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Negative Self-Talk: The Unwanted Guest

All of us are well-acquainted with that unwanted guest that drops in intermittently to remind us of all the things that can go wrong in the future (perhaps catastrophically) and the many things we aren’t getting right in the here and now. The one that picks apart why we’re doing things the way we're doing things, and distorts how accurately we see ourselves and the world around us. Whether we see it as an IGT (insane thought generator), a saboteur, or an inner critic, it's safe to say that if we were choosing to hang out with anyone who was creating so much negativity, we would probably rethink the relationship.

The things we tell ourselves all day long have a significant impact on how we feel and how we behave. Our self-talk has the capacity to calm us physiologically, bring us back into balance, facilitate healthy risks, reinforce connections with others, and enhance safety, security and confidence. The darker side can do just the opposite, hijacking many of the positives we work on orienting ourselves around.

Self-talk is usually so automatic and subtle that we may not notice it or how it impacts our moods or feelings. It is typically telegraphic and can be positive or negative, rational or irrational. Because of this, one of the most important ways we can take care of ourselves is

• learn how to identify what our self talk is, bringing it more mindfully into our awareness so we can intentionally attend to what is helpful and discard what is not, and

• learn how to diffuse, reframe or challenge faulty assumptions that are working against us

Research suggests that cognitively reframing the meaning of an event, and diminishing repetitive negative thinking, may be among the most promising strategies for decreasing symptoms of anxiety or depression. Many people who struggle with anxiety or depression, however, feel deprived of this choice of perspective, which makes purposeful decisions to think and act differently challenging. To whatever degree you struggle with negative thinking, becoming aware of your thinking patterns and developing skills to change the faulty ones, takes time and practice.

One of the best resources I’ve come across in the many years I have been in practice, is The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, by Edmund Bourne. This has a wealth of information on coping with anxiety and panic, challenging mistaken assumptions, self-talk, and dealing with feelings. It has practical applications for everyone. Among Bourne's many techniques for coping with negative thinking, here are few that can be especially valuable.

Countering Self Talk

Notice - Catch yourself in the act of engaging in negative self-talk and be aware of situations that make you especially vulnerable to it

Stop – Ask yourself: what am I telling myself that doesn’t feel good? Do I really want to do this to myself? Is there a way to unhook myself from this thinking and just observe it?

Relax – Disrupt your train of negative thoughts by doing some deep breathing or distraction techniques. Let go, slow your breathing and thinking down, bring yourself back to the present.

Write Down – Record the self-talk or inner dialogue. This will help you separate your thoughts from your feelings. Our thoughts are judgements or appraisals of ourselves and the feelings are an emotional reaction to those thoughts.

Identify the type of Negative Self-Talk – What type of worrier are you? The catastrophizer, the victim, the critic, the perfectionist?

Answer or Dispute – Respond to your self-talk with positive, rational, self-supportive statements.

Bourne also suggests you dismantle your negative self-statements by considering any of the following questions (very Socratic):

• What is the evidence for this?

• Is this always true?

• Has this been true in the past?

• What are the chances of this really happening (or being true)?

• What is the worst that could happen? What is so bad about that? Could I handle the worst case scenario?

• Am I looking at the whole picture?

• Am I being fully objective?

And finally, here are five more questions from Bourne for challenging mistaken beliefs:

1) What is the evidence for this belief? Looking objectively at all of your life experiences, what is the evidence that this is true?

2) Does this belief invariable or always hold true for you?

3) Does this belief look at the whole picture? Does it take into account both positive and negative ramifications?

4) Does this belief promote your well-being or peace of mind?

5) Did you choose this belief on your own or did it develop out of your experience growing up in your family?