Here is the full transcript of the author of Borrowed Body, Valerie Mason-John’s TEDx Talk: We Are What We Think at TEDxRenfrewCollingwood Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: We are what we think by Valerie Mason-John at TEDxRenfrewCollingwood
A couple of years ago, a friend said to me, ‘Your life is a miracle.’ I said, ‘A miracle?’ Well, you know, you tend to think of your childhood as normal well until you talk to some of your friends. Anyway, miracle or not, I’ve dedicated my life to working with people.
One day I woke up in my bed and I thought, ‘Wow! Forget about drugs, alcohol, food, sex or rock and roll. My biggest addiction is, guess what, yet my thinking. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about — those thoughts that tell us we’re not good enough, thoughts that have been haunting us for years. I call this my stinking thinking.
Just imagine if people could hear that stink, well, here is a censored version of mine.
My stink says I need an electric shock, I took stock.
My shrink says, all Negroes are manic, I didn’t panic.
My stink says I need a rest, I felled its test.
My shrink says all Negroes are aggressive, I let him live.
My shrink said I should be grateful, I was resentful.
My shrink says I’ve got marijuana psychosis, I smoked his prognosis.
My stink says I am depressed, I was distressed.
My shrink says I belong in a gutter, I didn’t stutter.
My shrink says I shouldn’t be seen, I reminded him I am The Queen.
My stink says I’ll end up scrubbing floors, I didn’t speak any more.
Ha ha aha ha, my shrink says I need pills, I need pills, I pushed him off the hill.
The shrink in this poem represents all the people in my life who had bullied me from childhood into adulthood, from the people who raised me, who called me gruesome to the people who physically mentally sexually bullied me, to my peers who would chart in my face, ‘Walker matter, are you all white, or nigger mind, go black home and eat your koon flakes and you’ll be your white in the morning. You will, go black home and eat your sample flakes and you’ll be your white, promise!’
I was bullied so much that I began bullying myself to the extent I first tried to take my life, aged 12. Again a year later — and was lucky to survive my third attempt, aged 18. I’m one of those kids who was fostered at six weeks and placed in several foster homes. Aged four, I was placed into an orphanage; aged 11, I was sent to live with my biological mother. I was taken away by the police 18 months later. Living on the street, aged 15, picked up for shoplifting six months later, and placed in a children’s prison for 18 months.
If you had spoken to some of the adults in my life then and said, “‘That kid there one day will be the author of several books and plays, work as a bully doctor, be awarded an honorary doctorate for her lifetime achievements, they would have laughed in your face, they would have said, ‘absolutely no way’.”
‘Valerie Mason-John, that kid will end up in the gutter’ and you know what, I believe them. I believed all the negative things that people told me. I had to stop bullying myself with the thoughts in my head that told me I was useless, no good, that I was a failure, worthless, because they were keeping me in a rut. I wasn’t living, I was surviving. And if that wasn’t enough, I continued to bully myself with the chronic disease of anorexia, bulimia nervosa.
I’m lucky, some of those kids out there who were bullied by their parents or by other adults or by their siblings or by their peers aren’t here to tell their stories today, because they took their own lives, or because they died of a drug overdose. I’m telling you all of this because I don’t want to turn on my computer, or my television or a radio or open a newspaper and learn that another young person has died because of bullying, or an adult has taken their life because they were bullied in the home or the workplace. These are inconceivable deaths.
You see those people out there living on the streets, people who are homeless, people walking around with mental and emotional disturbances, many of them were bullied and we stigmatize them. Our stinking thinking can cause our own or another person’s depression, mental illness, or at worst, death.
You may be wondering: how did I get to be standing here today when once I was so far away from this place? I was fed up of being a victim, tired of surviving, ready to begin living. I stopped believing those pernicious stories and I put the weight of those narratives down. You know the ones, the negative judgmental things that adults told us when we were children, and now we claim them as our own, the stories that put us at the center of everything and whenever anything goes wrong it’s all about us. It was our fault that our parents walked out on us, our fault that our parents loved some about siblings better than us. Our fault that our parents abused us, our fault that our partner walked out on us that our kids messed up. The stories that tell us that we should have got that job, we should have known better, should, should, should — Stop believing in this negative chatter that makes your life a living hell.
We cannot control another person’s actions but we can control our own. We’re powerless over the force that enters our heads, but we are responsible for what we do with them. For example, we get that evaluation of our work performance and we receive 20 excellent glowing remarks but there’s one tiny comment that says there’s room for improvement in a particular skill. Exactly, ouch! We get that horrid feeling in our gut and we move into aversion and we start bullying ourselves with our: no good, my boss is picking on me, everybody’s talking about me, nobody likes me, people are blaming me, stop, stop thinking over poop. Your stinking thinking will get in the way of your happiness.
Whenever we bully ourselves we will bully everybody around us, projecting all the things we don’t like about ourselves on to others. So what can we do? I can only answer this question by pitch sharing my personal recovery.
When I fell down on the journey I had to stop beating myself up into the gutter. I had to pick myself up and literally give myself a hug and tell myself it’s OK, this is a new moment, let go and move on. I spent many nights laying in my bed waiting to be rescued, waiting for that magic pill to cure me. The cure was staring me in my face, it was my pillow. I needed rest so I could change. I needed to stop trying to take care of my stinking thinking by stuffing it down with drugs, food, alcohol or sex. I had to learn to sit with the pain of my thoughts. It was during one of these moments I had an epiphany.
15 years ago, I had been terrified. I was about to walk into a three-week rehearsal for my one-woman show. And I was sick with my bulimia and my throat was hoarse and the publicity had already gone out. And I lay in bed hating myself, berating myself with the voice, ‘You idiot! You can never go ahead with that show’ and a whisper said, ‘Yes, you can.’ And I said, ‘How?’ And a whisper said, ‘Just let go of your stinking thinking’, and in that moment I could see clearly for the first time that I had a choice. I fell asleep, exhausted from my tease but I woke up the next morning knowing that there was something that I wanted more than my stinking thinking, I wanted to do that show and I wanted my recovery. But I had to admit that every time I relapsed, every time I had a slip, I was choosing my addiction over my recovery. It was a hard fact to swallow.
But yes, of course, that had helped. That help was the practice of loving-kindness — loving kindness with the self that healed my heart. I had to learn to love myself by paying attention to my stinking thinking. I had to learn to give myself affection by looking in the mirror with warm, kind, loving eyes. I had to find things to appreciate myself for but the hardest thing though was learning to set myself, letting go of my self-hatred that was stuck in the past and in the future and seeing clearly that self love and acceptance was in this present moment now.
I stopped waiting for people in my life to give me that attention, affection, appreciation and acceptance that I hungered for, because my stinking thinking would make sure it was never enough. But when I learned to give myself loving kindness, it gave me the strength and courage to have my voice to speak out against bullying. I don’t care, even if it’s somebody in authority who’s bullying you, you have to speak out until somebody hears you. It’s a myth to say that when we speak out against bullying, it will make it worse. Research proves that when we name it, it will decline. If we don’t speak out about bullying we will continue to bully ourselves with all our self-harming behaviors.
When I first learned to speak out about my abusive path, just the one other person, it was enough for me to begin to stop listening to that negative chatter. I heard a whisper that told me, ‘I love you, I am beautiful, I am unique, I am good enough’. I made it a habit to tell myself daily until it became like brushing my teeth. Whenever that toxic voice arises today, I don’t listen to it and I don’t believe it. I just tell myself it’s my alarm bell warning me that I’m feeling vulnerable and I need to take care of myself right now.
The ‘how’ was in the pause, I would literally stop and take a deep breath. The breath was the handbrake on my stinking thinking. It gave me the pause to see that my thoughts are not facts, that my thinking is based on stories of judgments and anger and resentment. When I stopped listening to this negative chatter in my head, I thought my life was going to become boring, because a part of me enjoyed my stinking thinking.
But instead I discovered a new happiness and freedom. Loving kindness saved my life. Loving kindness can save yours. Many years ago, I hated the color of my skin. As a child, I tried bleaching my skin. In my early teens, I internalized all the negative views on the black community who told me the darker I was, the uglier I was. In my early twenties, I wrote a poem called The Color of My Skin which toured all the major galleries in the United Kingdom as part of a self-portrait exhibition. Only a few years ago I had the courage to commit this poem to memory. I offer you this poem to remind you to stop bullying yourself with all those self-harming behaviors.
“The color of my skin is the root of my ecstasy
The seed of my life
The color of my skin is one of nature’s glories
The bloom of my life
The color of my skin is the flower of my legacy
The taboo of my oppressors
The color of my skin is the greatness of my splendor
The guilt of my kidnappers
The color of my skin is the celebration of Eden
Black is an omnipotent being
The rejoicing of life
Black the color of many skins
Is nature’s own deliberation
The color of my skin is your fear
My beauty …”
This story isn’t just about me, it’s a universal story. Bullying affects everyone, from the governments who repeatedly bully another country by saying, ‘If you don’t do what I tell you, I would drop a bomb on you’, to the child in the playground who repeatedly teases another child, to us who can repeatedly bully ourselves, it’s a sad fact that many of us will be bullied or bully ourselves or even be a bully but it’s a myth to say that bullying is innate and there’s nothing you can do about it. Bullying is a learned behavior and behavior can be changed. Renounce your stinking thinking now. We are what we think.