I took a lot of courses in the graduate programs I completed to become a therapist--courses in theories of personality, types of therapy, modalities of therapy, supervision, supervision of supervision (yes, that's really a thing), psycho-spiritual issues, research methods, and the belovéd, ever-popular, multi-course core in statistics, to name only a select few. As a licensed professional, I also have had to complete a significant number of hours of continuing education. Continuing education is the way to learn even more things--to stay current on "best practices," to explore particular subject areas in more depth, or to earn certification in an area of specialization. The bottom line: I have had many opportunities to learn many wonderful things. However, of all the things I've learned, there is one thing I have found to be the single most powerful tool in the area of personal change and healing and that is the power of changing negative self-talk.
Some folks stopped reading after the last sentence. It sounds too simple--so simple that it couldn't possibly be true, but it is. I have seen that power many times over the years with clients, I have seen it with loved ones, and I have experienced that power for myself. In some ways, it is simple, but that does not mean it's easy. In fact, it's very hard work.
Many folks have internalized years of negative thinking without being consciously aware of it. However, negative self-talk is one of those things that once you know it's there, you can't unknow it. And once you know it, you must make a decision: To continue this pattern or stop this pattern. When you've decided that you want to stop the pattern of negative self-talk, the hard work begins.
Change is difficult. Most of us have had the experience of adding or subtracting a new behavior, lifestyle change, or some other habit, and we know how difficult those changes can be. Negative self-talk is insidious. It's a poison that eats away at our souls, convincing us that we're "bad" or we "can't," that "we're too thin, too fat, too lazy, too dumb," OR that we're "not attractive enough, smart enough, strong enough, talented enough," etc., etc., etc., sometimes leaving folks stuck in deep, dark holes of depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and sometimes even self-loathing. So--how do we stop the negative tape playing in our heads? Is there an antidote for all of that poison? YES, there is. And the how is composed of 5 important steps.
- STOP the thought(s). Thought-stopping is a bonafide cognitive-behavioral tool. When you become aware of a negative thought, you tell yourself to STOP--say it out loud, if necessary. Over the course of my career, however, I have added a companion step to the thought-stopping, which is . . .
- Replace the negative thought with a positive thought (or think of it as changing the color of the lightbulb in your head). If you don't, the negative thought will jump right back into its familiar spot. For someone who is new at this, I often suggest plugging in something that is both familiar and positive, like a poem, a prayer, lyrics to a favorite song, or something similar. Plug in the new thought and repeat it over and over again.
- Find affirmations that you like and that feel comfortable for you or, even better, write several of your own. A simple search on Google or Pinterest will yield a huge pool of affirmations. Write down the positive statements you have chosen (or composed). Use these when negative thoughts intrude. Sometimes it's helpful to write a few of them on notecards or pieces of paper and place them in your home where you will see them often.
- Visualize the positive thoughts and affirmations. In your mind, see those things as true for you. Sometimes folks pause at this suggestion and say something like, "But that's not true [for me yet]." To which I have often responded, "You've been telling yourself things that aren't true for years. Now you'll be doing it with positive thoughts instead of negative thoughts." It's a major revelation for many of us when we realize that just because we have a thought, it doesn't mean the thought is true. Many folks have never even considered the possibility that their negative self-talk might not be true. It has become so ingrained it is accepted as fact--and, usually, it's not fact.
- REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT. This is perhaps the hardest part--working to change the negative-thinking habit through repetition of positive self-talk. However, it is the key to making the change happen. We were once told that brain circuitry was fixed. Thanks to a host of researchers, we now know about neuroplasticity--we know that the brain is capable of changing its neural connections. This takes time and repetition, but it can and does work. I often suggest repetition at least 5 times per day: first thing in the morning, mid-day, afternoon, evening, and bedtime. (I think there's something especially powerful about beginning the day and ending the day with positive self-talk.)
Simple, yes, but not easy--but definitely worth the work. I can personally testify to that!
What experiences have you had with changing negative self-talk? Share in comments if you're comfortable doing so.
©2020 Martha J. Horn, PhD