Have you ever wondered why two people who experience similar setbacks react so differently? Take Sue and Phyllis. Both recently experienced divorce and found themselves single parents of two children. Phyllis manages well, finds work, and eventually establishes another relationship. Sue falls apart and requires hospitalization for depression. Both are similar in education, background, intellectual ability, and economic status. Yet, Phyllis not only survives a difficult time, but she also seems to grow. Sue is worse than ever. What makes the difference?
As a clinical psychologist in private practice, I frequently worked with people in crises. There are, undoubtedly, many factors that come into play in any crisis situation to determine who is strengthened and who is weakened, who is vanquished and who is victorious. However, I have seen how one particular factor always plays a major part in how a person handles a crisis. The factor is self-talk.
Self-talk is the internal dialogue or private conversation we hold with ourselves. This self-talk is our constant stream of inner conversation with ourselves. We talk to ourselves about ourselves, others, the events we experience in our daily living, and about the past and the future. Psychologists are recognizing the power of self-talk to influence a person’s sense of well- being. How a person evaluates himself or herself, others, and the world helps determine how they feel and how they behave. If our self-talk is predominantly negative, we experience negative emotions and mood states. If our self-talk is positive, we experience positive feelings and mood states.
Years ago, Dr. Albert Ellis, proposed an interesting theory of emotion, and he offered a therapeutic approach called Rational-Emotive Therapy. Here are the main components of his theory.
A = an event > B = the interpretation of the event > C = the emotional reaction to the interpretation > D = the behavior or action
Let us return to Phyllis and Sue to develop this theory further. Each experienced the upset of divorce. This is the event, or “A,” but Phyllis begins to tell herself the divorce is an opportunity to become independent. This is factor “B.” Her self-talk reflects her belief that she is capable of doing well and becoming self-sufficient. Although she is hurt by the divorce, she concludes that now she faces the challenge of becoming her own person. On the other hand, Sue sees her divorce as devastating. She tells herself that she cannot function independently, that she must have someone to lean on or to take care of her. She tells herself that she is a failure and that no one could possibly show any interest in her ever again. Phyllis and Sue are talking to themselves very differently about the same event and that is why they feel differently (factor “C”). Phyllis feels self-confident and hopeful with a sense of anticipation towards the future. Sue feels inadequate, worthless, with a sense of dread about the future. As a result, Phyllis moves in the direction of becoming more resourceful and develops self-sufficiency. Sue moves in the direction of becoming more helpless and requires hospitalization.
Many people mistakenly assume that “A” leads automatically to ” C”. Dr. Ellis argued that it was actually “B,” our self-talk, which causes “C.” His Rational-Emotive therapy consisted of helping his clients identify their “irrational beliefs,” followed by replacing them with “rational beliefs.” Dr. Ellis’ approach was quite radical at that time because prior to his work, psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapy were the predominant approaches to treating anxiety and depression. These approaches tended to foster dependency on the psychiatrist or psychologist, whereas, Dr. Ellis’ approach was empowering people to take responsibility for their emotional reactions by monitoring and modifying their self-talk.
This may sound simplistic, but self-talk is real, and it has a powerful effect on us. I am amazed at how many people use their self- talk to tear themselves down. I call this negative self-talk “bad-mouthing.” One particular type of bad-mouthing that is most common is the tyranny of the shoulds. Here people continually make statements such as “I should go home and mow the lawn.” “I should be a better parent.” “I should be calling on customers this evening.” “I should be at home with my family.” “I shouldn’t be so tired.” This constant barrage of bad-mouthing brings you down. The alternative is to develop positive self-talk or “sweet-talking.”
To experience the effectiveness of what I am suggesting, I encourage you to do the following exercise. Make a list of six “should” and/or “shouldn’t” statements. Repeat these statements to yourself for about five minutes. How do you feel? Elated? Free? Capable and competent? Most likely you feel just the opposite. Typically, depression knocks when we lose our belief that we are free to choose how we will respond to events in our lives. We feel forced, compelled to do things against our will which creates tension and resistance. This causes wear and tear on your body leading to fatigue, and a whole host of stress-related symptoms.
Now, rewrite those same six statements, but eliminate the shoulds and shouldn’ts. Rephrase them using this framework, “I can . . . if I choose to.” For example, instead of writing “I should go home and mow the lawn,” write “I can go home and mow the lawn if I choose to.” Now read these statements to yourself for five minutes. Do you notice a difference in how you feel? Most often these kinds of statements give you a sense of personal freedom. You are telling yourself you are the one who decides how to spend your time and energy. Sweet-talking is building yourself up rather than tearing yourself down.
There are two points to keep in mind when sweet-talking that make it effective. First, when you sweet-talk, use words that evoke images in your mind. You visualize yourself being what you are saying to yourself. For example, if you are saying to yourself “I am patient with children,” see yourself in a frustrating situation with a child and handling it calmly and patiently now, not as someone you are trying to become. Now is the time, not the future. The more clearly and immediately you picture specific behaviors in your mind, the more effective your sweet-talking will be.
The second point is to be very alert to the words you use. For example, recently I was in a life coaching session and listening to a woman describe the stress and anxiety she was feeling. I noticed she frequently used the word “struggle” to describe her efforts to deal with herself and her life situation. I mentioned this to her then asked her to consider the impact of the word on her. She quickly realized the word was weighty, daunting, and exhausting. I asked her to think of another word that felt more energizing and empowering. What word might you use instead of “struggle” to describe your attempts to recognize, understand, and change how you deal with yourself and your life situation?
I have mentioned in several other posts that uncovering, challenging, and discarding the invalid beliefs in your thought system is the systemic work necessary for permanent change. Teaching yourself sweet-talking is part of that process because your negative self-talk will often reveal to you some of your invalid beliefs about yourself, such as “I’m just not good at anything,” or “I can’t do anything right,” or I’m so lazy.” Identifying beliefs like these gives you the clarity and strength to reject them and replace them with self-affirmations. Sweet-talking and self-affirmations are the same. When you finish this article, consider making a list of self-affirmations. Here are a few suggestions.
I like myself and am a worthwhile person.
I rebound from temporary setbacks.
I enjoy my company and others do too.
I instill confidence in others.
I am calm and clear-headed in a crisis.
I am a person who gets things done.
Carry your list of affirmations with you. Put them in a prominent place where you see them often. Sweet-talk to yourself every day. Awaken the life coach inside you. He or she is free!