Thursday, November 3, 2016

Prison Break: Breaking Free From the Lies We Tell Ourselves

By Emily Donehoo

My negative thoughts had begun to run my life. I was grunting in anger or disappointment so much, my children were starting to think I was part cave woman. Ugh. I’m so fat. Ugh. This should be easier. Ugh. Why can’t you listen? Ugh. I’m a moron. Ugh.

I was trapped in a prison of should be and not enough.

So I did the most courageous thing I could think of. I went to see a counselor. A therapist. A shrink. Somebody who holds a pen and says, “mmhmm” and “I see” a million times.

“Why are you here?” she said.

“Because I hate my life.” I said.

“Do you really?” she said.

“I don’t know.” I said. “I just know that the words, ‘Ugh! I hate my life!’ get screamed in my head over and over and over again all day long.”

“And do you believe that those words are true?”

“No. Yes. Maybe. I mean… I don’t really hate my life. I just think I hate my life a lot. My life’s not that bad. But every day shouldn’t be this hard. Right?”

So, slowly, we worked on noticing the icky thoughts, saying, “Oh hi, icky thought.”

It made me feel like an idiot, but it worked… little by little. “You’re just a thought, ‘I hate my life,’ just a thought.”

I found this terribly annoying. “Little by little.” She said. “Just keep noticing your thoughts.”

Whatever. I’m talking to my thoughts like an idiot. But it works. Sort of. I still think I hate my life. But that thought doesn’t own me anymore.

On a visit to my best friend in her Pacific Northwest home, I said, “I’m still sad. I’m still angry. I’m still annoyed. Life is still hard, and I feel like it is taking forever to move forward. I feel like I’m a turtle still wallowing through the stupid crap of her life.”

“Know what my therapist made me do that really helped?”  Her mid-thirties had demanded the courage to talk to someone too.

“She made me draw two pictures. One of me when I was in a bad headspace, and one of me when I’m in a good headspace.”


“And it helped.”

“What did you DO with the pictures?”

“I just drew them and wrote down my thoughts.”

“And this helps?”

“It helped me.”

“Okay. Well, it sounds fun. Maybe I’ll try it when I get back home.”

Fun. I said. It sounds fun.

So on a day when two of my three kids were at school and the third was taking a long, glorious nap, I sat down with some blank paper and a cup of coffee.

I drew an egg-shaped round body with a crazy messy bed-head- looking ponytail, angry eyes, slumped shoulders and big thighs. I wrote thoughts that plague me. Thoughts that pop into my head when I fail, when I get frustrated, when I look in the mirror, when I try my best and feel like I’ve succeeded, but no one else seems to notice or care. I wrote “Mean Me” on the top of the page and began to pour out all of the negative things that run through my brain on a daily basis. I labeled myself with the words, “jiggly, messy, flaky, gross, bored, lonely, empty, selfish, alone, angry, cheated.” I called myself things that I would never call anyone. Words that cut so deep I wouldn’t dream of saying them to or about another human being. Words I had begun to believe described who I really was.

It was not fun. Nope. Not fun at all. It was terribly painful in fact. But it was also the most freeing thing I have ever done.

I scribbled and sketched out the negative junk for about 25 minutes. Then I looked at my creation and ugly cried for an hour. Because the only truth on that page was that I believed it all.

I can’t believe I believe all of this about myself. I thought. These are lies. They’re all lies. And they’re in my head constantly.  

I realized the thing people had been telling me for years was the truth, “Emily, honey, you’re too hard on yourself.”  But I have known no other way to be. And so, I have believed the lies.

As painful as writing the bad stuff was, writing the good was more difficult than writing the bad because, like Julia Roberts says in Pretty Woman, “Sometimes the bad stuff is easier to believe.”

It felt like I was trying to be Stuart Smalley, from a Saturday Night Live skit portraying a ridiculous self-help counselor. “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough…” Gag.

I bit the bullet, though, and I drew the “good version” of me. It was reserved but truthful. I used words like “strong, adventurous, funny, cute, interesting, natural, barefoot, present.” Nice Me climbs mountains, plays outside, gets dirty, has guts, wants to hear your story, and is full of great ideas. Nice Me LOVES wearing ponytails and no makeup. Nice Me is who God wants, who my kids, my husband, my friends want. Nice Me is who everyone is rooting for.

But Nice Me is also the girl that Mean Me swallowed when she was eating her feelings a long time ago.

Nice Me is the truth, and she is amazing. She is a force. She is encouraging and kind. She is full of grace and grit and authenticity. She is incredible. 

I stared at the two sketches for a long time separating the lies from the truth, and it occurred to me that I could, in fact, stop believing the voice in my head that told me I was worthless and not good enough. I could, in fact, put one foot in front of the other and walk right out of the prison of guilt, shame, anger, and self-loathing lies that held me captive just an hour ago. And I could do this because walls made of lies don’t actually exist. They were only there because I believed they were.

Emily Donehoo is the only female in a family of five. She is a former High School English Teacher and National Trainer for the College Board. These days, when she isn’t scrubbing toilets, administering timeouts, working at book fairs, attempting to tackle dinner, laundry, homework help, dishes, and a preschooler’s incessant questions, she writes authentically about the hard stuff that really matters, hoping to uncover the truth that God has for us whether it makes us cry from laughter, pain or both at the same time. Read more of her writing here.  


  1. I needed to hear these words today. Thank you, Emily!

    1. You're so welcome! You are worth fighting for, dear one.

  2. Thank you Emily for your raw honesty. I know so many women that can benefit from your writing. We all walk around in our shame bubbles all day long beating ourselves up. It is time to break that cycle and rise above it. Jenn Jones

  3. Agreed, Jenn! Thanks for the encouragement!