by Kathryn Britton, co-author of Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance
A SaS reader recently sent us the following request:
What an important question! A lot of us often speak to ourselves in ways we wouldn’t use with our friends, our co-workers, or even the grumpy customer service reps after they’ve kept us on hold. These conversations lower our moods. Lower moods, as those of you who are regular readers already know, make it harder to manage other behaviors that contribute to well-being.
“So many of the women I love and care about, from age 10 to age 80, listen to negative messages about themselves all day and night in their own heads. I don’t think they recognize how profoundly these messages cripple their efforts to move forward with change. They’ve lived with this thought pattern so long that it just seems normal. Could you write about recognizing when self-talk is toxic, what that does to your brain wiring, and how to tell yourself to shut up?”
We talk to ourselves all the time. We judge. We argue. We label. We praise. We catastrophize. We cast ourselves as victims or leaders or dunces. Those internal conversations shape our reality. But we can choose to change self-talk habits. Being unkind to ourselves today does not condemn us to a lifetime of self-hostility.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Believing we can change is the first step toward healthier habits. Research shows that whether we do or do not believe we can change is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So let’s pick the kindest approach and believe our brains are changeable – because they are.
- Changes in our thought processes have biological impacts. They change the brain. To paraphrase neuro-psycholist Richard Davidson, when we are dealing with the things that make us unhappy, training our brains is a much more targeted approach than using medication. Remember our concerns about the undesirable side effects of drugs. While it takes time and practice, we can change mental habits.
- People who recover more rapidly from negative events tend to have greater prefrontal cortex (PFC) activity and greater connections between the PFC and amygdala or emotional center of the brain. Presumably the PFC is actively reappraising a negative stimulus and coming up with a more adaptive and positive response. People can build greater PFC-amygdala connectivity with practice.
- The ability to regulate emotion has an effect on physical health. Adolescents with strong PFC activation in response to negative events tend to have lower levels of cortisol in the evenings. Higher cortisol takes a toll on many organs, including the brain.
- Punishing ourselves harshly for falling short of a goal tends to backfire because all the energy invested in self-blame tends to reinforce the behaviors that we are trying to avoid. Psychologists have concluded that guilt is a very ineffective motivator for change.
- It is easier to replace a behavior than to stop it. So whenever we feel the urge to be harsh with ourselves, it helps to have another behavior in mind, such as being curious about other ways of interpreting the situation. Of course, it’s OK to feel disappointed that we fell short, but it helps to put limits on the time we tie up feeling that way. Perhaps 1 minute by the clock? Then it’s helpful to turn attention to what we can learn from the situation. What made the temptation too strong? What can we do next time to avoid or reduce the temptation? When have we been most successful meeting our goal? What was different?
The chapter in our book, Put some Lag in Your Nag, offers several activities for becoming a better friend to yourself. But we’d like to help you get started, so here is one exercise based on that chapter:
In a journal, keep track of judgmental self-talk for 3 days. For each entry, follow the suggestions below to translate into more helpful terms.
Whenever you find yourself saying “You always…” or “This is how you handle everything”, rephrase your statement in terms of that one time or that one domain of your life.For critical or victimized self-talk, try reframing more constructively by figuring out what actions and choices are open to you. You might find these taglines from The Resilience Factor useful for your translations:
- “A more accurate way of seeing this is …”
(Look for alternatives.)
- “That’s not necessarily true because…”
(Look at the evidence.)
- “A more likely outcome is … and I can do … to deal with it.”
(Consider the implications.)
When the three days are over, think about what you’ve learned about yourself. When was it easiest to quiet your internal demon? Reread your translations. Be curious about how they make you feel.
Treat yourself with love, respect, and understanding. Wash away your self-hostility. Lather in kinder thoughts. Repeat as needed.