Have you ever listened closely to the way you talk to your self? It can be a little scary. Most of us grossly underestimate the extent to which a critical inner voice is doing most of the talking, and the barrier that this habitual opponent creates in our lives. Now, we all need a push now and again, to hold ourselves accountable, to be better, to do better, to care more, to live in line with our values and our potential. This can include some tough love, lest we fall into the snares of an unfulfilling life ruled by complacency and instant gratification.
That being said, we must understand that we have everything to gain by protecting ourselves from the spiritual pollution of negative self talk. As my spiritual teacher, Michael Berg says, speaking negatively, which includes about ourselves “puts a shell around our soul.” And this shows up physically as well. Brain research confirms that a self attacking inner voice sets us up for anxiety and depression.
ONENESS WITH ONESELF IS THE FOUNDATION
The idea is like this: Before we can create a oneness with our dreams and desires, and a oneness with others, we must create a oneness within ourselves. Yes, we want to grow into a more loving and compassionate person. So what’s the foundation? A relationship towards oneself filled with kindness, encouragement and self love. We don’t grasp how valuable we are, simply because we exist. Appreciating our value, believing in ourselves beyond logic, this is how we grow and change best.
QUESTIONNAIRE: AWARENESS IS KEY
So let’s get practical and talk about what negative self talk can really sound like. Awareness is the first essential step. Here’s a questionnaire to help you begin identifying where you and your inner critic stand. Please be honest with yourself. Your inner critic won’t like to be discovered but your soul will be thrilled. 0=never; 1= rarely; 2=sometimes; 3=often; 4=all the time (The higher your score the more care and priority I would recommend you place on healing your self talk.)
When I listen inside, I can hear myself…
— Judging myself harshly in a way that I would NEVER speak to a friend, colleague or anyone I truly care about. (e.g., I’m so stupid; Never good enough; I look awful today; Why can’t I be more …; I’m so disorganized; I’m so bad; It’s all my fault; I did well, what a relief.)
— Comparing myself to others. (e.g. They are so much farther along than I am; Why don’t I have what they have; Well I do that better than them.)
— Repeating a message I received growing up, from someone toxic or a dynamic. (e.g., You’re so annoying; You have to make them happy or they will leave; You are not worthy of love; When you’re thin, everything will be good; That’s a hobby, not a real job.)
— Saying extreme statements about my character when disappointed in myself or a circumstance (e.g., I’m a terrible mother; I suck; I have nothing to offer; I’m blowing it.)
— Panicking when I don’t live up to a fixed identity, like a Good-Person image. (e.g., I better do this for them or they’ll think I’m unkind; Oh no, they are not going to see that I have it all together.)
— Discounting my gifts, skills and credentials. (e.g., There’s no way I can do that, I’ve never done it before; My success doesn’t feel genuine, I feel like an imposter; I’m not really that smart; I’m sure there are others who could do it better; I’ll come off like a fool.)
—Anxiously needing to resolve conflict or move forward on a project or issue. (e.g., If I don’t email right away, they’ll think I’m irresponsible; I better fix this Now; Oh gosh they will think I’m terrible, I need to explain myself.)
— Preoccupied with how I look. (e.g., Ugg I hate how my stomach looks; With these thighs I’ll never find a date.)
— Second guessing myself and my decisions, day to day and long term. (e.g., You should have done it faster; You wasted so much time; You idiot, you could have handled that so much better; Maybe my way isn’t the right way.)
— Shaming messages when I’m not perfect, approved of or make a mistake, (e.g., I have to be the best at this; They have to accept me; I just can’t make a mistake or I’m a failure; shame on me for not being tougher; I better not even try because I might fail; I’m bad at the core)
ABOUT SHAME: HEALING ONE’S INNER CHILD
Before we go on, I feel we need to spend a minute on shame. Especially related to our internalized and shaming messages (#3 and #10 above), it’s important to appreciate and not judge your inner critic. Likely, to protect from feeling judged, shamed or rejected in some fundamental way by caregivers, many of us develop an attacking way of relating with oneself to protect from the shame awakened by anything that resembles failure. If we can manage to control our behavior, our bodies, our image — or judge ourself first— then we create a temporary (and illusionary) feeling of safety.
As a recent article in Psychology Today put so well, “There's one thing the inner critic doesn't offer: Room for growth. All too often it sends us back to a zone where we find ourselves safe, but also stuck.” Today we have beautiful healing approaches that gently and powerfully help us to emancipate the child within, reparent him/her to not need those coping mechanisms, and the accompanying belief systems, like the child once needed to survive. (See Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing, Internal Family Systems, and EMDR)
THIRD PERSON SELF TALK: A TECHNIQUE FOR SELF DISTANCING
The main technique for overcoming negative self talk I want to share is a cognitive approach called SELF DISTANCING and it’s based on ground breaking research by Ethan Kross, of the University of Michigan's Emotion & Self Control Lab. By replacing the first person pronoun, I , with non-first person pronoun, You, He/She, or Our Name, we can gain emotional and psychological distance which allows us to speak to ourselves more like we would to a friend or someone we care about. Haven’t you noticed how it’s more clear when it’s about someone else’s life. Kross goes on to show that getting out of our first person mindset reduces the activation of the right amygdala, the emotional part of the brain— but at no extra cognitive expense. So this simple technique has great implications for unhooking us from the vicious cycle of negative self talk. Here’s an example of Gabriella new at giving presentations:
First Person (negative) Talk:
I am worried about giving this presentation. I’m afraid I won’t be good and powerful and that participants won’t want to continue. I’m afraid I will be a disappointment. The other presenters I respect in my field do such a good job and what if I am just not that good at it.
Third Person (affirming) Talk:
Gabriella, you can do this. You know this material and everyone who begins something new feels uncomfortable. What you will be sharing is something you deeply believe in and the most important thing is doing your best and coming from your heart. Gabriella, people will feel your passion and that’s the energy that makes the most difference. More than concepts. You can do this and you don’t have to be perfect. That’s not possible and not the point.
Rather than trying to shut down the inner critic or analyze the emotions underneath, Kross and his colleagues suggest trying to make this simple grammatical manipulation of first person to non first person self talk. And since negative self talk is a habit often decades in the making, be prepared to practice, and practice! I have tried this myself and love it. Even writing this blog has taken this technique to a new level for me personally. I would love to hear how it works for you.