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SALT LAKE CITY -- Everyone constantly talks to themselves, whether they're aware of it or not. It is called “inner chatter” or “self-talk,” and what is said in that medium has a tremendous effect on the quality of one's emotional life and well-being.
Marilyn Sorensen, Ph.D., puts it this way: “You become the architect and creator of the emotions you later experience through self-talk.” She continues, “Emotions do not come as the result of an observation or an experience, but rather as the result of the things we say to ourselves about those situations. Thus, two people can have the same experience or observe the same event and come away with very different emotions.”
Lisa Najavits, author of "Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse,” states simply, “Your thinking [and self-talk] affects how you feel and act.”
Healthy self-dialogue relies on attitudes of self-respect and support. If the goal is to escape things like discouragement, depression, fear and anxiety, the nature of one's inner dialogue, inner chatter and self-talk would be a good place to start.
A generation or so ago, Norman Vincent Peale championed the idea of “the power of positive thinking” in his writings and helped start the self-help revolution.
Peale presented the story of British tennis star Gene Gilbert, who had witnessed the death of her mother in the dentist chair, where she had gone for a simple extraction. A horrific set of complications took her life as her daughter watched. Gilbert became convinced she too would suffer the same fate and for years refused to visit a dentist's office, thinking, “If I go there, I will die!”
Some 30 years later, with serious dental problems and tremendous pain, she was forced to consider visiting the dentist. Her tennis coach, minister and physician met with her to prepare for the visit. It was decided to have the dentist come to her home to make her feel as safe as possible. On the appointed day, surrounded by her friends and mentors trying to assure her, Gilbert dropped dead at the sight of the instruments in the dentist's hands.
Individual outcomes probably will not be so dramatic; however, Gilbert's demon of destruction can visit anyone. She was done in by a lifetime of self-talk centered around her fear of dying the way her mother did. She made the assumption that since fate had acted on her mother in this way, her own fate was tied to the same doom.
The logic she used was faulty. Humans don't all die in the same manner as their parents. Her assumption was a "thinking error" that became entrenched through repeated self-talk and affirmation.
Najavits suggests we need “realistic thinking” in the matters of self. When “thinking errors” are created and realistic thinking and language in our self-talk are abandoned, the emotional self suffers.
Here are some examples of unrealistic thinking:
- "I am such a stupid idiot."
- "I never do anything right."
- "I will always be alone."
- "I don’t care about the future."
When such language is used, a residual layer of feelings like discouragement, fear or hopelessness are laid down upon the emotional self. When many layers are laid down, they begin to have substance and weight. The demons of depression or anxiety that rob the ability to function in a healthy way are then invited to appear.Realistic talk would say the second phrases below instead of the first:
- "I am such a stupid idiot," becomes, "That did not turn out the way I wanted it to; I want to work on those skills."
- "I never do anything right," becomes, "We are all human and make mistakes; I am going to try to do better next time."
- "I will always be alone," becomes, "Connecting with the right person takes time; I am going to keep reaching out."
- "I don’t care about the future," becomes, "I am feeling discouraged, but I will feel better later if I don’t give up."
When one practices realistic thinking and self-talk, one follows the admonition of Buddha: "You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection." Treating oneself with love and affection, expressed in realistic thinking and healthy self-dialogue, opens the door to a healthy, happy emotional existence.
In the process of recovering from addiction, Roger Stark became a licensed addiction counselor and wrote the LDS recovery guide “The Waterfall Concept: A Blueprint for Addiction Recovery.” He blogs at his recovery website waterfallconcept.org.