a woman with narcolepsy holding her head and flexing an arm with snakes surrounding her coming from her head

Putting Negative Self-Talk to Sleep

As a person with narcolepsy, I’ve often been told that I’m strong and resilient for getting through each day. It’s true, I won’t deny that overcoming the many obstacles that come with our condition makes us pretty damn tough.

However, recently I stopped to think about the fine line between pushing ourselves to succeed and pushing ourselves beyond what our bodies and minds can handle. We learn these techniques to survive, often at our own expense, but how can we learn healthier ways to relate to ourselves while we push towards our goals?

A critical inner voice

Personally, I’ve had an incredibly strict and critical inner voice for as long as I can remember. For most of my life, I’ve believed that this was the secret to my success in the face of my sleepiness, or at least a baseline requirement of keeping myself from snoozing my life away. I believed I had to berate myself or I’d never get up and do anything.

After years of internalising other people’s perception of myself as lazy and incapable, my brain was mimicking what it had heard time and again. “You can’t lie around all day sleeping, you’ll never achieve anything that way. You’ll end up out of work, homeless, and no one will ever love you.” It’s a very exaggerated and irrational message, but with time and repetition it becomes ingrained into every second thought.

Despite starting as a coping mechanism for my sleepiness, this critical inner voice has led me into many circumstances that I don’t think an emotionally healthy person would accept. In my desperation to prove myself capable and not let my narcolepsy stop me, there have been many situations where I allowed people to push me way past normal, healthy boundaries.

Pushed past my point of exhaustion

During my time at university, I had a job at a local publication, where I was often forced to stay at work far past midnight in order to finish the work by the print deadline - all due to the incompetence of the management in not ensuring the content came in on time. I was frequently pushed past the point of exhaustion, where my emotions would run riot. I could barely keep my eyes open and was constantly forcing back tears of frustration.

Even in such exploitative circumstances, I understand where my impulse to stick around came from. I was so eager to prove to myself and others that I could do the work, be responsible, and not sleep my whole life away. But I let my mind take this logic too far, to the point that I honestly believed that being unable to complete these tasks would make me a “failure." I was worried it would be a marker of my inability to succeed in my chosen industry, instead of realising that the pressures I was put under were objectively impossible for anyone to meet.

Negative self-talk and mental health

My little voice sometimes got quite abusive, finding a new way to insult me every time I had a self-directed thought. Negative self-talk is a huge contributor to low self-esteem, which is one of the most insidious elements of depression and even suicidality.

So while it can help us to pull through some of our toughest moments, it can also leave us with severe mental health issues that linger even years after we have reached a better place in life. It also leaves us vulnerable to abuse from others, as we get so used to speaking to ourselves this way that we can start to accept it from others.

Embracing the concept of self-parenting

In my ongoing research into ways to heal this harshly critical inner voice, my favourite strategy is the concept of “self-parenting”. To me, self-parenting revolves around the practice of imagining myself as a small child; an innocent figure who I have a responsibility to nurture and take care of.

As an example of how this looks in practice, I’ll use some previous issues I experienced with food. I used to frequently forget to eat throughout the day at work, due to the appetite-suppressing effects of my medication and the simple lack of motivation to look after my own body. Almost every day I would end up with a headache after work, along with the world’s shortest fuse and a fear of blowing up or breaking down if anyone got the chance to talk to me before I got to bed.

However, if I decided to view myself as a child to be cared for, there would be no way I could let them starve for the whole day! I couldn’t possibly be surprised if the child ended up in a terrible mood, and I could plan to avoid this in the future.

Showing myself compassion

Similarly, if I made a mistake, or forgot to do something, I would usually call myself out for being lazy and not trying hard enough, which is completely unhelpful in the majority of cases. However, if I look at myself through the lens of a child to take care of, I find it easy to show compassion. I can tell them that it’s okay to mess up sometimes because no one is perfect and living with a neurological condition is hard!

It might seem silly, but it’s so much easier to stick up for child-me than adult-me when I need to take a nap halfway through a work training, or make sure I’m being paid the right amount instead of assuming I’ve simply calculated it wrong. Despite being shy, I’ve always been far more capable of sticking up for my loved ones in times of need than myself - so this is just harnessing that logic to trick my own brain into seeing itself as worthy of protecting.

Maintaining boundaries and good habits

It’s not all butterflies, rainbows, and compassion either. Most people will agree that if a child gets to do whatever they want all the time with no boundaries or guidance, they will end up with some problems. Similarly, I have to make sure that I eat healthy meals to keep my body working well, push myself to exercise when it’s hard to get out the door, go to bed on time, and spend my precious time and money on counseling sessions when I’d rather buy 3 tubs of ice cream and lie in bed eating those instead.

For some reason, looking after child-me makes all of these boundaries seem much clearer, and I make fewer excuses about why it’s *okay* to ignore them when I’m busy, stressed, or can’t be bothered. It makes it easier to see the bigger picture and take the actions that are actually the best way to be kind to myself.

We are strong and resilient

In the end, I still believe that people with narcolepsy are some of the strongest and most resilient people I’ve ever come across, and I doubt that much which change my mind on that! However, I hope that we can all learn to treat ourselves with the respect that we deserve, and not let our urge to overcome the odds become a toxic force that makes us ignore the needs of our bodies and minds.

Others will often have trouble understanding our unique needs, so we have to be prepared to advocate for ourselves – and a little bit of self-parenting protective energy can be great to give you that extra push!

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