More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder

Anxiety and the Negative Narrator

by Brooke Baron,
August 1, 2022

Understanding stress and recognizing negative self-talk is one challenge—actually dealing with and overcoming them is quite another. Here’s how I manage my ever-present anxiety.

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision via Getty Images

Bipolar & Anxiety​

I don’t know about you, but anxiety is with me about 99% of the time. Typically, it’s related to my kids and family, which means that a lot of the time it is warranted (haha!). But there’s something I’ve noticed: even when there’s nothing in particular for me to fret about, I STILL feel like things are … deeply not OK. Like I’m doomed for certain failure. Like I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop, and then I’ll be ruined.

Now, I have a logical brain that can sort through problems with relative ease (when I’m stable); but, even so, I live with a constant negative narrator. It flaps around in my mind like an angry harpy, just reminding me of all my shortcomings.

At least I’m aware of it, though—right?

Awareness Alone Is Not Adequate​

Awareness is certainly a good first step, but I’ve found that stopping this kind of perpetual background noise of self-defeating thoughts is not as simple as just having an awareness; it seems to exist in our subconscious, intertwined with our brain’s normal processes.

Docs say that this type of deeply ingrained negative self-talk is the result of one’s childhood experiences. I think that’s probably true, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a total waste of time and energy, with zero benefit.

Another complicating factor is, of course, bipolar disorder. When one’s cognitive functioning is thrown off-course by neurochemistry (which is governed by Mother Nature), all bets are off.

Metaphor time! Imagine someone playing a violin poorly—annoying, right? Now imagine being in the center of a whole symphony orchestra playing off-key, off-beat rubbish. It’s way worse! It’s harder to get all of them to stop playing, and it’s nearly impossible to think clearly until they do.

This is the best way I can think of to describe the difference between (what I understand to be) the “normal” experience and my experience when it comes to negative self-talk. I’m aware of it—that’s for sure—but I’m unsure how to stop it because there are so many instruments playing at once.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone in my overwhelming experience with a negative narrator. Many people with bipolar (or PWB) report the same issues—just check out “Struggling with Self-Defeating Thoughts,” by fellow bphope blogger Susie Johnson.

Eradicating this deeply rooted anxiety is an ongoing process for all of us who experience it. With time, I’ve been able to build up resilience in the face of persistent negative self-talk.

Naming the Negative Narrator​

After years of trying to eliminate the voice of self-loathing in my head, I’ve actually found that giving this thought pattern its own distinct identity has been my most effective way of managing it. I have to acknowledge that there is a cranky, hateful, dissatisfied version of myself that coexists with all the other versions of me. But it’s not my core self. And it knows that.

Because now that I’ve identified it, I’ve been able to introduce all the other parts of myself to this Negative Narrator. I’ve been able to warn them that unkind thoughts are to be expected from this particular voice. And I’ve given them permission to stand up for themselves against this bully.

… And how might that sound, you wonder? Something like this:

Me: You’re so dumb! As always …
Also me: STFU! You’re the one who’s dumb! We’ve heard enough out of you!
Me: *sits down in the back row, pouting*

It’s downright Shakespearean, isn’t it? We all have our ways of dealing.… I suppose this is mine.

Taming the Shrew​

Clearly, I’ve been reflecting on how I wrangle my internal angry harpy when it is squawking—and I wanted to share a few (other, perhaps more practical) things that seem to be working for me:

#1 Identifying it as such.

As in, “Ah—I’m listening to the cacophony of rubbish orchestra again!” Giving something a name gives us more power and control over it. See how quickly you can identify it when it kicks in. Then squash it with a self-affirming mantra.

#2 Remembering our personhood.

We are PWB—PEOPLE with bipolar. Sometimes we tell ourselves “I’m terrible,” or “I’m lazy,” but that’s not a fair reflection. Instead, remember “I am a person who is feeling low at the moment.”

#3 Looking for the lessons.

Every once in a while, the Negative Narrator can help us find insight. For example, I’m remembering a time many years ago when I was experiencing a LOT of negative self-talk. When I finally slowed down to examine it and ask myself why it was happening, I realized that it was mostly a result of the way someone in my life was treating and regarding me.

Once I noticed that about my internal narrator, I gained more power over it and changed my story. Lesson learned: sometimes there can be an outside actor fueling our self-critical thoughts…. Do NOT let that happen.

#4 Using daily self-care as a speed bump.

Sometimes I can get so focused on how well things are going with a given project that I want to keep the momentum, but I’ve found I’m much better off if I can pause for regular breaks. Stopping to nourish my mind, body, and spirit a couple of times a day helps me feel more confident about who I am.

Because when I take some time for self-care activities (like stretching, getting some fresh air, or finding something to look forward to) it reminds me what makes me feel good, and why. And that makes it much easier to shush my inner Negative Narrator.
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