I had, in person or even over text, I constantly found these words whispering around in my head, no matter the situation.
“Gee, back off, would you Saff? They must think you’re so annoying.”
“Dial it down. You’re too intense.”
“You couldn’t even pick up on that? Thoughtless, thoughtless, thoughtless.”
As the months progressed, the words spoke more. I got anxious just sitting next to a new friend in class (clingy!) or wanting to chat with a coworker in the same major as me after work (bothersome!). By then, those words were speaking for me, so I felt they were me. And it was normal. Since they slowly worked their way into my thoughts, I had become accustomed to them. After every interaction, the outcomes of it became a list of errors in my head—a list of every action, word, and gesture that may have messed everything up—like running a computer’s diagnostic tool after running into an issue. The worst part? Everything was an issue.
Perspective Power Cycle
Like finding an issue in a piece of tech, there’s often a pretty simple way to get those glitches ironed out. In the IT world, our fancy term for this process is “power cycling”, or as it’s more commonly known, turning the device on and off again, with an interval in between. To get those issues out of my system, what I needed was a refresh—a power cycle with perspective.
This came during a part of the conference hosted by UNLV’s Women’s Research Institute called theNational Education for Women’s (NEW) Leadership, also referred to as NEWL. Roughly a week in length, the conference required my cohort and I to live on campus in the dorms, and every day we got the opportunity to learn about leadership and career development in intensive workshops and panel sessions.
I had been looking forward to it since my friend and I got our acceptances midway through the Spring semester, but as the semester progressed, trepidation began to build. After all, I would be around people constantly, and even have a roommate. My “diagnostic tool” was already running me ragged in a few hours of class a day. How would I be able to function throughout a high-stakes conference and be living with someone new, constantly running through errors on top of errors?
Thankfully, the intensity of the conference’s activities drowned out the words’ shouts for a while. In that time, I got a chance to better learn about the members of my cohort and the faculties in residence without the constant boiling of anxiety that accented so many of my past few months’ interactions. Since it was a rule for us to sit next to a different person regularly, we all got a chance to talk to one another, and in those few days, I already admired and respected every single one of them. They were all really cool people, all of whom had big dreams from all disciplines—the liberal arts, education, STEM, everything—that they would, without a doubt, achieve. So many of them exuded confidence when they talked. They spoke their mind, even when it seemed risky. When a panel discussed emotional topics, many were unafraid to delve into their feelings and teach us all.
Every time I hoped to add to the greater conversation when our whole cohort was present, especially when it was a chance to express myself more, the words, decibel by decibel, would become louder. C’mon, who was I kidding? I tended to ramble (annoying!), to forget words as I talked (thoughtless!)—so, yeah, that was out of the question.
Instead, I decided to sit back. For the first time in a long time, I was able to feel more at ease. I shouldn’t jeopardize it by putting myself too out there, I thought; it’d be best to just soak in the energy of the people around me and stick in smaller group conversations where my nerves jostled less.
Near the end of the conference, we had a day dedicated to more personal, interactive workshops that were very us-focused—not on our careers or skills, but our identities, biases, and selves in general. The very first activity proved to be my power cycle on perspective: a short and sweet acrostic poetry exercise.
In our workshop, rather than the traditional practice, where you would spell your name out and find a word to match each letter, we were given five minutes to brainstorm a negative word or phrase. Yep, a word that’s been weighing on us. A word that’s been whispering its essence into our every thought and action—that word. Those words.
The room was silent. We all stared at our journals, accented with positive stickers and drawings and notes from previous days. Some of us reached for markers, others pens. Some of us drew the journals closer to ourselves like no one other than us could see. After a few minutes, there were scratches of pen on paper and squeaks of markers.
Then, time was called.
The next part of our activity was a group share. All of us were to go around the table and say that word, that phrase, to the rest of us. And slowly, these brilliant, incredible women, with stars in their eyes and all the heart to build a rocket to reach them, said their words.
As they went around the table, all I could think was, Who the heck could even call so-and-so or so-and-so that? I wanted to tell them how ridiculous it was for any of them to be called those things. Why would they even bother to remember those words when those words meant nothing at all?
That’s probably when the power restored to my system and it rebooted.
Now, hold on…
We all went around the table saying words we had carried with us, to this room. They had brewed inside us and perhaps some of us had kept them in, letting them cast their shadow over our lives. We all had words, but we could all see how untrue they were. And I couldn’t be the only one who had words that were a hundred percent true.
The final part of our activity was “redefining” that word through acrostic poetry—finding a positive word or phrase to go with each letter of our word, such as “tries to improve” for the T in thoughtless. As enjoyable as that was, the exercise had already done something for me.
Finally, my words took a step back. They un-attached themselves from my identity. Of course, it wasn't a magic wand; after all, it would be unrealistic to expect them to be poof, gone, just like that. They’ve been with me so long, after all. But now–while they might still linger as doubts, as nudges, or as anxieties that surface–what was important was that they were less me. It was a step.
And in the next exercises of that day, I didn’t mind group sharing as much as I used to, even though I rambled just a little bit.
Scrape Off Your Sneakers
Throughout our lives, there will be negative words given to us. Some may be ones we need to hear and apply as constructive criticisms to make ourselves better. Others will, to be frank, be untruthful, and those are the ones we can never let so deep into ourselves, our identities. Yet, whether a negative word aims to serve us or cut us down, if it becomes a part of our identity, it is damaging. It stunts us from growing past perceptions we have of ourselves, and, most importantly, stunts us from cultivating what parts of ourselves we want to flourish. So, start checking the bottom of your sneakers for those stuck words and start scraping them off. And, I don't know, maybe you could do that around a table with you care about as you all sit down together and do some self-redefining acrostic poetry.
About the Author
Safiyya (Saff) is an undergrad at UNLV, as well as a writer and illustrator. Her work has been featured in Bridge Eight Press, You Might Need to Hear This, and I Don’t Do Comics, and she is currently the Fall Resident at Tiny Spoon literary magazine, where she plans to host an interdisciplinary arts workshop. On the side, Saff plays RPGs, reads (especially comics), studies classic cars, and works in IT. You can keep up with her on her site at www.safiyyabintali.com.