The power of language
When you wake up in the morning, what's the first thing that pops into your head? If you're someone who struggles with depression, anxiety or low self-esteem, the day's first thoughts are likely to be negative, gloomy or self-critical. Your brain may go into auto-scan mode, sifting the previous day/week/month's events for reasons to feel bad about yourself. The stupid comment you made at that party; the dressing down your boss gave you in the meeting; the way you stumbled over your presentation.
You might think about the day ahead and see nothing but daunting, unpleasant tasks stretching out in a long line leading back to bed. If this is so, after 10 minutes of whirling negative thoughts, what happens to your mood? Even if you woke up warm, relaxed and dreamy, you're unlikely to feel that way for long. Welcome to another day...
And for many of us, almost every waking moment (when we're not frantically distracting ourselves) for the rest of the day is accompanied by a running commentary, 'self-talk' analysing everything we see, say and do. If you were somehow able to record this subliminal stream, you would be astounded at the things you tell yourself – the harsh, unforgiving, judgmental attitude you adopt. No wonder, then, that you might lack confidence, have a poor self-image or find your mood constantly dipping. How could it not?
One of the first things I tell my clients is to watch out for this self-talk – especially words like 'should', 'ought', 'must' and 'have to'. It's virtually impossible to use these loaded words in a way that doesn't crank up our stress levels or make us feel bad:
- 'I should have passed that exam – I'm such an idiot.'
- 'I must stop saying stupid things all the time.'
- 'I ought to be making a hundred grand by now. Why am I such a loser?'
And so on. As an experiment, try replacing these 'imperatives' with kinder alternatives:
- 'I wish I had studied harder, so I definitely will for my next exam.'
- 'I would really like to sound more authoritative when I speak, so I'm going to work on that.'
- 'It would be great to make more money – I'll find out about retraining so I can get a better job.'
See the difference? Also watch out for self-limiting talk, like:
- 'I could never give a speech that well.'
- 'I'm too stupid to do a masters.'
- 'I'll always be lonely and unhappy.'
Are any of these statements really true? Even if they were, how does it help you to think this way? Wouldn't you rather replace them with kinder, more open and inspiring possibilities?
One of the key tasks of cognitive therapy is challenging the way we think – especially when it's destructive or self-limiting. Language is incredibly powerful, so use it in ways that make you feel good, not bad, because life can be tough enough without attacking ourselves all the time. Be compassionate towards yourself. Making mistakes is an integral part of being human, so rather than beating yourself up for them, think 'What can I learn from that?'
Imagine you're speaking to a good friend – what would you tell them? How would you phrase things so they felt supported and encouraged, not belittled and judged? Try talking to yourself in the same way, even if it's really hard at first. Like anything in life, the more you practice, the easier it gets.