We can literally talk ourselves into a state of stress and anxiety. In fact, when we pay close attention, we notice that most of the times we simply freak ourselves out. As Mark Twain once said, “I had a lot of tragedies in my life—most of them never happened.”
We’re not often consciously aware of the sequence of negative thoughts that lead to anxiety. The resulting feeling itself is what makes us pay attention. But how did we get there? The exercise below is a very powerful way of paying attention to the thoughts that often lead to a downward spiral into the dark pit of fear and anxiety. The descent can start with a “what if”, or an “I should have”, both mere assumptions, either about something that has not yet happened or something that we can’t change because it has already happened. Yet this does not stop us from entertaining these thoughts. These thoughts are often judgmental or critical in nature. We doubt ourselves and wonder what other people may think about us. And very quickly, thoughts pop up that seems to confirm the previous ones, which confirms or exacerbates the first one, adding to the raising feeling of gloom and uncertainty. The problem is that these thoughts seem to only partially enter our conscious awareness. They can be so quick and fleeting that we don’t really “catch” them. The initial idea is often immediately trailed by another thought, which confirms or exacerbates the first one – and so on.
I routinely ask my clients to watch their negative self-talk and actually write this talk down. Most of them are completely surprised when they find out how often negative thoughts float through their minds. But they are even more shocked by what they say to and about themselves. “How can I be so mean to myself?” is a very common reaction. Let’s face it, how often do we tell ourselves “I am stupid, fat, ugly, a loser,” etc., things that we would never tell anybody else directly to their face.
So why do we treat other people with more respect and consideration than we treat ourselves? Does it make sense that we don’t want to hurt others’ feelings and at the same time are our own worst critic? One of the most important components to breaking through fear and anxiety is to learn how to trust—especially to trust ourselves. Would you trust somebody who calls you “a loser” or tells you that “you don’t have what it takes?”
The following exercise is one of the most effective ways of handle negative, self-defeating mind-racing. However, there are a few considerations that are important to understand to use this tool most effectively.
One of the reasons this exercise works is because it interrupts the spiral of negative thinking before it gets us into the negative emotion. It is training our mind to not automatically follow this self-defeating train of thoughts, but to search for new options and ways to view the given situation. By considering the more positive angles, we are also planting seeds in our mind, which support the growth of greater confidence and self-esteem.
Another major factor is that we are learning to directly address the deeper source of the negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is not a conscious, intellectual choice. It stems from the subconscious mind. Imagine that a part of your subconscious mind is merely repeating old “tapes” of negative messages you heard many years ago. Maybe when you were a child, being worried and hyper-vigilant may have served you by helping you to feel more safe. Maybe you had to make sure that you were not getting in trouble with your parents or it felt much safer for you to be invisible. The reason why a “younger” part of your mind is continuously playing these old themes and holding on to these patterns is because that part has never been properly encouraged and reassured. By either ignoring these now rather non-supportive messages or buying into them through anxiety and worry, this subconscious part will just continue what it has been doing for a long time. So how would you respond if a little child would tell you that he or she feels bad and frightened? Would you ignore her or tell him,“yes, you a’re right, you suck, and the world is an unfriendly and dangerous place?” Of course not, because not only would you frighten the child more, but also what will happen is that this child will start screaming louder and louder. What you would do is to comfort and reassure this child, not merely with intellectual reasoning, but with gentle kindness from your heart. And as a result, the child would most likely feel safe and at peace again. This is the context in which you need to place the following negative-positive / self-talk exercise.
To get specific:
Get a little notebook that you will carry with you at all times. In this book, you will write down all negative self-talk immediately when it comes up. Then ask yourself: “Is this true?” “Does believing this serve me or anybody else?” “Does believing this help me in reaching my goals?” These questions help you to interrupt the negative thought spiral.
Then promptly, next to the negative thought, write at least three positive ones, which are counter-balancing the negative thoughts. As you write down the words, make sure that you are fully aware of the positive qualities. Feel good about what you are writing. In the past, you may have tried to change negative thinking through positive counter-balancing. The reason why most people who unsuccessfully tried to counter-balance negative-self talk failed is that they did not add positive emotions to the positive statements. The subconscious mind does not care so much about words; It cares much more about feelings. So rather than using this exercise as mental gymnastics, make sure that you can feel and stand behind the positive statements you make. This is why the image of talking to a younger, subconscious self is so helpful, since it is easier to talk kindly and comforting to a child than to an adult self. Be very diligent and committed to this exercise, and don’t let one negative thought slip by without counter-balancing it. By using this method, most people are able to reduce negative self-talk by more than 80 percent in just a couple of weeks.