Self-Talk; friend or foe?

Have you ever had someone talk to you in such a rude, nasty and disrespectful way that you felt so abused and bullied that all you wanted to do was either punch the person or run away from them? That would be a reasonable response to such an offensive person.  What if you found out that this was happening to you every day, all day long? What would you do about it? What if you recognized that you were actually doing this to yourself? “What do you mean I’m the one doing this?!?!?” you might say to yourself.  “That’s ridiculous!! Why would I ever do that?” This month’s topic focuses on our internal self-talk.

We all talk to ourselves nonstop, whether we are aware of it or not. Is it positive and constructive or negative and damaging? Were you aware that most of the time our inner voice is negative? This is a relic from our prehistoric days when our brain needed to remember the frightening and negative occurrences in order to survive. This behavior is now obsolete, yet our evolving brain continues to have remnants from our past primitive brain.

If you were to be truthful and say out loud what you might be saying quietly (and often unconsciously) inside your own head when you feel inadequate or you’ve made a mistake, what might that be? If you are like most of us humans, it likely would be very critical and a hurtful put down. The incredible part is that most of us don’t even realize we are doing it! The majority of self talk takes place so quickly and habitually that we don't even notice we are doing it. Yet, the primitive, or unconscious, part of our brain is taking it all in, both constructive and destructive. And the unconscious mind simply accepts everything you tell it, and then responds according to what it is hearing. Even though your self talk may be irrational when you think about it consciously, your body will always respond to the inner messages as if they were really true. There might be a tightening of your muscles, high blood pressure, anxiety, migraine headaches, depression, diarrhea, etc. These signals are our body’s way of communicating that we are giving ourselves wounding messages.  How we talk to ourselves has a great impact on the quality of our lives: how we feel about ourselves and our well-being. Everything we think and say influences the way we feel about ourselves mentally, physically and spiritually.

When I reflect back on some of the fault-finding phrases I would say when I disappointed myself or was less than perfect, the most persistent phrase I’d subtly, quietly say to myself was, “…you dumb idiot…what did you do that for?” Less often, yet still a part of my internal dialog was, “Why bother…you’ll never be able to do that” “You haven’t been productive at all today you worthless piece of…” “God, you look awful today” “Why did you say that, you stupid idiot?” Without awareness, I simply repeated insults I had been saying to myself since I was about 6 years old (prior to age six, many children have minimal ability to be critical of themselves). When you were a baby or even a young child, can you imagine looking in a mirror and saying, “What is wrong with you? Why are you so hungry all the time! Why did you poop in your diaper? Can’t you see you are annoying Mom? It’s your fault she is so tired!” Of course not. So what happened to change that? Life happened, and all the messages that were absorbed from everyone and everywhere brought you to where you are now. What we often are unable to recognize is that the disapproving, hateful character assaults with which we attack ourselves as adults are just as illogical and undeserved as those offered by our imaginary baby above.

Now ask, “What hurtful phrases have I been saying to myself?” In order to answer this question effectively, it’s useful to first become aware of what you might be subtly saying to yourself about your personality or your performance. One tool that I’ve found to be useful is to be aware of what is going on in my body. Remember, our body will always react to the silent, destructive statements we are conveying; therefore, when we begin to scan our body for its signals, we will feel physical survival reactions such as a tightening of the muscles, nausea, dry mouth, sweaty palms and rapid heart rate, to name a few. Once I notice these physical reactions, I then make a conscious effort to listen to what I was just saying to myself and to catch myself when I’m saying demeaning messages. When you notice that you’ve been giving yourself destructive commands, first give yourself a compliment simply for noticing. You may say to yourself, as I do, “Good for you, Barbara, for noticing…” or “Good catch…” or “Way to go, Buddy…you got it.”  Allow yourself to create whatever phrase is meaningful to you. The more you practice identifying your internal dialog, the quicker you are able to notice, and then adjust, it. What I quickly discovered, during the first week of this exercise, was that I whispered belittling remarks to myself at least 50 times a week! I was stunned! I kept at it, and now I find myself being critical of myself infrequently, maybe a few times a month. What an improvement! I continue to use this skill and still notice steady progress.

After practicing and becoming more proficient at recognizing the internal chatter, there now is an opportunity to talk to yourself in a more friendly way. Here are some examples. Perhaps If you say to yourself, “You dumb idiot…what did you do that for?” First, acknowledge and compliment yourself for noticing, then neutralize the negative thoughts with supportive ones, “I did the best I could…I need to remember to take it more slowly and give myself a breath first next time.” Maybe you find yourself saying, “Why bother…you’ll never be able to do that.” Now that you’ve exposed the negative message, offset it with constructive comments, “This is important to me so I’ll do the best I can…if necessary, I’ll do more research or ask for help next time…” If I find myself saying, “God, you look awful today,” I can reframe that to “…Oh, well…I put myself together as best I could…I’ll give myself more time tomorrow…” Modify the self talk with positive thoughts whenever you become aware of the disrespectful ones. The more consistently you practice, the easier it is to recognize and alter.

Be a kind and encouraging friend to yourself instead a bully. Consider negative self talk simply as a bad habit because that is all that it is. As with any undesirable habit, it’s possible to change your thoughts once you recognize what is going on. It does take time and practice because the pattern probably has been in place for years. The sooner you start, the quicker you’ll see the positive changes that are so beneficial. Go for it. You deserve it!