Identifying the different types of critical self-talk
Over the last month I’ve been reading ‘Loving Ourselves’, the Gay and Lesbian Guide to Self-Esteem, by Kimeron N Hardin. It has been fascinating and the latest chapter has been really helpful in identifying negative thinking patterns and how to work with them, so in this weeks email I’ll be sharing these with you.
In last weeks class I was reflecting at the start of the session that learning to meditate can bring great peace, but also make us more aware of what we had previously been ignoring. In this way it’s like the stones that rise up out of the ground as the rain slowly causes them to appear at the surface. These negative patterns of self-talk and the associated low self-esteem have been here throughout, but at times as we meditate and bring more self awareness to our inner dialogue and feelings it can seem as if things are getting worse as we all of a sudden hear our negative script much more clearly, and feel the negativity we direct to ourselves more astutely.
For this reason it can be beneficial to have some ways of working with difficult thoughts and feelings. In meditation we simply learn to note what is there, open to it and come back to the breath. There can be a process of opening to the awareness that is able to hold what is there in an open embrace and this can feel very peaceful. I certainly find meditation is a refuge for me in this regard. A chance to sit still and at peace. But there are times when the thinking mind takes over and thoughts and emotions run riot. As this happens it helps to bring a reflective curiosity to the process of the mind, thoughts and feelings.
The following is a summary of chapter 10, from ‘Loving Ourselves’ by Kimeron Hardin.
As we bring awareness to thoughts in the moment we begin to notice patterns of thinking that arise without any conscious will on our part. Such thinking is called automatic thoughts. To recognise thinking as automatic thought it is useful to identify the five characteristics of such thought:
1. Brief self statements or images: automatic thoughts often have a quality of being only a few words that express a belief about ourself that is taken as a statement of truth, such as “stupid idiot”, or “It’s too much”, “I can’t cope” or an image that has the same implication as these words – seeing yourself failing, or being told off. These thoughts arise spontaneously and with no deliberate effort.
2. Experiencing automatic thoughts as true: such thoughts often arise out of beliefs planted in our mind as children at a time when we could not evaluate the truth or veracity of an opinion. They are now heard as if they are objective truth, rather than as an opinion, simply because they are so familiar and have been part of our inner self-talk for so long. This automatic nature means they can happen immediately when a trigger event occurs. For example, if you were regularly told you were stupid as a child when you spilt something then on spilling something as an adult the self-talk is immediately ” I’m so stupid” and this is taken as true. Rather than questioning why one has such a thought as opposed to the more objective recognition: I’ve spilt something, how do I clear it up?
3. Automatic thoughts are often extreme and include rigid rules hidden in the words used: when you notice thoughts containing words such as should, must or have to this is an indication of automatic self-deprecating thoughts. “I should have learnt by now”, “I must pull myself together”.
4.They seem to have always been there: These thoughts pop up so quickly we often forget to challenge them or we forget information that contradicts them. In fact, the thoughts occur so automatically we forget to see them as opinions that have been learnt, and forget we were not born thinking in this way.
5. Automatic thoughts often group into themes: as we bring awareness to our thinking we may start to notice that the thoughts that arise whilst being specific to a situation actually fall into common themes that often form the backdrop to our negative self-view or ways of talking to ourself.
Common themes for self-talk
As you read the following see which you recognise as your own self-talk themes.
Words often used in this way of overgeneralising: all, none, everybody, nobody, never, always.
“I’m a failure”, “I can never get anything right”, “Nothing ever works out for me”
People who have this style of thinking often believe that they absolutely cannot make mistakes, or that they have to be perfect. When a mistake happens they feel they are a failure or that they are destined to keep repeating the same mistake forever. This way of thinking tends to take a single event and make sweeping conclusions about life form that one event,
When caught in overgeneralisation one will tend to take a negative event as a pattern of one’s life and make global, labelling statements about oneself and others, places, or aspects of one’s own life, all based on a single encounter or experience.
Sub categories of overgeneralised thinking are:
i) Polarised or Black-or-White thinking.
Words often used in this way of thinking:
People who think in this way tend to limit their perspectives of a situation to two alternatives. This way of thinking ignores any element of grey, and instead sees life as consisting of opposites: right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no. This type of thinking is very common in depression and is related to the fight or flight mode of survival. Grey thinking requires an ability to hold uncertainty: “maybe this, maybe that”. When faced with a life or death situation we cannot have a maybe, we need a clear decision to fight or run. Uncertainty would create hesitation and increase the risk of being killed. Hence, when we are under stress we feel the need to make a clear either/or decision rather than hold the uncertainty of a maybe.
“The more we polarize our thinking the more likely we are to become depressed because extreme either/or thinking stimulates the emotions much more. Statements like “I’m a terrible person!” or “She’s perfect; she’s a saint!” or “I’m just a failure!” oversimplify life and cause massive emotional swings. Few marriages, holidays or jobs were ‘complete disasters’ but had different elements within them.” Ref
As a child we might fail in an exam and then think: “I’m so stupid, I’m never going to get anywhere”. Or we could think “Maths is not my strongest subject, but I have done well in English”. Or we might have a pattern of being attracted to unhealthy partners and think: “I’ll never meet anyone who is good for me”. But if we have some supportive friends we could think “I’ve met three boyfriends where it ended badly, but I have been able to make some good relationships with my friends”.
The following gives an outline of situations where we might fall into black and white thinking and offers another perspective on how one might think:
- Can I be basically an intelligent person and still do something stupid?
- Can I love my children and still get angry with them sometimes?
- Can my partner love me but sometimes be insensitive?
- Can one part of my life be difficult and other parts be easier and more enjoyable?
- Can a part of my life be difficult now but in the future get easier?
- Can some parts of an experience (such as a social engagement or vacation) be awful and other parts of it be OK? Ref
People who think in this way tend to see life through a filter or lens that distorts their perspective known as selective abstraction. This refers to a way of thinking where we pay attention only to the negatives in a situation rather than seeing it in its entirety, which might enable us to also see some positives. This type of thinking leads to feeling overwhelmed in a situation because you only see the downside and not the resources you may have to help you out of the situation. The words we use in this form of self-talk suggest that the situation has no solution, and that one has no control over it.
An example would be someone with low self esteem going out one evening to a club or to a party and not meeting any one. The self-talk might be something like: “I’m so unlovable/ so completely unattractive”. Whilst overlooking the people in one’s life who do like one, or dismissing past relationships that have meant something even if we are no longer in them now.
At the end of a relationship this type of thinking will often manifest as: “Now they have left I have nothing” , which then initiates strong feelings of loneliness and heartache. Rather than seeing that you have your friends, social network and your own qualities to attract a new partner when the time is right.
iii) Magnification or minimisation
This involves exaggerating the negatives and understating the positives. So instead of looking at your positive accomplishments, which you minimize, you magnify your perceived failures. An example would be if someone offers you a compliment, you vehemently deny the positive and focus on the negative. Ref
iv) Disqualifying the positive
Here you only look at the negative even if someone tells you differently, you continue to deny it. Here’s a possible conversation between two people showing this distortion:
John: “I’m no good at sports.”
Sam: “What about the time you scored the winning touchdown?”
John: “Oh that was just luck”
Sam: “But even the coach said you displayed skill.”
John: “He was just being nice” Ref
2. Catastrophising or Fortune Telling.
This is the tendency to predict the worst possible scenario for any possible outcome. A catastrophiser will tend to focus on worst-case scenarios, however unlikely they are to actually happen, leading to a state of perpetual anxiety and worry.
Catastrophizing can generally can take two forms:
The first of these is making a catastrophe out of a situation. For instance, if you’re a salesperson and haven’t made a sale in awhile, you may believe you are a complete and utter failure and you will lose your job. In reality, it may only be a temporary situation, and there are things that you can do to change this situation. Another example is believing that if you make one small mistake at your job, you may get fired. This kind of
Catastrophizing takes a current situation and gives it a truly negative “spin.”
The second kind of Catastrophizing is closely linked to the first, but it is more mental and more future oriented.This kind of Catastrophizing occurs when we look to the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong. We then create a reality around those thoughts (e.g. “It’s bound to all go wrong for me…”). Because we believe something will go wrong, we make it go wrong. Ref
3. Must and shoulds
Must and should modes of thinking arise out of applying absolute rules for living on oneself and others. This may happen without one even being aware of the process. When we or another does not follow the rules, by mistake or intentionally, it can make one irritated, angry and judgemental. The rules were often learnt as a child and may be irrational or unreasonable but were accepted by the child without question.
For example one may have learnt the belief: “good boys are quiet and don’t cause any disruption”. As a child and in one’s family unit this may have resulted in behaviour that was in line with this rule receiving praise and love. But as an adult, being at a party where one is quietly causing no offence, but wanting attention, one might become intensely irritated with the “loud” and “arrogant” man who is the centre of attention as he jokes, is mischievous and breaks all of one’s rules for what is required to be good and liked.
To find your must and shoulds, consider what type of people most annoy you and reflect on what it is about their behaviour you so dislike. What did you learn as a child that may have made you feel that such behaviour is wrong?
This way of thinking makes everything always about oneself. This might be through always comparing yourself to others: “She’s so much more intelligent than me”, or “my body is nothing compared to him”. Another way of personalising is to always assume that you are the source of other people’s problems, or the cause of a negative event.
An aspect of this way of thinking is mind-reading: thinking we know what other are thinking and that it is all to do with us.
A friend of mine had a powerful experience of seeing through this way of thinking. He was in a store about to pay for some items. He saw the cashier looking him up and down in a way that he took to be critical or with dislike. He reflected that he did not know what the other person was thinking and even if they were feeling negative he did not have to respond in the same way. Their negativity might have nothing to do with him, and he was aware his thoughts were his own subjective perception of the situation.
In the past he might have made a caustic comment or put the person down based on believing the truth of his perception of the situation but this time he just smiled and said hello. The cashier then chatted and in talking revealed that she had been wondering where he had got his coat as it looked perfect for her son and she would like to buy one. What had looked like a critical looking up and down was someone’s thinking face!