"I'm an idiot."
"I never get what I want; everything I do goes wrong."
"I'm not the favourite in my family; everyone prefers my brother."
"There must be something wrong with me."
I wonder if you'd say any of the things above to your best friend? No? Why's that then? Because it would be hurtful? Cruel? Unkind? Unconstructive? Then why do so many people think it's acceptable to say these sorts of things to themselves in their own heads?
Fed up with talking to yourself like a total a-hole? Well, you're in the right place. Negative self-talk comes up time and time again in my sessions with clients, so I have lots of tips to share with you on how to foster a healthier inner dialogue.
The key to understanding the impact of our self-talk on our brains is to think about what happens when we get a lovely thick snow fall and everyone gets 'snowed in' - AKA: everyone takes to their sledges and heads for the nearest slope.
When the first sledge travels down the slope through the soft snow, it leaves a faint depression. As more and more sledges travel down the slope, the more the snow is compressed and, eventually, deep, hard grooves form, becoming deeper and deeper with each journey. After a short while, every sledge that is pushed off the top of the slope will follow the same groove and the same track down, because it's easier for the sledge to follow the grooves already carved out than it is for it to form a new one.
Unfortunately, we all make the same mistake when it comes to our brains: we make the assumption that our brains are clever, rational and reasonable. They are not. Just like a computer, they are only as clever as their programming - not to mention, our brains can get pretty lazy. Our brains are just like that snowy slope: full of well-used ruts and grooves in which our thoughts get stuck.
However, the pliable nature of snow that makes the ruts possible in the first place, is as much a strength as it is a weakness - and the same goes for our brain's ability to re-wire. Neuro-plasticity is one hell of a double-edged sword: the BAD thing is that the more negative self talk we spew ourselves, the stronger that neural pathway in our brains becomes until it becomes hard not to think in such a way. The GOOD news is, with some focus and effort, we can build NEW neural pathways and CHANGE the way we think and, in turn, feel and behave.
But how do we start to build new pathways? Good question! And it's one I've got a few tips for below:
Week 1: Get to know your inner voice. Listen to it and observe it for a week. Is it a monologue or a dialogue, or is your inner voice made up of more points of view? What tone do you talk to yourself in? If you drew the voice(s) as a character(s), what would they look like? Does your inner voice, what it says and how it says it, remind you of anyone in your life?
Week 2: Again, listen to your inner voice, but this time make two columns on a piece of paper, labelled 'Dysfunctional Self-Talk' and 'Constructive Self-Talk.'
Write the self-talk you notice in the column you feel it should go under. For example, 'I'll never be able to get another job' would go in the 'dysfunctional' coulmn, whilst 'I seem to make friends easily' would go in the 'constructive' column.
Week 3: Now that you've collected up some concrete examples of your self talk, you can start to identify the kind of thinking habits you are using to perpetuate low self esteem, procrastination, anxiety or stress.
getselfhelp.co.uk is a useful self help site which has many downloadable resources people can access to help with a variety of issues. Follow the link to download their Unhelpful Thinking Habits sheet before moving on to the next task:
Once you've downloaded the sheet and taken some time to read through it, make a heading on a piece of paper for each thinking habit on the sheet. Next, match each example of self talk in your 'dysfunctional' column with the thinking habit you feel it is an example of and write it out underneath the corresponding heading. For example, 'I'll never be able to get another job' would be written underneath the 'mental filter' or 'prediction' heading.
Week 4: Now that you have an awareness of the kind of self talk - or 'mental groove' you've been stuck in, you can start to consciously change the way you talk to yourself and 're-wire' the neurons in your brain, to form a positive circuit as opposed to a negative one.
What you need to do to achieve this is to re-write the thoughts you have categorised in a way which is realistic and which replaces the original unhealthy thinking style with a healthier one. For example:
'I'll never get another job' is an example of a negative mental filter and predicting. To re-write this, we might write something like:
'At the moment, I'm unhappy at work because I've been here 10 years and I need a new challenge. I haven't applied for a job in a long time, so, understandably, I feel nervous. However, my CV is up-do-date and I know the sort of jobs I'd like to aim for. It might take a few months, but I've started the ball rolling by spending an hour each night looking on Indeed and other online job sites.'
Notice how, in the re-written version, we have used 'I'. The negative filter has been replaced with a realistic one, recognising that that job may take time. The predicting has been replaced with concrete actions in the 'now', such as the steps the person has already started to take towards their goal.
For each new example of dysfunctional self-talk you notice over the following weeks, repeat steps from weeks 3 & 4. In time (and you will need to give it time; re-wiring your brain isn't going to happen over night), you will internalise this process and will have developed a much more healthy and balanced inner dialogue.