Everyone at some time or another experiences negative self talk. As sapient creatures, aware of ourselves, unlike most animals we have immense capacity for self criticism. But it is not just our awareness of ourselves – and our flaws – that creates this self talk. It is also our ability to compare and contrast. Our grasp of time. If an animal suffers a horribly injury, such as losing a limb, it does not spend its days moping around for very long. It gets on with it. This is not to say that animals do not “feel” or possess emotions, for there is strong evidence to suggest that they do, but they are not able to bemoan their fate, or look back on halcyon days. Nor does the animal reprimand itself for its mistakes – it does not blame itself for the loss of limb, this is simply something that has happened. So, our intelligence as human beings is at once a blessing – empowering us to do amazing things – but can also be a curse, crippling us with self doubt and negativity.
The first character who speaks in the Bible is God. At Genesis 1:3 God says, “Let there be light”, and just as He speaks, the reality manifests. This is a pattern of God's language: he frequently speaks in imperatives, or what we might call commands. That's hardly surprising as He is God.
The first question in the Bible, however, is spoken by another character: the serpent – the Devil – who says, “Indeed, has God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden'?” And there we have it, the first question, the first, doubt, expressed by the Devil. Whether you want to believe in this literally is irrelevant to my purposes in this article; what is clear is that psychologically this is profoundly true. There is a Devil, a Satan, within all of us, and this being questions us, pokes holes in our arguments, mocks our sense of self importance. There is a reason we so often associate the “nasty little voice” in our heads with the demonic powers. In the case of the Garden of Eden, the Devil is casting doubt on the need for Adam and Eve to restrain themselves, and not eat the forbidden fruit.
Asking questions is all too often threatening to others, and all too often symptomatic of doubt in us. Whether that be doubt about our political institutions and their validity, or doubts about our partner or colleagues or bosses, once the questioning mode starts we all too frequently lose faith in someone or something, and our feelings about them become divided.
Nowhere is this more important than in our thoughts about ourself. Once we start serially questioning our own motives, our own talents and abilities, our own – and this is deepest of all – self worth, then we are in serious trouble: we cannot succeed at anything. To use the New Testament psychological insight: the house divided against itself cannot stand. We call this deep questioning of ourself 'negative self talk', and for some people it a permanent condition of torture.
How, then, can we lessen or even remove this thorn in our flesh? because every one at some time or another experiences this problem. Here are ten great ideas to help you relieve negative self-talk.
One, move, or more accurately, break the body set. What this means is that once we start being negative about ourself we find that a certain rigidity or tension creeps into our body and its posture. Thus, at its simplest level, going for a brisk walk is a good idea. Take those strides, feel those arms swinging purposefully side to side.
Second, be in the here and now. In other words, stop regretting the past or worrying about the future. Easier said than done? Yes. The key technique for being in the now is meditation and focusing on your breath. This can be aligned to point number one if we consider disciplines like yoga, chi gung or tai chi: in these the breath is central, as is breaking the body set, all the while slowing down and enjoying the moment.
Third, exaggerate the problem – yes, you heard right: exaggerate the problem! So, you are telling yourself that you are an unattractive person, that nobody would like you? Dead right – you're Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein’s monster, or whoever – and as the picture, the cartoon almost, forms in your mind, its very exaggeration starts becoming comical. If we can laugh at ourself, then we can offset the sting of the negativity.
Fourth, undertake physical exertion. This is slightly different from point one, because here we are talking about more serious and heavy physical exertion: some serious gardening, for example, is quite different from going for a brisk walk. And so might be a serious house clean. It will be different for every one of us depending on our age and fitness and health; nevertheless, physical exertion always takes our mind away from the negative ramblings of our mind.
Fifth, create your own safe place, or haven, or as I like to call it, my den. Where can you go where you feel at peace, at one, and safe? This may be a room in your house or flat. It may be, as it often is for people, a spot in nature – a park, a beach, a forest. Beauty always heals.
Sixth, review the sounds that surround you. Do you have music that is beautiful, that is healing, that restores you? Not to put to fine a point upon it, there are some musical styles which are ugly, discordant, aggressive and manufactured to maximise unhappiness in your soul. Avoid these. Instead, listen to the opposite; that may include some popular and modern music; but do not forget the wonders of JS Bach. As Roberto Assagioli put it in his marvellous book, Psychosynthesis: “The music which can especially produce this kind of healing influence is that of JS Bach ...” and he cites Albert Schweitzer who calls a composition by Bach, “an expression of the Primal Power which manifests itself in the infinite rotating worlds”. Bach is “a song of love, unfolding itself in the light of intelligence, and impelled by will. That is why it enriches so much.”
Seventh, talk with someone. A good friend can correct our erroneous views of ourself, can restore the correct balance to our thoughts, can enable us to see the good when all we can grasp is the bad. This is especially important for men who have a tendency to bottle things in, regard 'sharing feelings' as unmanly, which is clearly a mistaken and negative thought in itself.
Eighth, consider other people. One of the problems with negative self talk is its tendency to promote self-obsession at the expense of true self love. Who can you help? Who needs your assistance or support? Once we think like this we begin to realise too that whatever we were thinking our shortcomings were, there may be somebody else who has it far worse than we do. This, bizarrely, though not good in itself, relying as it does on comparison, yet can get us to re-evaluate our own position.
Ninth, take a nap, and indeed sleep more. Sleep is nature's healing balm, and we need more of it. In our pressurised Western life styles some people do not get enough sleep – which should be at least seven hours a day. If you know you are only getting five or six hours, ensure you steal naps during the course of the day. You'll feel a lot better and negative thinking will recede.
Finally, and possibly controversially, learn to pray. If meditation is listening in the silence to the voice of the universe, then prayer is asking and focusing with intention on the universe to help. There are no atheists in fox-holes, as the saying goes, and developing humility through prayer is paradoxically one of the single most powerful things you can do to feel better about yourself. It's counter-intuitive, but it's true, as many testify. Pray – for as it says in the First Epistle of John 3: 19-20: “We set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Surely, that is a staggering thought that silences doubt even as we begin to contemplate its majesty?
Even if we do not accept prayer in the denominational sense, or a higher power, we can all do with asking for help. Sometimes, we cannot talk to people, because people are so subjectively predisposed. We can feel like we already know exactly what words and advice will pour from their lips before we’ve even asked them. In addition, we can sometimes feel too self-conscious about our negative self talk and feelings to adequately put it into words. We Brits, in particular, downplay ourselves, including our problems, leading to people assuming we are “okay”. Speaking to the universe, however, the unified cosmos, can be far more liberating. And if you believe, in your heart, that there is something out there listening with “Sublime Compassion”, then to quote the Buddhists, you are all the better for relieving your negative state.
This motivational webseries will continue in two weeks' time, with an article on Six Problems with the "Success Syndrome". Thanks, as always, for dropping by! And if you have any thoughts or strategies for relieving negative self talk, be sure to leave them in the comments.