As we meditate it can sometimes feel as if things are getting worse rather than more peaceful. This is not because meditation makes us more uptight or anxious, but because we start to tune in more quickly to the worried thoughts and emotions that previously we may have been oblivious to. In the early days of meditation we may not be aware of some of this self-critical inner dialogue, but it can become more clear the longer we meditate. But just because we don’t notice it dose not mean it is not there – it’s just that the low mod or sense of upset we feel we do not associate with what we have been telling ourselves, instead we just notice we are feeling low or sad with no idea of why. In contrast, when we do start to notice the inner critic we are actually better able to stop the downward mood swing before it has become too established.
One method for understanding your self-talk is explored in the ABCD model. Each letter stands for a step in recognising and disputing negative self-talk.
A: the ACTIVATING event that initiates the self-talk. An example might be walking along a street and waving at a friend, only for them not to respond and to walk on past.
B: the BELIEF (or negative thinking) that this activating event initiates. Depending on our temperament we may take the blame for what has happened, blame the other, or be neutral. Thoughts such as “what have I done wrong”, “why do they not like me any more” will be common if we take the blame for what has happened. Whereas thoughts such as “how dare you”, “I hate you” will occur if we blame the other. Or with a more neutral mind we may consider: “perhaps they did not see me”, “that is so unlike them, I hope they are alright”, or even “silly fellow, forgot their contact lenses again no doubt!”. With all of these we have no evidence for the truth of our belief – it is presenting itself as an objective statement on the situation, but is in fact coming from our underlying way of seeing ourselves in the world at that moment: victim, aggressor or neutral observer.
C: the CONSEQUENCES of having that thought. These are the feelings that arise as a result of having the thought. If we have blamed ourself for our friend not waving back we may then feel anxiety, worry, remorse or dread. If we blame then we feel angry, resentful or resentful. Neutral thoughts may lead to the most calm state of mind, and that calm state of mind is a result of having neutral thoughts about our friend not waving back.
D: the DISPUTING self-talk that we can use to counteract the negative inner talk. If we have taken the blame for our friend not waving back we may have started to think “I’m such a bad friend” , “people always see through me”, “I’ll never manage to keep any lasting friendships”. Noticing these thoughts we can start to counter them by deliberately thinking in a way that brings in a different perspective. We may say to ourselves in this case “just because someone does not wave back does not mean they hate me…I need to find out first if they even saw me!”
Another example might be:
A: I spill coffee all over my new carpet
B: This activating event triggers the belief: “I’m always so clumsy and stupid”
C: the consequences of this belief is that I feel depressed and hopeless – lost in self recrimination.
D: to dispute the statement: “I’m always so clumsy and stupid” one might think, “No, just now I spilt coffee and it needs to be cleared up. This does not happen every time I have coffee, in fact this is the first time in years it has happened – so it is not true that I am always clumsy. If I were there would be a pool of coffee around me wherever I go and this is clearly not true!”
To fully engage with the final stage of disputing the self-critical thought one can use the process of thought stopping. Negative self-talk will often occur vey quickly when we are in a triggering situation and this will quickly lead to a downward tail spin as we are pulled into difficult emotions associated with the negative self-talk. In fact it is almost as if we go into a default mode where an event triggers a belief that then takes us to a familiar emotional landscape. In one way we feel comforted by the familiarity, but it means we can come to return again and again to a landscape that is harsh and difficult to thrive in: blame, self-deprecation, feeling guilt, sad or bad.
To interrupt this automatic cycle of events leading to familiar landscapes of belief, we first need to recognise what our habitual thought patterns are. Once we start to know the territory we can then prepare some alternative ways of thinking. You will need to work out your own according to what your habitual self-talk is, but here are a few examples:
- “I do not need to be perfect. All humans make mistakes – and making a mistake does not mean I am a mistake”
- “Relax and breathe. I can cope with this situation”
- It is not helpful to think like this. I do not deserve to treat myself like this. This self-talk is just a bad habit”
- “Even if he rejected me it does not mean I am unlovable – my friends love me, so I am lovable”
- “I have value, regardless of what anyone says”
- “Not everyone is looking for a cover model as a boyfriend” – useful when one thinks no-one will ever find one attractive!
It may feel hard to say these at first. We somehow feel it is natural and authentic and honest to say harsh things to ourself – but arrogant, false or disingenuous to say anything positive. In a latter email I’ll address the issue of core-beliefs and how these can make it hard to say anything positive to ourselves. But for now, explore going to your edge and recognise that discomfort may simply mean you are in new territory that does not feel familiar, but that does not mean you are wrong to be saying these positive things to yourself.
You may like to make your own list of pleasant, encouraging or positive thoughts that you can say to yourself when you notice you are caught in negative self-talk.
Interrupting the Loop: this final method is used when we feel we are in a repetitive loop of negative self-talk that keeps repeating like a needle stuck in a scratch in a record. When you recognise that this is happening gently say to yourself: “stop”, as you would to a good friend who is caught in self recriminations or blame. It is not a harsh “stop” but loving and gentle, but this may also find expression though an assertive and firm statement, as you would to someone trying to cross you boundary. The idea is to say it emphatically enough that you interrupt the flow of thought.
If you find that you are feeling frustration building up as a result of the repetitive negative self- talk you can create an assertive “talk back” statement as a way to challenge the primacy of the negative self-talk. For example:
- “stop blaming and catastrophizing”
- “this negative garbage is not helping”
- “these old messages are wrong and unfair”
Feel into what your own might be but remember, you are rebutting the old negative messages, not speaking to yourself in a punitive way. Then, after stopping the constant flow of negative self-talk you can insert an affirming statement.
If you have enjoyed this, you may like to look at the book that I am drawing from: Loving Ourselves, the gay and lesbian guide to self-esteem, Kimeron N. Hardin