Do you ever talk to yourself? Maybe you should. I’m always a little surprised when I ask people I’m working with if they’ve ever heard of or put to work the concept of “self talk” and they say “no”, because it’s such a common tool in therapy and recovery. But on reflection, maybe that’s part of the problem. For many of us, our first exposure to the concept is probably when someone mocks the over-the-top books of affirmations that are in the self-help section at the book store, or – as in my case – in a 12-step setting when someone talks about “playing the tape” in their head. It’s unfortunate that in an attempt to teach the concept, it gets so dumbed-down as to be useless, because when used in a common-sense and practical way, it can be the one of the single most powerful tools for being a happy and successful person. So what are we talking about when we talk about “self talk”? Well, not everyone’s mind works exactly the same way, but what we’re talking about is the positive or negative messages our own thoughts guide us with on a daily basis. Do you know what kind of positive or negative messages you send YOURSELF each day? There’s a simple way to figure this out, and the results may surprise you. And before you start tailoring a NEW message, it makes sense to get in there and get a sense of what your mind is already doing.
Just Listen To Yourself!
The first step? It’s incredibly simple, but a little challenging at first. Listen to you mental processes, and make a solid commitment to do so for a few days. The first time I did this, it was at the recommendation of a life coach (more about that below). I recognized the value of what she was suggesting, but honestly thought I already knew what was going on in my head, so did it grudgingly. I have to admit I was blown away by the negative chatter in my head. I tend to operate with a bit of a “hope for the best, plan for the worst” mentality. When I keep this in balance, it’s very effective for me. I stay positive and optimistic for the most part, and do just a little mental preparation to accept occasional undesired outcomes. But when I made a conscious effort to just LISTEN to my thoughts for a couple of days, I suddenly realized that this approach of mine had drifted WAY into the “plan for the worst” zone. I was spending half my day injecting semi-negative expectations into everything I was doing. Oddly, the most important downside of this wasn’t really the negativity; I’d still show up for meetings or whatever and be my usual positive self.
No Matter Where I Go, There I Aren’t
The bigger problem was the simple fact that I was never “being where I was”. Listening attentively to my own thoughts for a few days was tricky at first. The mind tends to prefer going about its business unquestioned. But as I continued to do this for a couple of days, I noticed two more things that I didn’t think I did so often. One was a low-level constant comparison of my physique. I’d constantly look at men or women and almost silently compare myself to them. The other was a tendency to in effect say “I should do something about that” with regard to just about every negative self-perception I have. Whether it is a bad work habit, a diet or fitness pattern I’d like to change, or something I do or say in a relationship. It was as if my mind felt like simply acknowledging a fact was an adequate step for now. Which it is, until you do this every day for months or years, and it just becomes a reinforcing observation.
Don’t Gimme No Backtalk!
So once you have a sense of what kind of mental chatter you have going on, what’s next? At this point a lot of well-intentioned self-improvement gurus get it all wrong in my opinion, suggesting positive affirmations similar to the ones that the Stuart Smalley character poked fun at. This might work for some of us, but for someone like me, this approach is doomed to failure. I have a totally rebellious nature, and don’t even trust MYSELF when I tell me how great I am. And the “play the tape” metaphor? My mind doesn’t work like a tape recorder, and besides, WHO USES TAPE RECORDERS anymore? I had to try a different, two-pronged approach. One part consisted of simply focusing on being grateful, and pausing to be thankful for all the good stuff that is constantly going on around me. I’d pick a single thing in my environment, whether it was the fresh air I was breathing, the cool car across the street, or the kind person that had just held a door for me. Just putting energy into something like that would sidetrack any negative anticipatory chatter, and give my thoughts some positive momentum. The other part consisted of taking action whenever I caught myself thinking “I really should”. That’s one thing that Stuart nailed dead on. No one wants to be “shoulding all over themselves”, right?
All Self-Talk And No Action
Vincent Van Gogh said “If you hear a voice within you saying, You are not a painter, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” Simply taking action has a profound impact on how we think. So what will work for you? You’ll have to figure part of that out yourself. In Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, he talks about autosuggestion, and says “concentrate upon a given desire until that desire becomes a burning obsession”. In Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, he suggests you list all of your desires, and carry the list everywhere, looking at it morning, night, and before meditation. Those of a more religious bent will suggest daily affirmations and prayers. But these approaches all have one thing in common. Repetition and persistence! If you’re not sure which of the many approaches to constructive self-talk is best, there’s a great book that I find myself recommending constantly. It’s Taming Your Gremlin by Rick Carson. I’ve never tried the expanded class or workshop products, but this simple book is chock full of useful and amusing tools and metaphors for identifying the ways in which your own mind may be undermining your intentions.
So It’s All In My Head?
No. And that’s probably one of the most important parts of all of this. While books like Taming Your Gremlin are an awesome resource to get you going, you’re going to find it a lot more productive if you externalize some of this stuff and get some useful feedback. You could even just share notes with a friend, but personally I got a lot more out of some brief work with a life coach. It was life coach Dori Weinstein that turned me on to the Gremlin book. And although I get a small spiff if you buy that book on Amazon, that’s an unpaid endorsement for Dori. I got more out of four sessions with her than I did from dozens of therapy sessions in the past. And although I have nothing against therapy, this is one case where I think it would be counterproductive, because it’s so focused on reflection and introspection. Getting in touch with your self talk and changing it is a continuous and action-oriented pursuit that thrives with external input to the mostly closed system that is the adult mind. So the next time you catch yourself talking to yourself, remember to eavesdrop. And if you’re getting a bad rap, feel free to stick up for yourself.