The importance of what we say to ourselves in our own heads has been highlighted to me in the last fortnight. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my reticence when it comes to travel, and found that – by the time I had finished my blog post – I had brought myself round to the idea of getting onto the plane. The very process of voicing my fears and then talking myself through the reasons that I was choosing to go abroad helped to turn things around for me, to reframe my perspective. This reminded me how powerful our own minds can be, what a difference we can make to ourselves when we take charge of our own self-talk.
Teenagers are particularly poor at self-talk, since their brains are still developing and they do not have the life-experience to have learned how to manage their feelings and their responses properly. Many young people who struggle with study can find themselves in a terrible negative loop of work-avoidance followed by beating themselves up for the work-avoidance, the result of which is such a negative experience that it only drives them to avoid the work even more. Many parents end up watching in horror from the sidelines as their child becomes more and more detached from their studies and less and less inclined towards motivation. I have written more than once on how tutoring can assist in breaking this awful cycle by demonstrating some easy wins to a child who has become convinced they can’t do something, thus sparking their motivation once they gain a small taste of success.
Yet negative self-talk is by no means confined to the young, indeed I am constantly reminded how prevalent it is in the adult population. Over the festive season I met with more than one friend who reminded me that many people say the most dreadfully negative things to themselves, and it worries me greatly. Believe me, I am not implying that we should all adopt some kind of ghastly instagram-meme-style positive self-talk: I have no truck with telling myself I am beautiful (demonstrably false) or brilliantly clever (I’m pretty average, like most of us). What I mean is that we would all benefit from checking the manner in which we speak to ourselves: the things that we say and the way in which we say them. A good general rule is this: if it’s something that you wouldn’t say out loud to a friend in distress, then why on earth are you saying it to yourself in your own head? Why should we expect ourselves to put up with insults and cruelties from our own internal voice that we would not tolerate from a friend or a partner? Would you tell an upset friend that she is being “stupid” or “pathetic” or that she needs to “get a grip”? No? Ok, then consider why you would not do such a thing. One reason, of course, is that it is not kind. But there’s more to it than that. Not only is it not kind, it is not helpful. We all realise that saying such things to a person in distress is the least likely path to resolution for them. Most people understand (either consciously or instinctively) that a person in distress needs space to talk and to express their feelings, affirmation and acknowledgement that those feelings are valid and understandable, followed then (and only then) by some support in getting those feelings into perspective. If you do this for your friends (as so many people do) but never think to apply those same principles to yourself inside your own head, then maybe it’s time for a re-think.
I have one friend who consistently calls herself “thick” when this is palpably untrue. She is a highly successful, well-qualified, interesting and capable woman. Yet whenever she can’t do something, is introduced to a new skill or finds something difficult, her default response is “it’s because I’m thick” or “I’m just thick, I don’t get it”. On one level, I don’t really think that she truly 100% believes her own words: when challenged, she will acknowledge that she is incontrovertibly capable in her chosen fields. Yet on another level, let’s just think about the fact that she calling herself “thick” out loud to me and to others and no doubt internally to herself, on a constant loop in her own mind. This simply cannot be healthy and nobody should do this to themselves. There are a million things I can’t do, have little to no natural affinity for or understanding of. I frankly never tell myself that I am “stupid” or “thick” as a result. Instead, I would say something like, “I’m not particularly good at that”. If it’s a skill I aim to acquire or at least something I wish to improve at to a basic level of competency, then I will say “I’m not particularly good at that yet – I’m working on it”. Some of this kind of talk is advocated by those who have bought into the “growth mindset” model, something which (like most things) started quite sensibly from an evidence-based model and mutated into an epidemic of box-ticking as schools across the country attempted to apply it at an institutional level. But forget growth mindset – there is much more interesting research to support the use of appropriate self-talk.
If you haven’t read Staying Sane by Raj Persuad then I highly recommend it. The book takes a radical approach to mental health by exploring the ways in which we can all guard against the tendencies towards anxiety, depression and other common mental health conditions. Persaud explores how everyone can support themselves and build their resilience for the future. He has a whole chapter on self-talk and one on being your own shrink. He scripts how you should talk to yourself when you’re experiencing feelings of distress or overwhelm and the first time I tried it I could not quite believe the difference it made. It was genuinely extraordinary. But when you think about it, why should this be so surprising? It actually makes perfect sense. Imagine again the scenario in which a distressed friend is sobbing her heart out, saying she feels lonely and anxious. Then picture yourself telling her to shape up and stop whingeing, that her tears are embarassing and pathetic. It’s genuinely unimaginable, isn’t it? Simply and utterly awful. Nobody would do this. Yet this is what so many people do actually say themselves in their own heads. In place of this kind of self-abuse (for this is what it is), Persaud advocates talking to yourself along these lines: “you’re feeling really upset, and that is perfectly understandable because X has happened and/or this situation has triggered memories of Y. Hang in there. This feeling will pass. You just need to ride out the storm.”
The first time you try it, it feels a little strange. However, I guarantee you that the impact will be so great that the strangeness will wear off immediately. Being your own friend is a far more sensible approach than giving yourself a kick up the butt every time you’re having a bad day. Since when did that particular approach work for anybody, ever? So, if you recognise yourself in any of this, maybe it’s time for a belated New Year’s resolution: stop talking unkindly to yourself. Stop insulting yourself. Stop saying things to yourself that you would not say to anybody else and start saying the things you would say to your friends when they need support. It’s the least you can do for yourself and a better path to sanity.
None of this has anything to do with smug self-satisfaction or any kind of conviction that you are anything more than an ordinary person doing your best. All Persaud advocates for is affording yourself the same kind of empathy and dignity that you would afford to others. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is a mantra repeated several times in the Bible and can be found as a principle in most major world religions. It’s a great mantra. Yet quite often, especially for people who have habitually negative thought patterns, the saying really needs turning around. “Do unto yourself as you would have yourself do unto others”. Be kind to yourself. Be strong for yourself. Be understanding of yourself. Trust me, it makes life a whole lot easier.