The Minute Therapist blog invites you to examine your inner self-talk and the underlying beliefs that form the foundation of your inner speech. The suggestions and techniques described here are opportunities to challenge and correct distorted ways of thinking and self-defeating beliefs that often lead to negative emotions, such as anxiety, worry, fear, anger, depression, and guilt. In clinical practice, I find that many patients are at first reluctant to seriously examine their inner dialogue, because of a negative stigma associated with self-talk. They may even be embarrassed to admit that they talk to themselves under their breath. Are these types of beliefs holding you back from having the kind of inner dialogue that can lead to meaningful change? If so, let’s try out a little Q&A about self-talk.
Aren't you just saying "think positively"?
Yes, to the extent that positive thinking means thinking of positive alternatives, of seeing the proverbial cup as half full, rather than half empty. But this does not mean walking around all day with a foolish-looking grin on your face or denying the grim reality when truly bad things happen. If a loved one dies, it's reasonable to experience grief and profound feelings of sadness. These are genuine emotions that are proportional to the situation at hand. Likewise, if you are canned at work, it’s ludicrous to pretend this was the best thing that could have possibly happened to you — unless, of course, there's good reason to believe it was the best thing to happen to you (as it was for me as a young man, when I was fired from a boring job that I hated to the depths of my being). But jumping for joy when true disappointment occurs is a form of denial, not rational thinking.
Aren't people who talk to themselves crazy?
Nope. We all talk to ourselves under our breath. Sometimes we even talk to ourselves out loud, such as when we stub a toe and scream obscenities to ourselves and anyone else within earshot. In most circumstances, however, self-talk remains internal, private speech. We may perceive our self-talk to be a kind of faint whisper we hear in the recesses of our mind, words said under our breath, or silent thoughts.
Have you had any good conversations with yourself lately? What thoughts go through your mind when you're alone with yourself? Allen Ginsberg, poet laureate of the Beat generation of the 1950s, posed the question, "What do you say to yourself lying in bed at night, making no sounds?"
Whatever form this inner dialogue takes, it's part of the constant stream of daily consciousness. By the way, people who suffer from serious mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, also engage in self-dialogues, and they may be observed carrying on conversations with the voices inside their heads. This is a very different form of self-speech in which ownership of inner speech is attributed to other persons or forces outside oneself.
Aren't you saying, then, that I'm responsible for my own misery, because of the way I think about things?
No again. Having a knee-jerk reaction of blaming yourself whenever something goes wrong that affects you or someone else is one of the most common forms of distorted thinking. Our belief systems are influenced by what others tell us about ourselves, especially the significant figures in our lives, such as parents, relatives, friends, and teachers. Your thinking style is no more a product of free choice than is your hair color. But like the color of your hair, you can change your thinking style so that you gain better control over your emotions.
But then who’s at fault — my parents?
We noted that there are many who believe that psychotherapy has three general aims — to understand yourself, to forgive yourself, and then to forgive everyone else. We also noted a common misconception of patients in psychotherapy that the answer to their problems will only emerge when they find out who’s at fault. Fault-finding covers over the true challenge of psychotherapy, which is to stop replaying tiresome old scripts with new people playing various familiar parts, a pattern that keeps you locked up as a prisoner of the past. This blog is an open invitation to reappraise yourself in a new light, putting aside who did what to whom in favor of what you can do in the present for yourself and others.
Aren't you just saying you should rationalize away your concerns?
What's the difference between reasoning with yourself and rationalizing? Let’s put it this way: Reasoning with yourself involves testing your perceptions against reality to form more objective appraisals of situations you face. On the other hand, rationalizing replaces rational thought with exaggerated, distorted thinking. Consider the example of taking an important exam. It’s rational to size up the situation objectively and understand what's clearly at stake without blowing things out of proportion. While telling yourself that doing well on the examination is important, it is rational to recognize that your whole future doesn't hinge on any one exam. Practicing rational self-talk when taking an exam helps you calm down and focus, while exaggerated or catastrophizing self-talk stirs up a stew of anxiety.
When we rationalize our behavior, we fail to test our perceptions, because we hold to a fixed, unalterable view of reality. During an exam, you might rationalize to yourself by thinking, "It's no big thing, so who cares how well you perform?" Minimizing the importance of the situation can be just as destructive, and as discrepant from reality, as exaggerating its importance. When we rationalize, we may put up a false front of indifference. This can be easily shattered when reality doesn't confirm your preconceived attitudes. The rationalizer in the test-taking situation may apply only a minimal effort, which can lead to poor performance and negative consequences. A string of disappointing outcomes may follow, as one failure builds upon another.
A tragic example of rationalization is believing the myth of personal invulnerability concerning cigarette smoking. "Oh," the rationalizer thinks, "cancer doesn't run in my family. My Uncle Charley smoked every day of his life and lived to be 85." By turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to reality, the rationalizer fails to adapt his or her behavior to the real world. The personal tragedies are far too numerous to count of those of committed smokers who rationalized themselves into an early grave.
Talking to ourselves is part of our nature as thinking animals. It is in our very nature to dialogue with ourselves. Let’s join the conversation.
(c) 2017 Jeffrey S. Nevid