In Your Corner: Self-talk: Make it helpful

Have you ever actually taken time to listen to the constant chatter that goes on inside of your head when life throws you a challenge? It seems to have an opinion, or even wants to tell you what to do based on things that have happened to you long ago that your mind has forgotten about. Psychologists call this “self-talk,” and sadly, it is not usually positive, which can cause stress and sometimes cause us to make bad decisions. Here are some common ones:

• I’ve had so much good luck that bad luck is bound to find me soon.

• I can’t do it.

• Everything I eat turns to fat.

• You can’t trust people.

• I’m too stupid.

• I can’t handle this.

• And my own personal  monster, I’m not good enough

Actually, a lot of people have this last one, so let’s turn it around and make it helpful. First of all, where does it come from? In Transactional Analysis and other personality theories scientists have found that many people don’t think that they are OK, but that others are. It could start with the fact that when we’re babies, people have to do everything for us. It’s not our fault, but we’re not doing anything for ourselves. Our little brains might form the idea that other people must be better than we are because they can take care of themselves and even take care of us. Begin to think of yourself as OK now.

When we’re children, adults try to shape our behavior. Some do it really well and some are hurtful, especially to little guys who already feel like they can’t do much. A helpful adult provides structure, guidance and feedback. They create situations where children can’t fail, or if they do, they have a lot of chances to succeed as well. They make sure that children know what is expected of them, and may model what they want them to do. They also tell them what the consequences are if they don’t do what they are supposed to do, and follow through with them. They reward them with praise or a privilege when they do it right. Jean Piaget, a famous child psychologist, said that children learn more by praise for what they do right than criticism for what they did wrong.

Criticizing or punishing a child in an unkind or embarrassing way is the negative side of parenting. If you have a parent that does that, maybe that’s the way their parents taught him or her. Maybe the self-talk is pretty negative in their heads, too. I hope they can learn some good parenting skills, but for now you’ll have to be the one to say, “Please tell me what you want me to do, and how to do it.”

Learn to get clear about what you want or need, and ask for it. You might try complimenting them when they do something right. The trouble is that by the time we are old enough to speak up for ourselves, the patterns have been set. So start soon. Also, let’s see if we can create some helpful self-talk.

I remember calling up one of my daughter’s friends to invite her to spend the night with us, and hearing her older brother say, “You’re stupid. You retard. You’re so dumb.” She was a sweet and beautiful girl, but she thought she was stupid because she had been told that so many times. I told her teacher, because it is a form of abuse. We both praised her for all the good things she did. If you saw the movie “The Help,” you’ll remember how the maid kept telling the little girl she took care of how smart and kind she was to counteract the mother’s putdowns. You can be your own cheerleader. Look in the mirror and tell yourself all of your good characteristics. Be grateful for them. Therapists often suggest their clients do this.  

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French priest, philosopher and geologist who lived from 1881-1955, believed that the Universe and all its inhabitants were constantly getting better. He would say, “Every day, in every way, I get better and better.” If your self-talk starts putting you down, counter with that thought. Isn’t it true? A website that has many inspiring, joy filling quotations is: www.joyofquotes.com/inspirational-quotes-by-author.html  You may want to spend some time there and find something that speaks to you.

I know that my “not good enough” self-talk came from having a mother who always prodded me to be better. I actually think that in her mind she was trying to encourage me, but in the mind of a kid, who needs approval and affection from a parent, needing to do better meant that what I had done wasn’t good enough. I learned this in my 30s at one of those self-improvement workshops that was so popular in the 80s. Please learn from my experiences. Of course you are good enough, and so was I.

I remember going to a sermon one Sunday where the topic was. “Don’t say you can’t handle it, because you will.” Rev. Keller went on to say that we might handle it well or handle it poorly, but we would handle it in some way. And he told us not to be afraid to ask for help. Wow! It was powerful. Whenever I found myself saying, “I can’t handle this,” I could hear him say, “You will handle it,” and I’d figure out the best way to approach the problem. Try it.

Now “I’m too stupid.” is just not true. What does that mean? The Oxford dictionary defines stupid as “lacking in intelligence or common sense.” Well, common sense takes practice. The more you learn about how life works, the more common sense you develop. When you make a mistake, don’t think of it as stupid, but as a life lesson that you’ve just learned. Also, my daughter had an IQ of 60. The average is 100. I never considered her stupid, although her intelligence level was low. She was bright like sunshine, and very caring. With the internet at our finger tips, we can all learn as much as we want to. That might take care of “I can’t do it,” too. Get the idea? Really listen to what your self-talk is saying to you. Challenge it. Choose a helpful thought to say instead. Program yourself positively and realistically. You can’t think, “I’m the smartest person in my school, when you know you’re not.” But you can think, “I’m smart, and I can learn even more.”   

• The ‘In Your Corner’ team comprises the leadership of the island’s government, court, police, education, family and social services communities. Contact Annaleah Atkinson with your questions or comments at aatkinson@haleopio.org.

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