The Power Of Self Talk – It All Begins With A Pause
All of us.
We frequently desire that which keeps us stuck.
In my household, we define complaining as “staying the same.”
It’s safe to say a lot of us ain’t moving!
We create our dire conditions then bemoan their existence.
We ask for help but for every suggestion confess the whole “that may work for you, but nor for me,” mumbo-jumbo.
Was there time spent gathering Intel?
Was the conclusion reached in haste?
Let me ask you something. If you were, say, on trial for something you were presumably innocent for, would you want the court to dismiss all evidence in favor of a quick verdict?
Of course not.
It would be unjust, unfair, and irrational madness.
Yet, against our own reasoning, this is often the extent of our decision making.
The History Of Self-Talk
In my opinion, prayer is self-talk in default mode. This is why I always struggled to understand how other individuals find the task so arduous.
It’s something we do naturally – either towards a specific deity or to ourselves, but it’s not something that just ceases to be because we fail to live a passionately religious life.
It is not limited to one specific culture and it’s difficult to pinpoint where in history it began to be leveraged for a quality life. My guess is that it’s just an intrinsic aspect of humanity.
Call it a conversation with God. Call it what you will, but we all do it in one form or another. Don’t underestimate the power of your voice. Start the conversation.
If you have kids, you’ve seen it. If you were a kid, you lived it. Presumably, either B. or both A and B…I’m doubtful of further options.
Watching my three-year-old color in the lines taught me everything I needed to know about motivation and the power of self-talk.
She kept reminding herself, not incessantly but every so often, ya know, when it counted. “You got this girlfriend,” she’d affirm, “you can do it – cmooon stay in the linesss!”
Out loud, of course.
Her own personal fan club, wearing her number, cheering her on.
What a beautiful concept.
Then when she was approximately five years old, if my memory serves me right, she said these three heart-breaking words, “I can’t do it.”
Apparently, she was confronted with some illusory standard and she didn’t make the cut.
How it crept in, I can’t be sure.
Call it the Devil.
Call it the Superego.
Call it the Dream of Domestication.
Call it Maya.
Call it Sin.
Whatever. I think doubt works just fine.
This is the process.
We begin to doubt ourselves. Then we begin to doubt others. And lastly, we begin to doubt God – or whatever concept you prefer.
It’s a world of deep skepticism and the final result is meaninglessness, absurdity, and guilt.
So, where the hell do we go from here?
Well, let’s saunter over to the arena of self-image….
Inner Representation Is The Only Representation.
It’s somewhat humorous, but in 1911 a status symbol was the bigger the hat, the hotter the swag. Particularly in women, they’d throw feathers up there, anything to produce the most grandeur.
One psychologist at the time noticed something interesting; something we see every day but take for granted, and it’s this: the women became so accustomed to these cranial covering monstrosities that even when their heads lay naked, they still operated as if they had the hat one.
For example, they could be observed hatless yet ducking through doorways. Even though their heads lacked the three-foot extensions, in their minds the caps remained and thus they ducked with a small person to spare.
The same could be observed with those suffering from anorexia. The body dysmorphia exists to such an extent, as one psychologist observed, that individuals suffering from this dark malady would turn sideways prior to moving through a doorway.
As if they would get lodged in between due to the sheer mass that protruded from their abdomen. Yet, they were so tiny that a slight breeze could have easily swept them away.
It’s no laughing matter – this stuff is real.
The way you see yourself, that is, your internal representation of yourself will determine how you navigate your external world.
Change The Way You See Yourself
It’s vital to think in terms of stories, particularly relating to self-talk. Surely we do this naturally because to be human is to be a story.
We are conscious and in motion, I suppose this is a recipe for a story. Who freaking knows, but it’s we definitely are what a dear friend of mine terms “creatures of the myth,” and it’s for better or for worse.
It’s super constructive when it is the result of intentionality, that is we are purposefully writing the script.
It’s tragic as the consequence of impulse, namely allowing the script to write itself.
Let’s peek behind the Facebook curtains to see this modern myth in action:
My buddy Tom is a proficient persona creator; he envisions the stage character and executes with impeccable accuracy. Tom fancies himself a hipster – you know, countercultural, knee-deep in artsy bullshit and vegan recipes, to each their own I guess. Anyway, he recently posted a Facebook pic of him on a park bench. The picture was black and white and flat, not a glare to be witnessed. On one end of the park bench he plopped his arse and on the other end there sat amongst all things an avocado…it was in color and radiant.
I couldn’t help but wonder…
“Tom, what in Dear God are you trying to communicate?”
I was lost in translation.
Of course, this reflects Tom’s internal representation that he wants everyone to see.
This is the power of the modern myth, it permits us to project unto the world our archetypical desires meanwhile the real us is hidden, camouflaged beneath a veneer of “you’ll-never-find-out!”
The problem actually isn’t in the myth itself, instead, it’s in the incessant need to have the “perfect” character.
This is instructive because we have an internal representation of ourselves that we are largely unconscious of, like the early twentieth-century women and their magnificent hats.
And, we also have Tom’s conscious internal representation that he wants everyone to see. The two are very closely connected.
If the image we want everyone to see is unrealistic, things can get ugly fast, particularly due to the molding effect it has on the image we are unconscious of.
What is doubly helpful is that by default our story is unrealistic and the expectations imposed upon us by our culture are beholden as absolute truth.
We must shift from doubting ourselves and instead become skeptical of the religion of perfection our society promotes.
My daughter’s doubt began once she realized the impossible can never take place: she can never be perfect. This broke her. She felt the reward of success and chased after it like a ravenous wolf.
Unfortunately, that which she wanted to project was unrealistic – perfection! And it left her in shambles.
We have a word for this emotional Beelzebub: shame.
Soon, just like the hatted women, she too ducked as she trotted through the doorway for no other reason than a faulty belief.
I tried to save her from it but the cultural current was too strong, as it is with us all.
Fortunately, we have the means to combat this maladaptive impulse. One of the best ways to subjugate it to the reign of reason is by speech.
Yes, I’m saying you should talk to yourself. Just like you did before the doubt, back to the basics!
The Little Engine That Could
The Little Engine serves as a beacon of hope in the dismality of our cynicism.
Its lesson cannot be unlearned…what we think turns into our conviction and our conviction invariably becomes our confidence.
Yet, this leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For example, how the hell do we control our thoughts?
Jack Trimpey, the author of Rational Recovery, asserts that language has a sole proprietor: the prefrontal cortex.
This is “us,” it’s rational and moral thought, without it we are simply instinctual beings, operating solely from the mammalian midbrain.
The midbrain has one mode: survival.
If the midbrain is to have access to language, it needs to leverage the prefrontal cortex, for that is the source of language.
Most negative and self-destructive thoughts, at least in terms of irrationality, are primarily triggered by the midbrain.
The midbrain senses threats that don’t exist and essential needs that are actually unnecessary.
However, for the midbrain to have a voice it must utilize the prefrontal cortex.
It follows, then, that though there may be various “voices” in our brain, we chose which one gets the microphone. That’s a powerful insight.
That being said, we first need to differentiate between the existing voices: for my purposes, I’m going to examine three in total.
The Tyrannical Trio
Codependency For Dummies covers them extensively, it reads,
“The Perfectionist (as noted) expects us to be superhuman, ensuring that we’ll fail to meet its unattainable standards. The Pusher is a relentless taskmaster, depriving us of enjoyment of life and pleasure. The Critic tells us we’re never good enough.”
History has provided numerous examples of these voices: the angel and the devil on the shoulder, the Eumenides and the furies, sin nature and spirit nature, good wolf and the bad wolf, or even the Id, Ego, and Superego.
However, I think Codependency For Dummies captures the dynamic wonderfully and, most importantly, in a very understandable fashion.
The Perfectionist Is The Director
In my opinion, this is the voice that must be recalibrated if one’s trajectory is to be coherent, rational, and realistic.
Because the Perfectionist is the one that sets the standard.
If the bar is unrealistic and unreachable, the Pusher will either produce unfailing activity or total inertia.
As for the Critic, well, the effort from this voice will essentially be to make you feel like shit all the time.
Never good enough; can’t hack it; not worth it; a loser; etc…
However, if we can mold a realistic standard, if we can develop achievable expectations, our motivations will be congruent, and our critic won’t have as much ammunition.
At the end of the day, expectations are everything.
The only demarcation line between the True Self and the False Self is a rational expectation.
Our Culture Fuels The False Self
The culture in which we live demands three qualities for a valid existence. We are literally conditioned, ever so subtly, to believe that failure to attain these elements invalidates our right to life. This is utterly insane, but perhaps insanity captures the substance of our current culture better than any other, so let’s roll with it.
Let’s call them the 3 Ps of the False Self:
Monitor your internal dialogue and watch how competitive it is.
We are always comparing, looking for where we are better than others and where we are worse.
We must be a success.
We must have a trophy case of vast achievements.
We must grab the bull by the horns and wrestle that behemoth into the dirt.
My daughter needed the approval and validation that came with a job well done – she lost sight of the fact that behind success is a wake of glorious failures (which is probably not possible at five unless you’re a reincarnated Dalai Lama, but yeah).
We are justified by who we are as a person, not by what we do and how well we do it.
Why live as if any minute you will be cut from the team and excommunicated from the herd?
What a devastating quality of life!
Observe the internal tensions the rise when you see a commercial for the new i-phone, the new car, or the newest and hottest brand, whatever that may be for you.
We’ve been domesticated as consumers.
The idols, you know, the professional and famous actors, athletes, musicians who have seemingly superhuman abilities are sponsored by these companies to break into our thinking processes and hold us captive.
We are led to believe that the absence of these new toys and trinkets makes us somehow less than.
The truth is, we are born into a culture of enslavement, tied down by ropes of insatiability and shackled by chains of “more, more, more.” Our identity? Held hostage. Our sense of self? A serious case of Stockholm syndrome. This is a hostage situation with no negotiations in sight.
Yes, behold the telltale signs of the False Self – a wavering sense of self and a floundering identity.
In other words, having no clue who the hell you really are.
Nothing is more grueling and excruciating than the unknowns of social interactions. Particularly when you have no clue who you are!
Questions with such force shake the damn skull, “Will they accept me? Will they judge me? Can they be trusted? Am I safe? Am I good enough?”
Most of us are unwilling to hold to our beliefs with conviction. Hence the uncertainty. We live in a world of constant doubt and skepticism.
Yet, the shame is it’s rarely pointed at the belief system itself.
Additionally, most of us are willing to sacrifice our personal values and goals for social acceptance. Then we wonder why the crowd we keep is judgemental, rejecting, and insecure. Water seeks its own level folks!
Murray Bowen refers to this as differentiation, which is the ability to define one’s life goals and values apart from the pressure of those around them.
It’s more or less measured by our capacity to think clearly and carefully as the means of knowing ourselves. As distinct from what we “feel” about ourselves. In other words, knowing who the hell you are.
If you are on the lower end of the scale of differentiation the following will most likely describe you:
- Struggle to distinguish between fact and feeling.
- Emotionally needy and highly reactive
- Spend a great deal of time trying to win the approval of others.
- Expend little energy on goal-directed activities.
- Have difficulty saying, “I think…I believe.”
- Have little emotional separation from your family.
- Your relationships are dependent.
- It is laborious for you to adapt and adjust to your surroundings.
Usually, those on the lower end of the scale struggle immensely with the incessant need to be popular and socially accepted.
The lower end is where the False Self lives and thrives.
Of course, it’s not limited to the above description, but that does provide a general idea.
On the opposite side of the scale is the True Self. Historical figures such as Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates, just to name a few, are all perfect examples of the True Self. If you are on the higher end of the scale your life is likely defined as:
- Principle oriented and goal-directed, secure in who they are, and are unaffected by criticism or praise
- Able to separate from family of origin and become an inner-directed and interdependent adult.
- Sure of their beliefs but not dogmatic or closed in their thinking.
- Can hear and evaluate the beliefs of others, discarding old beliefs in favor of new ones
- Can listen without reacting and communicate without antagonizing.
- Can respect others without having to change them.
- Aware of dependence on others and responsibility for others
- Free to enjoy life and play
- Able to maintain a non-anxious presence in the midst of stress and pressure.
- Able to take responsibility for their own life and destiny.
How The Voices Tie It All Together
The Perfectionist must be realistic about the limits of being human, this takes an honest assessment of self i.e. higher level differentiation, the True Self.
The Pusher must motivate the self to move towards realistic goals. And the Critic must operate from this perspective.
I attempted to teach my daughter that perfection is a silly concept, which is why our pencils have erasers! Hopefully, this lesson sticks.
Some Simple Tips
Allow me to add a little flavor to this cocktail.
If the Perfectionist is making comparisons then you have fallen victim to the first P (performance) of the False Self.
Seek to identify with others and find commonalities. An honest evaluation of strengths and weaknesses can go a long way in feeding the authentic self (see the article on humility).
If the Pusher is envious and dogging you for more, this can be challenged by counting your blessings and examining all of the things to be grateful for.
The second P (possessions) of the False Self always looks at what it doesn’t have – it flourishes in scarcity.
If the Critic is hounding you and making you feel socially unworthy, intellectually incompetent, and vocationally insignificant, then look at where you can contribute. The third P (popularity) of the False Self always looks at what it can take from others, that is, acceptance, status, love, appreciation, security.
This can easily be combated by loving others, by listening rather than speaking, by seeking to understand rather than be understood, to appreciate rather than the need to be appreciated, and most importantly just finding a specific niche to give back.
How To Cultivate The Power Of Self-Talk
Truthfully, most of our internal dialogue happens automatically. Like our mind has a mind of its own!
The False Self is strong, and not easily separated from.
Here are a few methods you can use to get the conversation started:
It goes without saying that the False Self cannot be stripped of its power until you’ve first identified the royal robes in which it’s clothed. The fabric is threaded with voices, the leader of which is the critic, all are negative and appeal to that unreal, bogus standard.
Mindfulness (I recommend reading Mindfulness In Plain English) is the practice of sitting still and befriending these voices.
As noted above, if the prefrontal cortex controls the microphone, you need to be aware of the various voices all competing for it.
- I must do well and win the approval of others or else I am no good.
- Other people must do “the right thing” or else they are no good and deserve to be punished.
- Life must be easy, without discomfort or inconveniences
Begin to write down any thoughts that fall under the shadow of these “musts.” It’s tedious, but a wonderful beginning to growing in awareness and changing your internal dialogue to something more positive and profitable.
Rational Recovery appeals to this practice when it has the subscriber provide various adjectives to describe the addictive voice, giving it a persona, even a different name, as a separate yet existing entity.
When this happens, the emotional element is diminished significantly and the individual is endowed with a lot more power.
In a somewhat similar practice, the ancient technique to emotional neutrality is by Dividing and Conquering, as Donald Robertson terms it.
In modern-day verbiage, it’s a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the essential feature being dividing an emotionally charged situation into its smallest constituent parts (sights, smells, sounds, sensations) to reduce the subjective response system from being overwhelmed.
Robertson, in his book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, notes that this is often how the philosopher-king dealt with a lifetime of physical pain, by dividing the pain up into various parts to reduce added stressors and self-induced emotional bombardment.
However, you could do far worse than simply spending your time dividing and conquering your internal dialogue and if this is done from a third-person perspective, it will deliver that much more of a wallop.
Let’s not underestimate the power of positive affirmations. In college, I had this one professor that always said “nailed it!, Knew you could do it, kid,” after I had to do a public speaking engagement, something which frightened me terribly in my younger years.
This guy was an encourager on steroids and it still sticks with me to this day.
Whenever I have to get in front of a group of people I hear his voice, “nailed it!, Knew you could do it, kid,” and it’s immediately encouraging and inspiring. Consider the raw power in this example – just words of encouragement.
The only thing that has changed is that the professor’s voice has now become my own. I’ve become my own encourager. Don’t delay in awakening that voice within you as well.
An Infographic To Sum It Up!
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality – Peter Scazerro (I borrowed the 3 Ps from this work revolutionary work)