Self-Talk

by Dan Joseph

Most of us go through our lives believing that events determine our emotions. It seems to make sense. If we get short-changed in a store, we feel upset. If we receive a compliment from someone, we feel good. This is how life seems to work. Events seem to create our emotions.

Here are some examples:

     Event –> Emotion

     We get a flat tire –> Irritation
     We receive a bank error in our favor –> Delight
     It turns out to be a rainy day –> Disappointment

And so on.

However, things aren't quite this straightforward. Both A Course in Miracles and cognitive therapy teach that there is a hidden "middle piece" between an event and our emotional reaction. This "middle piece" is our interpretation of the event. Ultimately, it's this "middle piece" that determines our emotional state — not simply the initial event.

Therefore, instead of...

     Event –> Emotion

...it's more accurate to draw things as:

     Event –> Our interpretation of the event –> Emotion

Rainy Days

As an example of this, let's take two people who wake up to a rainy day (event).

The first person has the following middle-piece interpretation:

     Rainy day –> "Oh, this is awful! I wanted to go hiking today! How terrible!" –> Disappointment

Person two has a different interpretation:

     Rainy day –> "Thank goodness! It's been too dry lately. We really need the rain!" –> Joy

It's the same event — a rainy day. However, the first person's interpretation yields disappointment, while the second person's yields joy. Our interpretations are very powerful.

Talking to Ourselves

There are actually many ways to describe our middle-piece "interpretations." You could call them our "thoughts about" an event, our "beliefs about" an event, our "perceptions of" an event, and so on.

However, another way to describe this middle-piece is our self-talk.

Most of us have a subtle flow of self-talk that runs in the background of our minds. This self-talk is often hidden in the shadows. However, it tends to become pronounced — and often quite intense — in stressful situations.

In cognitive therapy, we often try to help people identify and gradually alter the flow of this self-talk. This strategy can be extremely helpful in altering depressive thought patterns or patterns of stress and anxiety. However, all of us can use strategies like this from time to time, regardless of what our feelings are.

Annie

As an example of using this approach to counter stress, let's take a woman named Annie. Annie is a business executive who works extremely long hours. She also devotes herself to her family. Annie reports feeling "stretched thin" all the time, "short-tempered," "stressed," and "ready to snap."

On the surface, this seems like an inevitable set of feelings. Annie has a great deal of responsibility. She probably is at — or near — her "breaking point" in terms of her work and other commitments. Any of us would feel stressed in her situation.

However, what to do? Annie doesn't want to quit her job or reduce her family activities. She finds vacations to be as stressful as the rest of her life. She exercises and takes walks — but this really doesn't seem to help very much.

Identifying some of her self-talk might be one helpful strategy for Annie. Let's say that she decides to try this. During a particularly stressful moment at work, she closes her office door, sits down, and writes out some of her self-talk. This is what she writes:

"What a mess this project is! My God! I can't believe that my team did such a bad job on this. I'll have to spend at least ten hours redoing this work. Why can't anyone do things correctly on their own? I'm so tired of having to micro-manage everyone. When I don't, though, things fall apart. And then my job is at risk. I can't believe they expect me to do the work of three people. We just don't have enough hours in the day to get this all done!"

As you can see, that's an extremely stress-oriented set of thoughts. To be clear, the external stressors (job demands, deadlines) are sparking these types of thoughts. But then the thoughts themselves are fueling stressful feelings. Ultimately, the whole thing cycles on itself.

Identifying the stressful thoughts — the flow of self-talk — can be an important first step.

The Shift

Having identified some of her self-talk, Annie can now begin to question whether this is a helpful internal habit — and whether there might be a more self-soothing, self-nurturing type of self-talk that she can engage in.

Later that day, she decides to shift gears. She sits down for a few minutes and intentionally engages in a different type of self-talk. Like a loving mother talking to an agitated child, she says:

"You know, you're doing a really good job. You really are. I know that you're feeling overwhelmed right now, and that you're worried about how this project will turn out. But you know — you don't have to fix everything yourself. You really don't. There are a lot of other people who can help you. And if things don't work out perfectly, that's OK. You're really doing your best, and that is just wonderful."

This new type of self-talk immediately softens Annie's tension. She decides to practice this type of talk at various points throughout the day. She finds that engaging in this new type of self-talk takes effort and practice; sometimes it feels a bit silly to her. But it does end up softening and soothing her mood. Paradoxically, it also helps her to gain a greater sense of focus and direction on her work projects.

That's the basic practice of shifting self-talk. Like Annie, we can identify some of our habitual self-talk and begin to replace it with soothing, uplifting, supportive new types of self-talk. We can do this periodically during the day — even at times when we're not feeling stressed or upset at all. This does take effort. But the impact on our inner state can be significant. Ultimately, it can become a regular habit.

To be clear, altering our self-talk is just one strategy to help us gain a greater sense of inner peace. We (and Annie) might need to use many other strategies as well, including self-nurturing activities, spiritual practices, or other approaches. But shifting self-talk can be a powerful step. I encourage you to experiment with this, and see what you find.

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