Saturday, October 19, 2013

Are You Hearing Voices?

I've blogged a bit about how others in our lives may have a negative effect on our comfort with expressing who we truly are.  But what about ourselves?  How much do we get in our own way?  How much time and energy do we spend talking ourselves out of being who we truly are?  How effectively do we weaken our resolve to be Self Strong?

What I'm referring to is "self-talk."  Self-talk is the voice inside our heads.  The voice is our own, but can certainly be mimicking what we've heard other's say.  It can be positive, negative and sometimes neutral.  It is a running commentary on how we're doing.  Sometimes the self-talk thoughts we have get uttered out loud.  As a sport psychologist this is something that I address with athletes who are struggling to perform at their very best.  If you watch any sports at all, especially televised sports, you will often see athletes or coaches utter something to themselves after a play.  Even if you can't hear what they've said you can often tell if the self-talk was positive or negative by their body language.

Self-talk is also an issue, however, for most of us just trying to live our lives as productively and satisfactorily as possible.  The most damaging and defeating type of self-talk is, of course, of the negative variety.  When I work with people in my practice as a psychologist I often ask about what they are thinking - in that particular moment or at the time something else happened.  Sometimes my patients will tell me that they don't know what they are thinking or that they aren't thinking anything.  Although I typically take what my patients say at face value, this is one of those instances where I wonder if they are right.  I believe that they are absolutely telling me the truth of their conscious perception of the situation (i.e., what they are aware of); however, I also think there is a good chance that their self-talk has been going on so long it is now like background or "white" noise.  It has been tuned out - as if it is not happening.  They no longer "hear" it.

I usually call attention to the idea that they may not know what they are thinking because the thoughts are automatic, repetitive, and they are so used to the thoughts they don't know it when the self-talk starts up.  I also suggest that I could be wrong, but encourage them to see if they can catch any of the thoughts the next time a particular situation occurs.

More often than not, a patient will tell me that they hadn't realized how much they were thinking.  And, unfortunately, many of those patients also say something like "I had no idea how negative my thoughts are.  I'm really hard on myself."   We then discuss the nature of the negative thoughts.  For example are the thoughts negative because they are intended to motivate?  If so I ask if the patient feels motivated as a result of the thoughts.  Usually the answer is "No."  An alternative to negative thoughts intended to motivate are negative thoughts intended to berate and ridicule.  This type is seriously damaging.  I usually ask for specific examples of what they tell themselves to get a sense of just how nasty their thoughts are.  Usually, they are pretty nasty. 

At some point we discuss whether or not these are things they would EVER say to someone they care about.  One hundred percent of the time the answer has been "No."  When I broach the idea that they may not, then, care about themselves, a common response is a justification why the berating is necessary and that they shouldn't care about themselves as long as ______ (fill in the blank) is going on.  

My next tact is to ask them to imagine themselves as the 5-year old version of themselves.  Sometimes they close their eyes and picture themselves exactly as they were at 5-years old.  Then I tell them to imagine saying to their 5-year old self exactly what they are saying to themselves now.  This usually results in a welling of emotions.  I then ask: "Does (s)he deserve that?"  One hundred percent of the time the answer has been "No."  

In my opinion, it is certainly okay to question our behaviors and even to wonder "What on earth was I thinking when I did/said that?"  But I've yet to hear of a situation that requires being nasty and cruel to one's self when a mistake has been made.  If we make mistakes When we make mistakes, it is useful to consider what we would have liked to have done differently.  We can learn from that and work on finding ways to remember our new strategy the next time around.

We will keep making mistakes.  Kinda the nature of being a human being.  In my opinion it really isn't about the making of mistakes as it is whether or not you recognize them when they happen and fix them or repair the aftermath.  As a parent I think the single most powerful thing I can do with my children is to acknowledge when I've made a mistake and to apologize to them for having done so.  My apology does not negate their behavior.  If they did something that requires a consequence then they still need to have a consequence.  But if I doled a punishment in a way that was disrespectful or that was too punitive I admit my error and correct my mistake.  And I apologize.

We can apologize to ourselves too.  There are a fair number of memes going around social media that have to do with apologizing to ourselves for how we're treating ourselves.  It is worth considering if you owe yourself an apology.  If so, for what?  Can you write the apology out in a letter to yourself?  Can you look at yourself in the mirror (looking yourself in the eyes is expert level btw!) and tell yourself that you're sorry for the way you've treated yourself and the things you've said?  

How liberated will you feel to say:

          "I'm sorry I've been so mean to you.  I'll do my best to be more encouraging and 
          supportive.  You're pretty amazing - no matter what I've been telling you." 

How Self Strong would this make you? 

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  1. I've definitely been working on more positive self-talk. I've mastered the negative. I also apologize to my girls when I feel I've made a mistake with them. I'm hoping that by acknowledging my mistakes and taking responsibility for them helps decrease the amount of negative self-talk they do as they get older. My parents NEVER apologized to me (when I was a child) and I wonder if this made me feel like I wasn't worth an apology and therefore gave in to more negative self-talk. ?? My ED therapist also used the same technique (talking to your 5-year old self) to help me see how my negative self-talk hurts me. She also asked if I would ever speak to a friend the way I speak to myself and when I answered, "Oh my God, no" she asked, "Then why do you speak that way to yourself?" and it opened my eyes. Helpful post, thanks!

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Amy. Glad you found the post useful. It is a challenge especially with kids, and perhaps even more especially if you're trying to pave your own with parenting when you didn't have a model that works well.


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