I was sitting in my car in bumper-to-bumper traffic and I was not happy about it. I was due into my office for a 9 a.m. meeting and I knew I would never make it on time. All sorts of thoughts started to run through my head. Wasn’t I a fool for not leaving enough time for my drive? What if my boss reprimanded me for being late, or worse yet, fired me? Why shouldn’t I be on time when my co-workers were going to be? As my mind raced from one thought to the next, I started to get a headache. My heart was thumping and the back of my neck was beginning to sweat. All in all, I felt terrible.
We’ve all been in situations where things don’t go according to plan. But that’s not what is important. What is essential is the way we talk to ourselves about these situations. Talking to ourselves negatively, like I was doing, can make us feel awful about ourselves and make a difficult situation worse. What if I had accepted the fact that I was going to be late and instead of worrying about the consequences and beating myself up over it, turned the experience into something positive? I could have switched on a news radio station and had something interesting to discuss with my co-workers when I arrived. I could have used the time to think about the things I was going to contribute to the meeting, so that I would have had something to tell my boss if I did arrive late. Or, I simply could have put on some music that I enjoyed and did some deep breathing while listening to it.
What’s the best way to flip from negative to positive self-talk? The first step is to recognize what we are doing. Far too often, our thoughts pass through our minds without us even being aware that we are thinking them. When we really listen to what we are telling ourselves, we will see that the negative self-talk falls into four basic categories:
- Criticizing ourselves (i.e. I’m horrible at such and such. My friends are much better than I.)
- Giving up and saying that things are hopeless (i.e. I’ll never be able to do such and such.)
- Worrying about the future (i.e. What if such and such happens? Won’t that be terrible?)
- Concluding we should be perfect (i.e. I should be able to do such and such. If I can’t, I’m a complete failure.)
Once we have recognized that we are thinking in one or all of these ways, it’s time to battle our negative self-talk. The best way to do this is by countering each thought with an opposing, positive statement that questions or refutes the original thought and then rehearsing the counterstatement over and over again until it becomes second nature. For example, while sitting in traffic, I worried, What if my boss reprimands me? I could have countered this negative thought with the statement, So what if my boss reprimands me? It’s not so horrible. She’ll get over it and so will I.
If we have the opportunity to write down our counterstatements, that’s even better because it makes rehearsing them that much easier. As difficult as challenging our own self-talk may seem, it is essential if we are to take control of our lives. With responsibility comes ownership and with ownership comes the possibility of greatly reducing anxiety and enhancing self-esteem. It’s no secret that those who suffer from depression and anxiety disorder report that negative thinking is a big part of the reason why. And studies have shown that when negative self-talk is eliminated, depression lifts.
There are many obstacles we face in life that are out of our control. Our self-talk is the one thing that we, alone, can regulate. Why make things more difficult for ourselves than we have to? If we can master our thoughts, then we can master life.
By the way, my boss and several co-workers hit the same traffic jam as I did and all arrived late for the 9 a.m. meeting. When we got to the office, we laughed about it.
About the author: Wendy Aron is the author of Hide & Seek: How I Laughed at Depression, Conquered My Fears and Found Happiness