As a research-oriented person who spent A LOT of years in college I am a bit inclined to think that if something is simple it may not be very effective. I am often fond of saying to a new client “if your problem was easy to fix you would not be in my office!”. And while on the whole I do believe that to be true, I have had a humbling experience with one particular “intervention” that is, at least in practice, quite simple. That intervention is monitoring and changing “self-talk”.
So what do I mean when I say “self-talk”? Have you ever dropped a glass of water and as it shatters on the floor making a huge mess thought “God I am such an idiot!”. Or locked yourself out of your house and thought “I can’t believe I could be so stupid!”. Well, that’s self-talk. The interesting thing is that not everyone calls themselves stupid or an idiot when they make a mistake. Yes, I know, hard to believe. As someone who grew up with a lot of negative self-talk I was surprised to realize at some point that 1) I was doing it (we often don’t realize what the inner dialogue is) and 2) that changing it would make any difference. But I was in for a big surprise because tracking my inner dialogue and making a conscious effort to change it paid big dividends.
Exactly how did I do that? Basically every time that I made a mistake and felt that inner “wince” I tried to pay attention to the default response I gave myself (see above for real examples!). And then I would imagine talking to a 5 year-old who made the same mistake and tried to picture what I would tell him or her. For example if one of my kids at age 5 had dropped a cup of water and it broke and spilled all over the floor I would certainly not have yelled ” you idiot!” at them. Of course I might have felt frustrated at having to clean up the mess but I would have said something like “Oh bummer, it broke. Well, accidents happen!”. By saying that I would be hoping to avoid the kid feeling too much guilt or even shame. So basically I started talking to myself like a 5 year old 😉
And it worked. Yes folks, all of those years in graduate school, all of those deep analytical texts I devoured, all of the fancy theories I can wax poetic on… and one of the most powerful tools I have found for helping people love themselves more and be less self-critical is to talk to themselves more lovingly.
And it’s not just me. While I often like to try interventions on myself before unleashing them on clients (and I highly recommend this to all therapists) I have tried this intervention now with dozens of my clients over the years. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. One person I worked with for several years said it was the most powerful thing he had learned from me. And while I hope that I can offer a lot of different useful tools and transformative experiences in the end sometimes just one thing can make a lot of difference.
What prompted me to think about this today happened to be something in my in-box from a group dedicated to helping people who grew up in dysfunctional families. It’s called Adult Children of Alcoholic AND Dysfunctional Families and it’s a 12-step group. The email contained the following text:
“Many adult children struggle with self-forgiveness because we are oriented to doubt ourselves or to be hypercritical of ourselves as children.” Big Red Book p. 234
We carry messages in our heads that if we do something and anyone has a negative reaction, we must have made a mistake. And if anyone tells us we did something wrong, our first thought is, ‘Of course they’re right!’ It doesn’t matter whether we actually did something wrong or not.
We tell ourselves things like ‘I should have known better!’ ‘What’s the matter with me?’ … These are like the messages we heard as children that became so ingrained that we learned at a very early age to say them to ourselves.”
And this group has hit the nail on the head. We learn this from our parents growing up. This can happen in different ways. Our parents may have literally told us we were stupid or “should have done better” or “weren’t living up to our potential” or that we were lazy. Or any number of criticisms. Some parents simply don’t know that criticizing a child is not the best way to motivate them. They were probably criticized themselves as children and are just doing what they learned.
Some parents are able to not directly criticize their children but convey disappointment in other ways such as sighing when you bring home a less than perfect report card or favoring your older sibling who is the all-star athlete and not spending as much time with you since you are not the shining star of the family. We can learn in various ways that perfection is the standard and that bad things happen when we are not perfect ( or at least really, really good).
I invite you to conduct an experiment. Listen to your self-talk. Especially when you mess something up. If you notice that it is negative, harsh, critical, punitive or unforgiving then I invite you to try changing it to something more positive. I am not saying that when you realize that you forgot to pay that traffic ticket and now there is a warrant that has been issued that you should applaud yourself. I am saying to talk to yourself a bit like this “well, I had a lot on my plate last fall and I can see how that got away from me. I will take care of it now and move on. There is no use beating myself up about it, no one is perfect”.
Try it. See what you find out. You just may be pleasantly surprised. And while it’s no substitute for therapy if you are having big struggles it can be a step in the right direction to feeling less guilt, shame, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
Wishing you happiness and healing,