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What to Say When You Talk to Yourself

How to feel better by thinking better

Charlene was very hard on herself and often put herself down. While she'd never dream of verbally abusing or even harshly criticizing others, she nevertheless thought it was perfectly acceptable to treat herself in this manner. So, while other people thought well of her and seemed to like her very much, Charlene couldn't understand why she felt unhappy most of the time and suffered from low self-esteem.

We talk to ourselves more or less continuously. Our brains are always active and a lot of what they do is tell us about ourselves. This "self talk" takes place silently, of course, in the privacy of our minds.

Just like statements that come from other people, our inner statements can affect us dramatically. Unfortunately, many people give themselves a hard time by talking to themselves in harsh and unkind ways, perhaps because critical parents, teachers and others have led them to believe many negative things about themselves. Are you among these self-critical individuals?

Self-talk, for an unfortunately large number of people, consists of telling themselves what's wrong with them. They often repeat such statements as, "I'm stupid," "I'm selfish," "I sound like a fool," "I always manage to say the wrong thing," "I'm a complete failure," and other self-defeating phrases.

And it gets worse. We've had clients whose main message to themselves was, "You're such an idiot, such a total incompetent that you don't deserve to be the least bit happy."

Negative self-talk will usually lead to anxiety and depression and can have other unfortunate results. Self-fulfilling prophecies are quite common: You start believing your own propaganda and bring about what you fear.

Happily, the converse is also true. Positive self-talk will tend to achieve desirable outcomes and generate good feelings. When faced with a difficult situation, Harriet says, "It's hopeless and I can't stand it!" Glenda says, "There is no reason to get upset. I'll take it easy, step by step and I'll probably do just fine." The difference in attitude is obvious. Glenda has a much greater chance of success because of her positive outlook.

Does it help to change what you say to yourself? It sure does. Tell yourself often enough that you'll fail and you almost certainly will. Tell yourself often enough that you'll succeed and you greatly improve your chances of fulfillment and satisfaction.

• Talk to yourself of past successes, of times you've done really well, of times you've overcome obstacles, of times you've felt good.

Just as you felt good then, you can feel good now. Just as you overcame adversity then, you can overcome adversity now.

It's probably true that most successful people have failed more times than others simply because they've tried more things. Abraham Lincoln twice failed in business and lost seven elections for various offices. But he kept believing in himself and in what he wanted to do.

Successful people. . .

• don't focus on failures (there is no point in doing so)

• see mistakes as learning experiences for growth and understanding

• don't indulge in self-recrimination

Remember, the difference between the foolish and the wise, is not that the wise do not make mistakes. Rather it is that the wise learn from their mistakes instead of telling themselves they're stupid for making them.

The bottom line:

"Say unto yourself what you would have others say unto you."

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

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