Opening possibility in self-talk 1: what won’t work

One of the ways that we keep ourselves stuck in negative emotions or problem behaviours is our internal dialogue. Many people keep up a constant running commentary in their heads on what’s happening, which acts like an inner ‘spin doctor’, telling us how to interpret events and actions by ourselves and other people.

If that inner dialogue is critical (perhaps it was internalised at an early age from critical parents, siblings, teachers or peers), we will see events, other people, and (perhaps especially) our own actions and motivations in the worst possible light. This ‘inner critic’, ‘chatterbox’ (as Susan Jeffers calls it in ‘Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway‘) or ‘gremlin’ (as some coaches refer to it), makes us feel worse about things than we need to, and because we feel bad, it’s harder to find the energy to make things better.

Our self-talk helps to keep this ‘bad’ view of the world fixed in place, and makes it harder to move on. Most therapy approaches recognise this, and have come up with various ways to move internal dialogue in a more positive direction; for example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has a set of questions or challenges which invite you to compare your negative self-talk to your experience to see if they are actually true. The NLP Meta Model questions are another such set of questions (and the two models overlap to a large extent).

How successful this is will be influenced by how subtly it is done. If the ‘challenges’ are presented aggressively, it will likely create resistance and we will feel like we are not being listened to. I’m going to say something here which may be a bit controversial, but this has been my experience both from working with clients and from knowing what I’m like myself: the more distressed we are, the more self-important we tend to become.

When we are feeling good, we tend to forget about ourselves, and it’s easy to tolerate the existence of different points of view, take them on board, and even allow ourselves to learn and change our minds. When we are in distress, our mental horizons close down and we start to get defensive about everything, even our problems. This can make it difficult to help ourselves, or to get help from others.

A questioning approach will be more helpful when it takes the form of an exploration, maintaining rapport and starting from our existing map of the world, rather than expecting us to take on a whole new belief system before we can get anywhere. It’s a step by step approach, and where the individual’s self-regard is fragile (and so heavily defended) it can be tricky. Though possible, it’s not that easy to do by yourself.

Many people interested in personal development use affirmations to try to reprogram their internal dialogue, beliefs and behaviour. As Steve Andreas points out in a very perceptive and useful article, affirmations like “Money flows to me abundantly” face an uphill struggle if they don’t match our reality – the part of ourselves that tracks reality will be insisting “No it doesn’t”.

This is a problem with ‘positive thinking’ in general – if we insist that everything is great all the time, and we “can’t afford the luxury of a negative thought” to quote a popular self-help book, how are we going to cope when something bad happens, as it inevitably will from time to time? Most likely there will be an unacknowledged ‘shadow dialogue’ going on in parallel to our rose-tinted happy thoughts, setting up an inner conflict or flipping over into cynicism.

So to be effective, any method for moving our self-talk in a more positive direction should accept and acknowledge ‘negatives’ but help to direct our attention to more positive interpretations, because these are where solutions will be found. The next articles in this series will share a couple of ideas for loosening the grip of negative or critical self talk (without directly challenging it head-on’) and opening up the possibility of change.

© 2011, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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