Updated: Nov 1, 2020
I've heard it said that "no one is the villain in their own story," as a therapist I'm not sure that I completely agree with this saying, but we can certainly benefit from practicing self-awareness. On the whole though, I find that most of us are willing to say things to ourselves that we would never in a million years say to anyone else. We humans are really good at getting in our own way and being our own worst enemy. In this post I am going to teach some strategies to change negative self-talk into a more useful narrative through cognitive challenging, reframing, and non-attachment.
Cognitive challenging, also sometimes called cognitive questioning or socratic questioning, allows us to question the truth of the messages that we tell ourselves. Negative self-talk often incorporates unrealistic absolutes, such as: "I fail at everything," "I hurt everyone," "I always mess things up," "No one will love ever me," "I never do anything right." Note the absolutes: everything, everyone, always, never, etc. Within these absolutes there is a great deal of room for more flexibility or nuance. When you notice negative absolutes or even absolutes that aren't negative, these can be important red flags that our thinking isn't realistic. I don't think I've ever met anyone who always does everything wrong, or never does anything right. When you notice an absolute, ask yourself: "Is this true? Is it true that I never do anything right? Is it true that I always hurt other people? While it might be true that we sometimes make mistakes, we're sometimes thoughtless or insensitive, probably we occasionally have poor judgment and occasionally do or say something to someone else that might be hurtful, this is unfortunately part of the human condition. When you question the truth of these absolutes, it will help you to put them into different terms that are both more realistic, and more useful. If you can focus on the action or behavior that you feel bad about, it will be much easier to change the behavior and incorporate a more positive self-image into your identity. This subtle change in inner dialogue is called reframing.
Reframing can be done in many different ways. Reframing can look as described above, changing an unrealistic and unhelpful message to a more realistic and useful message. Reframing can also be done in terms of locus of control, in terms of big picture, in terms of finding meaning in experience, and many other perspectives. Reframing helps us shift perspective which is important because there is usually more than one way to look at an experience or problem. When we reframe in terms of locus of control this means that first we question what we do and don't have control over in any given situation, hone in on changing what is within our control, and accept what isn't. For instance, if you've had an argument with someone you care about and you want to repair this relationship, you can focus on what you can actually change, rather than the other person's response to how you change. If we do this, it is much easier to come to terms with the final outcome, regardless of what that outcome is, because we have done the things that are within our control to do, there isn't anything more that we can do.
Reframing in terms of big picture means putting the current moment or misstep into the larger context of important values and/or long-term goals. How this can look in practice is: "I wish I hadn't said those things that hurt this person that I care about. I believe in treating people with respect and that wasn't in line with that value, I will handle that differently the next time this issue comes up." We can also consider our long-term goals: "By reacting in a hurtful way I alienated my colleague; that really doesn't align with my goal of moving into management and being an effective manager. I'm going to learn some conflict management skills so that I have the ability to manage conflict while being empathetic and respectful in the future because that's the management style I want to develop." Big picture reframing can also be as simple as remembering that most difficult situations are temporary. Telling ourselves: "This too shall pass" can help us to gain perspective. Good or bad, this moment will not last forever. Trials are not always temporary, but they often are, remembering this can help us to ride it out and roll with the punches when we need to.
Reframing in terms of finding meaning in experience is especially helpful when there isn't anything we can do to change what happened. This can be about something that has happened to us in the past, or about something that we have done that for whatever reason there isn't an option to repair. When we search for meaning in experience we can ask: "What have I learned about myself or the world through this experience? How have I grown through this experience? Am I perhaps a better person because of surviving this experience? The last sentence is one that has helped me to come to terms with my first marriage and subsequent divorce. The experience of leaving that marriage was traumatic, it isn't an experience that I would have chosen to have, and I certainly wouldn't have chosen for my children to experience that with me. 20 years later though, I use that experience to teach and comfort other people who are experiencing something similar. I believe that I learned skills through that experience that help me to be a better therapist, parent, and friend. This means that that experience wasn't useless, I can find meaning and growth in it.
The last skill that I would like to teach is non-attachment. Non-attachment is very useful for OCD-like thoughts and self-talk, meaning repetitive and cyclical and not really of any value. These thoughts are often seemingly automatic and very quick, can feel intrusive and unwanted because again they don't actually serve a purpose. They aren't about talking ourselves into doing something different or preparing for something that we're facing, they are just negative and a waste of mental energy. When we have an emotional response to a thought like this, assigning that emotional meaning actually acts as a reinforcer for the thought, this means that the thought will occur with more frequency the more that we attend to it, and we then attach even more emotional meaning. Non-attachment can help to break this cycle.
The first step to non-attachment is noticing the thought, followed by acknowledgment to yourself: "I'm noticing that I'm telling myself I'm worthless." When you acknowledge the thought you aren't avoiding it, which is important because avoidance actually gives more power to these thoughts. Remember that the thought isn't actually productive or helping you in any way, so it's ok to just acknowledge that it's happening and then attend to something else. Don't try to push the thought away because again, that takes effort and acts as a reinforcer that will increase the frequency of the thought. Just notice and then switch your attention to your breath. Slow your breathing down until you feel more calm, then you can change your attention to a more positive thought, or to a sensory experience, to fun plans you have for later in the day, really anything that changes your mood. The more that you practice non responding to the thought by refraining from assigning emotional meaning, the less power this thought will have over you, and eventually these thoughts should just fade away.
Norman Vincent Peale said: "Change your thoughts and you change your world." While the toxic positivity that Peale preached might be the subject of a completely different post, this particular statement has a great deal of power. So remember, focus on what you actually have power to change, frame that change in realistic terms, and find room to grow through suffering, rather than just pain.