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Self-Talk—Those Critical Things You Tell Yourself

Self talk . . . what you tell yourself, is the key factor of your life. . . you may be degreed from an Ivy League university, a distinguished member of Mensa, and voted most likely to succeed . . . . but what you say to yourself moment by moment, day by day–will determine your happiness and success.

What is the Committee Telling Me?

Robert Fulghum, (All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten), described his inner conversations as “The Committee.” In Fulghum’s mind, The Committee is a discordant group–loud, contradictory, with an entirely different agenda from his own.  Out of nowhere one committee member says, “Let’s go rob a convenience store!” followed by a warning voice that responds, “We better not do that.  With cameras all around and DNA it’s tough to get by with these days.”  In Fulghum’s scenario, you can almost feel like an innocent bystander to what’s going on in your head.

Your personal inner experience might not be that bizarre, but who hasn’t heard the voice within them that says, “The doctor just told  me I’m going to have serious, life threatening health problems if I don’t lose weight,” followed by, “It’s been years since you went to the Upper Crust Bakery and they’re expecting you to come by and eat cheese cake.  You have a responsibility to go by and support them.”  Followed by, “OK, let’s go!”

Monkey Minds–Managing Self-talk

The “monkey mind,” the strange,  often chaotic contradictory talk that can dominate our thinking process, was described by Buddhist monks as early as the 12th Century.  They’re thoughts that won’t stop swinging through our heads, nor cease the chatter.

Experts in psychological process have given many explanations for why our own minds seem to attack us from so many directions–sometimes with such force that it keeps us from moving forward.  My mind can serve me up long past memories of the time when I made a horrible decision that hurt other people, and how could I have done that?  Suddenly I’ll be gripped with something my mother told me at 8 years old.  I’ll be obsessed with what someone did last week and replay it over and over again.

Science shines a lot of light on why our brains seem to contain warring camps.  We have to stop the war within our minds by having a better understanding of how the brain works.  In our lifetimes, science has learned vastly more about how the brain processes our memories and experiences than was known hundreds of years earlier.

We think with the frontal cortex, which is a fairly late development in the human being.  It’s the other earlier parts of our brain that constantly pop thoughts into our minds from seemingly out of nowhere.   Those earlier developed parts of our brain that serve up fear, anger, and distress actually have an important purpose for us.  There is a legitimate value to every emotion we have–fear, anger, repression, doubt.  The automatic functions of our brain simply exaggerate our emotional reaction beyond reason to the danger, fear, or anxiety we face.  These exaggerated reaction patterns from the earlier parts of our brain come from earlier times when dangers loomed outside the door. 

We sometimes call the frontal cortex the “executive function,” that part of me that is most able to think, reason, see nuance, collaborate and cooperate.  But the automatic parts of our brain that serve up accusations, negative thoughts, fear and pain actually have a useful function and these parts of our minds are not our enemies as we’re often told by counselors and support groups.  The parts of our minds that serve up past mistakes and future dangers are the cautionary boundary lines that keep our behaviors within societal norms.

That does not mean that the negative thoughts the mind serves up are not a danger.  They are, and they must be managed. Their overreactive nature can become as serious as an abusive parent.  If we treated our children with the harshness of our inner thoughts, we would likely be arrested for child endangerment.  Our inner thoughts can and often are dangerous to our lives.

So how do we manage self-talk, what our minds are telling us?  Here are some practical ways:

Engage with Your  Self Talk–No Matter how Exaggerated.  Advice like,

“Get ahold of yourself!”

“Don’t think like that!”

. . . is like throwing gasoline onto your inner emotional flames.  If you manage to contain the negative dialogue, it will emerge again soon.  These inner thoughts come from parts of your brain that are every bit as intelligent as your thinking executive function–and they are sometimes even more intelligent. Beating down one part of the brain with another will not work.

All your thoughts have value–especially self-talk.  You must respect every part of your brain.  You have to engage with yourself and listen to what you’re hearing from yourself.  A fundamental truth often denied is that all of you–every part of you–is the God-given part of being human.  You must value every part of yourself.

When You Self-talk–Begin First with Your Emotions.  Almost everyone tells you that your reason must first and foremost  overcome your emotions.  We are told we should give emotions a stern warning and tell them to stop immediately.  However, addressing emotions first is much more effective than trying to overcome emotions with reason.

Here’s how it works for me.  The accusation may pop up in my mind, “You forgot to buy mustard and there it was on the list in front of your face!  You are thoughtless, incompetent. and no good!”

In the past, I would have responded internally,” Why am I being attacked?!  Get away from me!”   Now I’m more likely to respond, “Yep, forgetting mustard is going to make me go to the store again today.  That’s a bummer.  I think what I’m being told is that I should be more attentive to detail.   What about feeling something happy now, like going to the movies tonight?”  My goal is to get my emotions first to a good place before reason dominates. 

I find that reversing the order–addressing my emotions first–makes me  able to think and solve problems much more effectively.  By addressing emotions first I’m finding I’m much less stressed and much more effective.

Know Where You’re Going Next–and Go!  As we become more mindful–more able to understand what’s happening within us–we’ll be able to connect with our emotions and develop an effective relationship between feeling and thinking–we’ll be less overpowered by negative self-talk. 

The next step in managing the emotional arm wrestling that takes up the bandwidth of our day is to have something important to do–and do it.   I have yet to hear of someone running from a grisly bear  stop and think about the crappy childhood they had and how their mothers didn’t hug them enough.  We were made to have difficult and challenging things to accomplish–we will attack our day or our minds will attack us.

Being able to manage self-talk is key to your success in life and business.  Negative self-talk creates chaos in our minds, chews up our days, is the foundation of  depression, and is the single factor that propels our lives forward or takes us into emotional jungles from which we won’t emerge.

Managing self-talk is a process that is hard work and will not be immediate.   It often requires work with a therapist or mentor.  But it is absolutely necessary to manage what we tell ourselves.  It is a fundamental part of success and happiness. 

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