By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
We all talk to ourselves all day long. Our minds are basically like recorders that play back everything that’s been downloaded into them. The quality of our lives is drastically affected by our internal dialogue. Even more than our life situations, it’s our self-talk that can make or break our day.
Our minds are naturally active. That’s their job. And we need them to help us tend to many things in our lives. But sometimes our minds seem to be working overtime! Ideally, we all have some moments when our minds are quiet and we are simply present. But when our minds are active, we have various other internal soundtrack options.
The first is neutral. A neutral internal dialogue might be deciding whether to go to the store on the way to work or on the way home. Perhaps part of you wants to stop and part of you wants to head straight home. There are no strong feelings and no moral dilemmas. You can think through the pros and cons and make your decision. Nobody gets hurt!
Another internal soundtrack is positive. An example of this is when you feel good about something you did or said and you internally praise yourself. Now, that is something we do not need to change. If you do experience positive self-talk, I say keep it up. I know many of us were raised with messages about getting a “big head” or conceited but I am not talking about being arrogant here. I am simply talking about being kind to yourself and praising yourself regularly. Positive self-talk is about knowing that you are a good person, and that you deserve praise sometimes, even though you are imperfect like everyone else.
Next on the soundtrack possibilities is negative self-talk. We all have an inner dialogue that arises from all the negative and painful things we have ever heard and experienced. It’s like a program in your computer. The more painful experiences you have had and/or the more sensitive you are, the louder and stronger your internal negative soundtrack is likely to be.
In large part, we all learned to speak to ourselves from the way our parents or caregivers spoke to us. As we get older, this style turns into what I call our inner “Mom-a-logue” or “Dad-a-logue.” If our parents were critical or negative, it’s not that they were horrible people; they were likely just speaking to us the way they were spoken to or the way that they were left feeling from the way they were spoken to. So the negative self-talk baton gets passed down from generation to generation. Consequently, some people have very loud, critical Mom-and-Dad-a-logues and this can cause an array of problems.
Since most of us tend to think or speak to ourselves the way we were spoken to as children or the way we felt as children, I think it’s fair to say that most of us have been doing it a long time. So it is likely a habit that will take desire, awareness and practice to change. The good news is that it is possible to retrain your brain, erase negative self-talk tracks and upload new ones.
So, if negative self-talk is on one end of a spectrum and conceited narcissism is on the other, a healthy internal soundtrack is the range in the middle. This range is where you have positive regard for yourself. You know you don’t have to be perfect. You know you are a good person and that you are no better or worse than anyone else.
As a family counselor, I work with people who are struggling with a variety of issues, everything from addictions and depression to anxiety and grief. What I notice is that while the symptoms may differ, most of the people I see have a hard time being kind to themselves. I often find myself asking why.
Most everyone had some positive experiences as children. Even people from the most negative of childhoods can usually come up with a few positive memories. Why don’t we focus more on those? Unfortunately, negative memories and experiences seem to stick more than the positive ones. It’s just the way we are wired.
Imagine if someone massaged your back for an hour and punched you really hard for one second. It would likely be the one-second punch you would remember as opposed to the hour of comforting massage. Or say you spent a few hours with a friend and it was really pleasant and then they said one sentence that was really hurtful. You would most likely remember and be the most impacted from that one sentence as opposed to the hundreds of other sentences that were spoken in the time you were together.
As children, we did not have logical minds that knew the difference between feeling bad and being bad. When difficult things happened many of us decided we were bad, and this contributed to our internal program of self-talk. Painful events happened to all of us, in our families and in our lives, and most of us didn’t know how to distinguish between feeling bad and thinking we must be bad. So we ended up with a feeling of shame that for many turned into a deep, core belief. But shame comes from the mistaken thought or judgment, “I am bad.” And there is a big difference between something feeling bad and the thought that you are a bad person.
Many people have a core sense of shame and inadequacy and think that if they could just get the relationship they want or the body they like or the job they dream of, etc. they will then be deemed worthy and valuable. But it doesn’t work that way. If their deepest belief about themselves is that they are unworthy, ugly, stupid, fat, etc., nothing external will fix that. These thoughts will need an internal upgrade.
It might seem like bad news that our thoughts are constant and that they have so much power they can actually make us feel horrible. But the good news is that if we can make ourselves feel badly with our thoughts, then we can also learn to delete and replace them, which will then change the way we speak to ourselves, treat ourselves and feel about ourselves.
Steps For Upgrading Your Self-Talk
1. Desire: The first step in making a change is having the desire. Once you have the desire to improve your self-talk, you have begun to get ready for an internal upgrade!
2. Awareness: When we have a negative inner recording that has been playing for years, it becomes a habit. Oftentimes we kick into it without even noticing. So as soon as you become aware that a negative recording is playing, you have broken the unconscious trance and are halfway there.
3. Compassion: This process is about unlearning a very ingrained habit and we are not going to do it perfectly or immediately. Being kind and compassionate is the way to progress way more than beating yourself up. Self-hate got you here, it is not going to get you out!
4. Creative Comebacks: This is where you replace and/or respond to your negative thoughts. Try responding to a negative thought the way you might respond to a friend or a young child who was saying the same mean things about themselves.
Here are a few examples of creative ways to respond to your self-criticism:
- “Oh you again?”
- “Says who?”
- “And your point is?”
- “It’s not true and you’re not helping.”
- “I’m not that bad, give me a break.”
- “You might be trying to help by whipping me into shape but if you were going to be helpful, I think you would have helped by now.”
- “You’re just an old recording and I’m deleting you now.”
Even if you don’t fully believe it, keep practicing. You were not born with internal negative statements about yourself, you learned, practiced and perfected them and you can do the same with creative comebacks.
To replace the negative with something positive try some of these, or make up your own:
- “I’m a good person even when I make a mistake.”
- “I don’t have to be perfect to be loveable.”
- “I have many successes, I am not a failure.”
Try picturing your thoughts as pop-up windows on a computer and imagine closing them. Pretend your thoughts are on the television or radio and imagine turning them off. It helps some people to imagine they are letting smoke out of a chimney as they let their negative thoughts go. Others find it helpful to talk back to their internal negative statements by either disagreeing in a strong way or reacting in a compassionate, softer way. For many, it helps to consciously bring themselves back to the present moment and remember that their thoughts aren’t facts, they are like movies playing in our minds.
Whether you are visual, auditory or more in your feelings, you can get creative and find ways that work for you to change, stop or replace your habitual recordings.
Your negative soundtracks have likely been playing for many years. It doesn’t help that we are surrounded by a culture that supports negative self-talk so this will be an ongoing practice. The way we talk to ourselves is a habit that can be changed with awareness and willingness. With practice and patience it can become natural to speak to yourself with kindness and upgrade your internal soundtrack for good!