In part one of this series, I started us out with some basics about thoughts by focusing on the power of words. For this second part, I want to shine a light on negative self-talk. As a therapist, there are a few different themes that I come back to often due to their relevance to a wide variety of presenting issues and goals clients bring to my office. Self-talk is one of my top five most-visited topics in therapy. I’ve found that the subject usually isn’t treated with the deference it deserves. Its impact on our mental health and general wellness is significant and, in my opinion, well worth exploring.
When I use the term self-talk, I’m referencing the voice in our heads- all the thoughts in our minds that sound like one or both sides of a conversation. The unmistakable reality is that we’re constantly talking to ourselves, whether or not we realize it. Much has been written on the topic using a variety of terminology. One of my favorite terms used is “inner critic.” I appreciate this wording due to its intent to externalize our negative self-talk to help keep us from making the mistake of over-identifying with it. Regardless of the label used to describe our negative self-talk, key themes emerge in our understanding of its origins, impact, and proposed remedies.
There are many different views concerning the origins of the nature of our internal dialogue. Peggy O’Mara, an author and editor whose work centers around children and motherhood, simply states, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Other authors and researchers, like Geneen Roth, also claim that our self-talk mirrors the way we were spoken to and dealt with as children. Roth (2011) explains that as children we learn to internalize the messages our parents sent us, for better or for worse, as a survival strategy. For example, as children it’s best that we internalize messages such as “Don’t run out into the street,” but those that sound more like “You’re only worthy of love and acceptance when you accomplish something” don’t do us any favors as children or later as adults.
When I delve into this topic with a counseling client, I usually tell the following story of an experience that forever shifted my view of the importance and impact of negative self-talk and served as the beginning of the end of my, then, thriving inner critic. While in graduate school, I was given the amazing opportunity to intern at an addiction treatment center where one evening I was invited to observe an eating disorders group. During my first visit to that group, the group therapy agenda was set to include the reading of a letter assigned to one of the members the previous week. After discovering the extreme nature of her self-talk and it’s connection to her disordered eating, her therapist asked her to write a letter to herself from her inner critic as she experiences it inside her head on a daily basis. During this group therapy session, she was asked to pick the person in the group whose voice sounded most like her inner critic (the one male in the group who she chose appeared to be a good friend). The friend was a champ, following through on what he was asked- to read the letter to her knee-to-knee in the tone in which it was clearly written. The scene was heartbreaking. Not only in watching the emotional reaction of the woman who was being read to or hearing the awful things written in that letter but also the friend who was tearfully reading those words of which he didn’t believe a single word. Though years have passed since witnessing this scene, I still can’t tell this story without tearing up. It was an incredibly powerful object lesson about what our unchecked negative self-talk can turn into and just how toxic it can be for us and for our relationships. I think, on some level, most of us can relate to this with a look in the mirror. I encourage you to take a second and imagine yourself in this young woman’s shoes. If others could see and hear your inner critic, how would that change the way you talk to yourself?
Let’s take it a step further then. Not only does this inner critic mirror something we likely have no desire or intention of reflecting but it is also self-sustaining. Imagine that you have the most healthy, robust self-esteem of anyone you’ve ever known, then you hire an assistant who is with you continuously and who never ceases to criticize you. Even with your world-class self-esteem, your assistant’s constant monologue about your work and your worth will eventually wear you down. Without anyone else there to defend you (which is the case when this is all playing out only in our heads), you’ll likely slowly move toward believing it, regardless of whether or not it’s true. Like a slow and steady gas leak, it will bring its toxicity into the way you think, slowly poisoning your view of yourself and the world around you likely without you even realizing it’s happening. In many respects, your self-talk is no different than this hypothetical third-person. Whether the messages are true or not, if you listen to it for long enough, you’ll eventually come to believe them. The more deeply we believe something, the more likely we are to see the world through that lens of self-fulfilling prophecy. Brené Brown (2017) illustrated this beautifully in her book Braving the Wilderness:
“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don't belong. You will always find it because you've made that your mission. Stop scouring people's faces for evidence that you're not enough. You will always find it because you've made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don't negotiate their value with the world.”
Don Miguel Ruiz (2008) in his book The Four Agreements posits that our acceptance of someone else’s abuse is contingent on the severity of our abuse of ourselves. He claims that we will only leave an abusive situation when the abuser treats us worse than we treat ourselves. In regards to a solution to this pattern, Ruiz (2008) goes on to say, “...we need a great deal of courage to challenge our own beliefs. Because even if we know we didn’t choose all these beliefs, it is also true that we agreed to all of them. The agreement is so strong that even if we understand the concept of it as not being true, we feel the blame, the guilt, and the shame that occurs if we go against these rules.” The process of seeing, challenging, and replacing these rules is often a core element of therapy. We can’t go back and un-send the messages we’ve received. However, as Ruiz alluded to, we can make the choice to face the blame, guilt, and shame that solidify our loyalty to these imprisoning messages. If we never make ourselves aware of these internal beliefs, we will likely continue to shoulder their burden unknowingly and to our great detriment.
So then what’s the solution? As with many truths, it’s simple but not necessarily easy. Roth (2011) in her excellent book Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything explains it this way: “Freedom is hearing The Voice ramble and posture and lecture and not believing a word of it...Listening to and engaging in the antics of The Voice keeps you outside yourself. It keeps you bound. Keeps you ashamed, anxious, and panicked. No real or long-lasting change will occur as long as you are kneeling at the altar of The Voice.” Roth sites “living as if” as the solution for silencing our inner critic- living as if we don’t believe a word of it. When helping a client move toward healthier self-talk, I take a similar approach: (1) name the lies that our inner critic is known to speak to us (we can usually boil it down to a few major themes), (2) label them as lies (some form of “Is this standard true for me but no one else?” or “Can I imagine speaking this ‘truth’ to a child?” usually does the trick), and (3) then treat them as a lie regardless of how we feel in the moment. Every time we act out of the truth rather than a lie we’ve been led to believe, that voice becomes a bit quieter until eventually, it fades into the background. Sure, it takes practice but starting down the path to a healthier internal world really can be that simple. We will, also, take this a step further in the next part of this series. Stay tuned.
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.
Roth, G. (2011). Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything. New York: Scribner.
Ruiz, D. (2008). The Four Agreements. Thorndike, Me.: Center Point Pub.