Understanding Self-Talk Lesson 2 in Building Self-Esteem
Growing up we have a tendency to label things as “good” or “bad.” Our caretakers may have even labeled us as “good” or “bad.” If we made passing grades and got on the soccer team, then we were “good kids.” Then we stayed out late with our friends or got involved in some risky behavior, and suddenly we were labeled “bad.” Humans love to categorize and label in an effort to make sense of the world. We want things to fit a certain mold so we can predict and decide what’s a threat and what’s not. It’s normal to label things in this black-and-white way, but if left unchecked, it can become limiting, an oversimplification of reality, and ultimately unhealthy.
When you make a mistake you may feel you did something “bad.” You may use this term for the neighbor that blasts music at 5 a.m. You may also use this term for an elderly woman driving for miles with her right turn signal still on. Bad is just a term used to denote negative feelings. It’s basically used to model what we feel we should not be doing.
Labeling in and of itself is not unhealthy. For example, you may feel that texting while driving is “bad,” so you avoid doing it yourself. It’s probably helpful to label texting while driving as “bad,” because it might help ensure your survival and the general health of the community where you live. Labeling things as “bad” can become problematic when our belief in the “badness” of something causes us to lose empathy for the thing we are categorizing as negative. It is much more difficult to feel compassion for someone (that texting driver) or something or even yourself if you have it sorted into the “bad” pile of your mind. This is a perfect recipe for anger and conflict.
Belief can be defined as trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something. A belief can be a statement or thought that we have confidence is true. Beliefs on their own are not unhealthy, but some beliefs to which we very tightly adhere are not based on facts and/or are too rigid.
For instance, say you believe all adolescents are disrespectful. You believe this to be true because you have experienced first-hand the terrors of loud teenagers cursing and making negative comments about adults. Now ask yourself how does this belief help you? How does it hurt you? What makes someone disrespectful? Is there another explanation for their behaviors? What does it mean to you when someone is disrespectful? Are all teenagers really disrespectful?
Using similar questioning, bring some curiosity to your beliefs about yourself. You are probably your own worst critic, so the next time you think to yourself, I’m so lazy/dumb/clumsy/bad ask yourself why you are holding on to this belief about yourself.
Maybe you are holding on to this belief to meet a need. By thinking you are bad, you could be protecting yourself from further disappointment of yourself. But take this internal investigation further. What needs are you prohibiting yourself from meeting? Maybe by labeling yourself as “bad” you are blocking yourself from self-compassion. Maybe by labeling yourself as “bad” you are holding yourself back in some critical way.
Take some time to write in a journal about what you consider “bad” and your core beliefs. Which ones apply to your own idea about yourself? What sort of things do you find yourself labeling? Would you consider these critical thoughts? Why do you have them, or what purpose are they serving you? Can you shift your perception on them?
If you’re having trouble getting started, start with something small, like perhaps you believe you don’t like pickles. On the next sandwich you order, ask for pickles. Work up from here. Really try to taste the pickle you are eating and examine if how it tastes. Maybe after you get over the initial surprise of the sensations in your mouth, you will realize that there is a disconnect between your beliefs about pickles and how they actually taste to you. Write down your experience.
A lot of self-esteem obstacles such as depression and anger stem from negative thoughts, or negative self-talk. If we take time to look at our beliefs, we can create awareness that will help loosen us from negative thoughts, even just a little bit.
Two Sides, One Coin
There are two general ways of thinking of yourself. One is positive and the other negative. Let’s first take a look at some examples of negative self-talk. See if you can identify any of these within yourself. Once awareness of a negative self-talk pattern is achieved, we can work on turning it around to positive thoughts.
Here are some examples of negative self-talk:
- My friends hate me because I always cancel my plans.
- Why can’t I ever do anything right? I can’t believe I made a mistake.
- My children don’t love me, that’s why they never call.
- I can’t believe I said that to Josephine; I’m such an idiot!
Negative self-talk could have developed as a coping mechanism in the past. Maybe you developed it as a child, when reprimanded. You didn’t clean your room, so you were told you were a bad kid. You trampled the garden, so you were told you were clumsy. Self-talk may have aided you in labeling events or actions in order for you to avoid them later, especially if those actions got you in trouble.
Unfortunately, negative self-talk generally turns into a downward spiral that can take work getting out of.
Accentuate the Positive
Self-talk is a learned habit. Positive self-talk is possible! Positive self-talk includes self-affirmations and positive thoughts even during negative situations.
Here are a few self-affirming thoughts:
- I like myself and accept myself for who I am.
- I am able to grow and progress.
- I am loved.
- I define my own success.
- I trust myself.
- I am able to handle the situation.
Now, let’s look at self-talk during a stressful situation or a situation of conflict:
- I made a mistake, but now I can learn from this.
- I can still do this, even if it stresses me out.
- I deserve respect.
- I am okay with receiving criticism from others, and I can improve next time.
Negativity and Survival
There is a reason our childhood experiences can influence our self-talk and thoughts so greatly. This reason is that we are built to survive. We are equipped with these amazing brains that want us to breathe and live another day. It is for this reason that our brains quickly lay down memories and tracks related to what we perceive may kill or harm us. The problem is that strong emotions can trigger that life or death response, when your life or health may not actually be at risk.
It can almost seem at times that our brains are always on the lookout for danger, real or not. This can create a negative mental filter. If we are not careful, this filter may causes us to filter out everything that isn’t perceived as a “threat.”
Think of the last time you walked through a grocery store. Did you focus on the way the food was arranged nicely on the shelves, pleasant looks on certain strangers’ faces, or the general calmness that was present in the store? Or did you notice the man who blocked the aisle with his cart while he shopped, or the cashier who seemed unfriendly when she rang up your food?
Often times positive things do not even register for us: we literally walk right past them without seeing. The seemingly negative experiences can quickly lay down strong thought and behavioral patterns that completely overhaul our experience of whether the world is a safe and pleasant place, or a dangerous, unpleasant one.
Strengthen the Positive
Now that you know how quickly the negative can take over, you also know the importance of teaching yourself to focus on the positive. Work on shifting your perspective to add a positive mental filter, allowing yourself to start seeing the positives. Seeing however is not enough, you have to allow yourself to truly perceive and feel the positive experiences around you.
Here are a few ways to start doing this for yourself:
- Practice feeling positive emotions, really feeling, noticing as many tiny details of these emotions in your body. Bring awareness to your happiness, joy, contentment, excitement, etc. Find something that brings a strong positive emotion for you, maybe relaxing while cuddled up with a loved one or pet, a nice warm bath, or maybe dancing to your favorite song. Practice letting yourself feel these moments in as great of detail as you can. Feel where these positive moments are showing up in your body. Are your shoulders relaxing? Do you feel warmth in your heart area? The more you pay attention to thoughts (I like my pet) the feelings (I love my pet) and the sensations in your body (when I cuddle with my pet my jaw finally starts to relax), the more you will continue to lay down positive tracks that will change your brain.
- Set an intention.Find five things in any given moment that are positive or even neutral: anything that is not negative. Start to practice seeing all that is around you, not just perceived threats or negativity.
- Take time for gratitude. Focus on what is working, going well, going beautifully, or at least not hurting you in your life. Even the smallest things are worth giving some recognition. Breathing is something you do constantly and often without thought. Yet we would die without breathing, so it may not seem like a big thing but each breath really is pretty amazing. Why not be grateful for each breath?
Write down examples of common self-talk you experience, both the negative and the positive. Rewrite the negative self-talk as positive. For example, “I am useless,” can be remodeled to say, “I tried my best, and I can continue to grow and learn.”
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