This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday.
“I’m constantly giving myself a hard time, what can I do about it?” Self – Critical
I can understand why people might get cynical about “psycho-babble”, therapists do have a way of calling everyday things by rather complicated sounding labels. “Self- talk” can seem like another example of this.
Most people just call it thinking.
But actually self-talk is the way we talk to ourselves, about ourselves, in our own head. And pretty much by definition, it’s only a problem if it’s negative, attacking or critical. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or “CBT” makes it a focus of treatment, as negative self-talk is clearly associated with depression.
For those who’ve never experienced depression this self-talk, this tape that runs in their head is a relatively benign, or even positive loop.
Of course our mood changes how we think about ourselves, and how we think about ourselves changes our mood. In many ways this is a chicken and egg debate, but both are important when it comes to helping people deal with overwhelming negative self-talk.
CBT encourages a focus on changing how we think, and quieting the inner-critic, so we can feel differently. Challenging the negative thinking, and actively practising more positive thoughts is the aim.
However for some, this can quickly descend into a spiral of internal conflict, more an unhelpful argument with one’s self than a helpful technique, and drive mood down further.
Compassion and mindfulness based approaches tend to focus more on acceptance, and observing without “buying into” the self-talk. Mindfulness practice enables us, over time, to increasingly observe and notice with a degree of non-attachment, the thoughts that come and go in our mind. In so doing the negative loops influences our mood less and less, and over time lose their power.
Or so the theory goes.
The reality is, like most things, not so black and white. For most people change comes from a mix of both. But without question the ability to just step back and observe without high emotion is vital. Understanding can also help take the heat out of ideas there is just “something wrong with us”.
Our ideas about ourselves always come from somewhere. That tape loop develops in response to our childhood, sometimes from the obvious: how we were talked to, sometimes the less obvious, neglect, developmentally unrealistic expectations, bullying , parental separation or divorce, trauma and abuse.
Situations that lead, one way or another, to not feeling loved.
So however you decide to try to change the voices in your head, do it gently and with compassion. Because in the end it’s only love and kindness that will change our ideas about ourselves, and that’s not very complicated at all.
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