The Connection Between Self-Talk and Your Feelings
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” -William Shakespeare, Hamlet
One approach I use collaboratively with clients in helping them reach their goals involves what is known as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Simply put, it describes the idea that people do not passively respond to situations in their life, but rather people assign meaning to situations in their life and then respond to that specific meaning.
For example, imagine two individuals sitting in traffic at rush hour. One perceives himself as trapped and says such things to himself as “I can’t stand this,” “I’ve got to get out of here,” “Why did I ever get myself into this commute?” What he feels is anxiety, anger, and frustration. Now let us say that the other individual perceives the situation as an opportunity to sit back, relax, and listen to music. She says such things to herself as, “Well, there’s nothing I can do, so I might as well just relax and adjust to the pace of the traffic,” or “I can unwind by listening to the radio.”
In both cases, the situation is the same (i.e., stuck in traffic), but the feelings in response to that situation are vastly different because of each individual’s internal monologue, or self-talk. The truth is that what we say to ourselves in response to any particular situation can heavily determine our mood and feelings, and can often influence what we do afterward as well!
In short, CBT states that you are largely responsible for how you feel in many situations. The bothersome thing is that we can often trip ourselves up by making a somewhat stressful situation into a severely stressful situation – based solely on our thoughts. However, the positive spin is that, through our willingness to take responsibility for our reactions, we can then take charge and have further control over our lives!
Even though part of my career involves directly talking about how thoughts influence how we feel and act, I am most definitely not immune to making a somewhat stressful situation into a severely stressful situation myself! After all, it’s not necessarily about outright stopping irrational thoughts we have in our life, but noticing them when they happen. For example, I enjoy music and have tried my hand in learning various instruments in the past. As with many things we are working on in life to change, I found that some of my thoughts regarding learning this new skill defaulted to, “I must play well,” “This will never work out,” “I’m not cut out for this.” Unsurprisingly, this initially led me to feel discouraged in even attempting to learn guitar, after all, I was having thoughts that it was useless for me to even try! Which brings me to my next point…
One of the first steps in utilizing CBT begins when we start to counter and replace negative thoughts with rational, positive, self-supportive statements that help our ability to cope. Basically, we sometimes need to pick apart our own self-talk to see how truthful (or untruthful!) they really are in a given situation.
For example, when you decide to avoid a situation altogether, it may be because of the scary questions you’ve asked yourself, such as, “What if I am rejected?” “What if I embarrass myself?” “What will other people think of me?” “What if I can’t do this?”
In response to these examples of self-talk, one might say, “So what if they don’t like me,” “These are just thoughts,” “This is just scare-talk,” “I can handle this,” or “I can breathe, let go, and chill out.” For example, when it came to guitar, I would counter negative thoughts about “not being cut out for this” with more realistic thoughts of “It’s difficult for everyone when you start out,” “Any progress is progress,” or “everybody makes mistakes!” Needless to say, when I was able to look at the situation as a whole, instead of just focusing on the stressful or negative, I felt more motivated and in control, because I allowed myself to be in control by evaluating all the facts of the situation!
Often it’s only when you relax, take a step back, and really examine what you’ve been telling yourself that you can see the connection between self-talk and your feelings. What is important is that we learn to slow down and take notice of our negative internal monologue.
Negative self-talk can be viewed as a series of bad habits. We aren’t born with a predisposition to fearful self-talk – we unfortunately just learn to think that way sometimes. However, just as you can replace unhealthy behavioral habits (such as smoking, or eating tons of junk food) with more positive, health-promoting behaviors, so too can you replace unhealthy thinking with more positive, realistic, and supportive mental habits in your daily life!