The power of self-talk

05 Jul

Language is very powerful.

Besides spoken or written language, our thoughts are also mostly made up of language. We use words to think about ourselves, other people or the world in general. We use words to plan what we are going to do or say, and to make sense of our memories.

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Now on to the meat of this article:

The words we use to think and talk about ourselves influence the way we feel about ourselves.

Human beings are amazing. Our brains are constantly active, even when we are asleep. We are constantly thinking, whether we are aware of it or not. Our emotions are directly influenced by our thoughts. Whenever we feel anger, excitement, anxiety, joy or sadness, it is usually because of some thoughts we’ve just had.

Our brains can think very quickly, and some types of thoughts can become so automatic that we don’t realise we’re having them. These automatic thoughts, however, were not always automatic. We learned them at some stage. For example, if our parents constantly told us that we were clumsy when we were little, we probably believed them. Later on, when we would make little mistakes, we would have been more likely to attribute them to our clumsiness than to other factors, because we started to believe that we were clumsy. Little by little, that belief can become reinforced until it is well-established and completely automatic.

While I was writing this article (took me a couple of weeks!), I came across the following video which I thought was excellent and very relevant to my topic. I don’t agree with everything Daryl Cross says, but I love the way he puts things across. It makes a lot of sense to me.

What happens when we have acquired an automatic thought of being clumsy? We knock our glass of water at the restaurant, and almost immediately we feel overwhelmed with shame and anger. But it wasn’t the spilled drink that caused the anger, it was the following automatic thoughts: “I did this because I’m clumsy. My clumsiness makes me look ridiculous. I’ll always be like that”.

Often, the negative automatic thoughts we have about ourselves don’t stand up to simple reasoning. If we were really aware of them, we could easily debunk them because they’re usually very exaggerated. The thoughts I just mentioned are unreasonable:

  • “I did this because I’m clumsy”: are there no other possible reasons? What about being nervous? Perhaps someone actually pushed us? Or perhaps it was just bad luck, and this kind of thing happens to everyone from time to time!
  • “My clumsiness makes me look ridiculous”: How do you know that? Do people tell you that you’re ridiculous when you do clumsy things? Many automatic negative self-thoughts assume that we can read people’s minds. We can’t.
  • “I’ll always be like that”: What a sad prophecy! Fortunately, we don’t know the future, and that includes what our future self will be. We just don’t know.

Here is a quote by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, one of the 12 apostles of the LDS Church:

In all of this, I suppose it goes without saying that negative speaking so often flows from negative thinking, including negative thinking about ourselves. We see our own faults, we speak—or at least think—critically of ourselves, and before long that is how we see everyone and everything. No sunshine, no roses, no promise of hope or happiness. Before long we and everybody around us are miserable .

April 2007 General Conference, The Tongue of Angels

The words we use to think and talk about ourselves influence the ways we think and feel about other people.

If we are in the habit of criticising ourselves, we will tend to think that other people also have similar thoughts as we do, and silently criticise everything we do. This makes it difficult for us to trust others, because we think they are always judging us.

We can’t read anyone’s mind, so it’s impossible to know for sure what people are thinking or planning. To deal with this huge amount of uncertainty, our brains are naturally inclined to make lots of assumptions, so we don’t have to spend every waking minute worrying about what other people might think or do to us. One of these is to assume that other people think the same way we do. This is a very useful assumption, and often it works just fine: humans have many things in common, including some of the ways in which we think.

However, this assumption can be a problem unless occasionally challenged. If our thoughts are extreme, for example if they are very negative towards ourselves, assuming that everyone feels and thinks the same way about us is not only very inaccurate, it’s also very dangerous. Why is it dangerous? Because of something else we tend to do as humans: notice and remember the things that confirm what we believe, and ignore those that don’t. This is called the confirmatory bias.

As our self-talk becomes more negative, and we assume that other people are equally as judgemental towards us, we tend to notice the things they say and do that confirm our assumptions. This is made obvious when two people hear a third person say something, but when they talk about it later they remember something completely different. Let’s have an example: George is meeting his friends Lynn and Michael at school and is excited to show them his new shoes.

George: Hey, guys, what do you think of my new shoes?

Lynn: They’re not bad.

Michael: They’re awesome!

… later …

George (speaking to Michael): I can’t believe Lynn was so rude to me today, I don’t know what I’ve done to upset her!

Michael: What do you mean? She said she liked your shoes!

George: What are you on about? She hated them!

Michael: I’m sure she said they were nice, or something…

George: I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was obvious she hated them. In fact I think she hates me, I’ve been noticing little things she says, and she’s always talking and laughing about me when she’s with her friends…

Michael: I think you’re imagining things. She always says the nicest things about you when you’re not there, I’ve heard her lots of times. In fact I think she likes you!

As you can see, George has a fairly firm belief that Lynn doesn’t like him, and tends to look for things that confirm that belief. He believes that Lynn thinks that way, because that is the way he thinks about himself. This is leading him down an unfortunate path, because he may very well be destroying a potentially very strong friendship.

What we can do about negative self-talk

Once in a while, we need to step out of the comfort zone of our established beliefs about ourselves and others, and be willing to challenge them. This can be very difficult to do, especially if we have fed these beliefs for many years by consistently picking out bits of information that confirm them, and ignored those that go against them. Sometimes, these beliefs are reinforced by other people, the most powerful example often being our parents. However, we can challenge any belief we have if that belief is leading us to have a distorted and negative view of ourselves.

Before we can challenge them, however, we must identify them. They’re often so automatic that we’re not even aware that we’re thinking them. They’re like a psychological reflex, a mental shortcut that reduces the amount of mental effort we have to spend in reaction to events around us. If we want to change them, to “re-wire” our brain, we must be willing to spend that extra mental effort until our automatic thoughts have been modified to something less negative and more helpful.

One way to do this is to keep a little notebook and pencil in our pocket all the time, or to have a mobile phone that allows us to quickly take some notes for later. Every time we have a strong negative feeling like anger, depression or anxiety, we write down what triggered that emotion, and describe briefly how we’re feeling at that moment. Then, when we get home later on, we can go through our notes and spend a bit of mental energy to figure out what we were thinking at the time of our negative emotion. There’s always an automatic thought that gets activated by the trigger. It may be hard at first, but eventually you’ll start getting the hang of it.

So, once we’ve managed to identify some of the negative, automatic thoughts that we have about ourselves, we can start writing them down and challenging them. Writing all this down is essential, because if we try to just do it mentally, the automatic thoughts will win. It’s their domain, and they don’t like to be challenged. If you start writing them down, it gives you the opportunity to look at them at different times, when your mood is different, and when you’re likely to get more insights into them.

The truth about our worth

Thankfully, for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it’s quite easy to challenge automatic negative self-talk. We have strong beliefs in the individual worth of every human being, as literal children of God. Our worth is not determined by our actions, or by the attitudes or thoughts of other people. Our worth is fixed and equal to everyone else’s.

Don’t be fooled by the vain promises of the gods of beauty, fame, pleasure and possessions. They would have you believe that your worth is determined by how devoutly you worship them, how much time and money you pour into their bottomless treasuries. The true God, our Heavenly Father, has made it clear that our worth is not determined by our actions. We are his children and he loves us, no matter what we do. We are the offspring of deity from the time we are born until we surrender our last mortal breath.

The most important belief for which we should seek confirmation is the belief that God is literally our Father, and that we are literally His children. The degree to which we believe these simple truths will determine how well we can challenge and re-program our negative self-talk.


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3 responses to “The power of self-talk

  1. morningstarrambles

    July 6, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Thank you! What an interesting post. I find that when the little things make me really upset, it’s part of the overall picture. For instance, I didn’t know where to put some items earlier and things were spilling out of my fridge. First of all, I’m tired. Second, the bigger issue is that I feel like I’ll never have a bigger place to organize my stuff. That’s what’s really bothering me – not so much that the tomatoes fell out of the fridge.

    When it comes to self-criticism, I remind myself of how much I love my friends even with all of their flaws. They beat themselves up over their failures, but they don’t see themselves as a whole because they’re so focused on those things. I tell myself that others see me as a whole and love me even though I have plenty of faults.

  2. Brian Hoover

    July 6, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    My response was “My Actions”. My individual worth can only be determined by what I DO. I can think all the nicest things in the world and have a great testimony of this and that but unless I act on these thoughts (which are an expression of my character) and actually pay tithing and actually go home teaching and actually perform my calling then I am unprofitable and worthless. That’s my take anyhow.

    • nicolasconnault

      July 15, 2011 at 8:16 pm

      Unprofitable, perhaps. Worthless, I don’t think so. My opinion is that individual worth is fixed, equal and incalculable. How we feel about ourselves doesn’t change what we’re worth. I really believe that, in God’s eyes, every one of his children is of equal worth, no matter what they do. His love is not contingent on our actions.


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