We all have an \"internal dialogue\" that includes both positive and negative thoughts. These thoughts can be strong, persistent, and unfortunately more often negative than positive for some folks. These thoughts take many forms: Self-criticism, comparison of ourselves to others, thoughts about what other people ‘think’ about us, and worry over real or imagined possibilities. However, sometimes, when these thoughts are positive and productive, we notice a measureable improvement in how we feel about ourselves and our world. So that my friends, is the basis of CBT – Change the thoughts and the emotions will follow (and vice versa).
The way your personal internal voice ‘speaks to you’ is determined by a lifetime of experiences. It’s a compilation of the people who have been most influential in your development. Oddly it’s not always people that have had a lot of contact with us. Sometimes the voice is from something that may have been brief but at a time you were particularly vulnerable. Something someone said on a date, or in a stressful job interview or workplace situation for example can become internalized especially if it fits into your overall beliefs (true or not) about your flaws. More often than not however, much of our dialogue comes from more meaningful and influential longer-term relationships in our lives. The negative internal dialogue represents an integration of the criticism you\'ve received and internalized from family members, teachers, and others you\'ve known; as well as from a society that constantly dictates how a person should look, feel, act, or simply be. This self-sabotaging dialogue often distorts the facts and negatively influences other thoughts. This may ultimately lead to lowered self-esteem, distorted self-image, depressed mood, anxiety and other forms of emotional distress.
Negative self-talk is not always within our direct awareness. As we become practiced at noticing the internal dialogue we have with ourselves throughout the day we can however become skilled at redirecting our thinking in a more positive direction. Changing negative self-talk can be achieved through a basic 4-step technique.
Start noticing your thoughts. It may take a while to get used to doing this but you will get better the more you try. Perhaps you are in a supermarket line and you catch someone glancing at you - what does your mind say to you? During pauses in conversation do you find yourself thinking “Oh I shouldn’t have said that” or do you wonder what other person thinks about you? It happens to all of us. When you have a moment try to think about patterns or themes in your internal dialogue – particularly the ones that make you feel bad. It’s sometimes helpful to keep a ‘thought diary’ to review at the end of the day. Consider how the thoughts you identified affect your behavior, other thoughts and emotions. Do your thoughts interfere with your motivation or make you feel bad about yourself? Do they cause you to procrastinate or worry? Do thoughts affect your mood or emotions? Once you have laid the groundwork for understanding your thoughts and how they affect you, this becomes a something you can simply do ‘on the fly’ so to speak. As you go about your day you will notice a negative thought and take immediate action to change it. That’s what step 2, 3, and 4 achieve; real change in real time.
Identifying the thought and stopping it can be as simple as saying \"Stop,\" either aloud or in your mind. When you stop the thought, your awareness allows you to catch yourself in the negative or destructive thought pattern and prevent the thought from evolving any further or spiraling into more negative thoughts.
Negative thoughts go unchallenged too often. In this step you take a stand and challenge the negative thought. Argue with the factual accuracy of the thought and with the likelihood that it is actually true. If for instance the thought is \"My life is hopeless.” You might ask yourself; how true is that statement? Is it 100 percent true? Do you have ZERO hope ALL OF THE TIME? Or are there moments, even ever so fleeting when you think just maybe… Then perhaps the hopeless thing is only true 95% or 85% or 50% of the time. By doing this you have cracked the door slightly and you can then go to work in step 4 to strengthen the positive. Focus on that 5, 15 or 50%. Some people find it helpful to write these logical arguments down for future reference and to help with step 4.
Now is when you go on the offensive! You get to re-write the script you were given by a lifetime of experiences and start determining for yourself how you will think and feel moving forward. It’s the most empowering feeling when you generate clear positive statements to counteract the dialogue you previously simply accepted as fact! Yes I DO sound like a motivational speaker – I am one. But the point here is for you to become your OWN motivational speaker!
Each time you recognize yourself engaging in negative thinking or self-talk, try to replace the negative thoughts with more accurate or positive ones. For example, if you catch yourself saying something like \"I\'m not smart enough to get the promotion” take a moment to challenge your negative thoughts and then tell yourself, \"I was smart enough to get this job” “I have made a real difference here” “My job is to show them what I can do and the decision is theirs.” Now it’s important to understand that this does not have to be an unrealistic cheerleading session. Quite the contrary; the goal is to engage in logical and FACTUAL thought as opposed to the less rational and overly negative voice. So be honest but positive. For example it would be entirely appropriate to add “Even if I don’t get it; there are many excellent candidates, it won’t mean I am a failure”
Cultivating a skeptical attitude toward negative thoughts will help you to change them over the long term. It won\'t be easy, because some of these thoughts have been with you so long, and you’ve heard them so many times that even YOU believe them. So don’t feel you have to fully believe the positive statements or disbelieve the negative ones – just do it. The belief in yourself will follow! Use this 4-step technique consistently. Take it one thought and one distortion at a time. You\'ll be on your way to making a significant positive shift in your thinking and emotional health in no time!