Our Own Worst Enemy: Putting a Lid on Negative Self-Talk
April 3, 2017
For the most part, this self-talk isn't a conscious choice. It bubbles out of the subconscious and quietly and subtly whispers in our ear, undermining our self-worth and confidence. And we aren't born with these beliefs about ourselves -- they are mostly taught to us as children when we have few defenses against them. As adults, however, we can rewrite these tired, old scripts into self-talk that is much more affirming.
I have found it helpful to group similar types of negative self-talk into categories that make them much easier to identify and counteract. Some people might relate to just one of these categories, but for most of us, all of them will be familiar.
The Worrier promotes anxiety by jumping to the worst possible scenario, something therapists call "catastrophizing." The worrier can often be identified by the words "What if ...?" The Worrier scares us with often-grandiose fantasies of disaster when we are about to confront something we fear. This pattern can sometimes be traced to anxious parental messages eliciting a sense of fragility, or can result from the trauma of life events. For example, for years after surviving Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in the time before protease inhibitors, I worried that any ache or pain was certainly the return of a devastating cancer, even long after doctors cleared me. In addition to fabricating catastrophic endings, the Worrier plays a role in fears about embarrassment or making a mistake, thereby acting as a powerful force to limit us and keep our world small.
This form of negative self-talk primarily targets our self-worth: the value we place on our abilities and ourselves. It does this primarily with expressions of self-contempt such as, "That was stupid!" The Critic is among the most powerful forms of negative self-talk, constantly judging and evaluating our behavior, highlighting whenever possible to us (and perhaps others) our self-perceived flaws and limitations. I frequently see this in persons who have engaged in some form of high-risk behavior and berate themselves for that risk. For those already living with the HIV virus, it may involve harsh self-judgments about not paying attention to a medical symptom or missing a dose of medication. Of course, we do need to take responsibility for these behaviors, but berating and shaming ourselves does nothing to improve the situation.
And speaking of not taking responsibility, meet the Victim. This is the voice that often uses the words "I can't" and reflects that part of us that feels hopeless or helpless. Identifying too closely with the Victim is a sure path toward depression. The Victim is particularly dangerous for people living with HIV/AIDS since there is so much shame and stigma concerning the virus. This voice is rooted in the belief that there is something inherently wrong with us and that we are defective or unworthy. I hear this most often with clients saying, "I am damaged goods." While shame and stigma are very real and can be crippling, the way out of what some people have called the "victim trap" is not to embrace one's powerlessness, but rather the opposite. We need to gently take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and actions (beware of another voice, the Critic, who likes to chime in at this point) and keep our lives moving forward.
Finally, meet the Perfectionist. Anytime our self-talk utilizes words like "should," "always," or "never," we are in dangerous territory. The Perfectionist doesn't do anything for us except put us into a place of chronic stress. The Perfectionist is closely related to the Critic, but encourages us to strive for perfection (as opposed to pushing us down). The Perfectionist is a perfect match for those parts of ourselves that we find undesirable or intolerable. Perfectionism can be a problem for people living with HIV/AIDS whose "normal" lives, occupations, relationships and even sense of a future have been interrupted. It often results in comparing ourselves with others in terms of externals, such as job, income and status, or can be seen in patterns of behavior, such as constantly trying to please others. Learning how to recognize our strengths, tolerate our mistakes and avoid repeating them is key to pulling the plug on the Perfectionist.
Counteracting Negative Self-Talk
Once identified, there are many ways to counteract negative self-talk. Some of the more effective ones are listed below:
No one escapes negative self-talk and, because it often represents such early "programming" of how we view ourselves, it can be persistent. Becoming aware of it, classifying it and actively counteracting it are very effective strategies for releasing the endless chatter in our ears and living our lives with more objectivity, balance and far more peace of mind.
David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., is a substance abuse expert, certified sex therapist and clinical hypnotherapist in private practice in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He is the author of Lust, Men, and Meth: A Gay Man's Guide to Sex and Recovery.
This article was provided by TheBody.
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