We often hear, read or say that we are our own worst enemy because self-negative talk is perceived as an inner terrorist uniquely dedicated to sabotaging us. As a result, many of us are engaged in a lifelong inner battle with an assumed hostile inner self-talker.
We develop ingenious ways to try to win over our inner negative self-talk without, in many instances, much success. Sometimes we win for a while, but then the inner bogeyman comes back with a vengeance and we blame ourselves for that, which in turns feeds the negative self-talk. This inner battle sucks a lot of our energy, and living with an inner enemy that we regularly need to keep in line leaves many of us in a constant state of anxiety.
How would it feel if we didn’t consider negative self-talk as the enemy?
Let’s take a few examples of negative self-talk:
“I’m an idiot”
“it will never work”
“I’m not good enough”
“ I can’t do it”
At face value, it is true that these statements are usually not what we expect our friends to say to us. However, most of the time these statements reflect our core beliefs about ourselves, about our self-worth and what we can achieve and deserve from life. It does not by any means reflect reality but it is what we believe about ourselves. When we try to ignore our negative self-talk we ignore a part of us who’s hurting badly. And research has shown that if we try to impose positive statements to counteract our negative self-talk, we actually reinforce deep-seated beliefs about ourselves (Wood, Perunovic, Lee, 2009).
We are not our own worst enemy, our self-negative talk either mirrors how we deeply feel about ourselves or it tries to warn us from disappointment, like when we, for instance, say to ourselves “I can’t do it”, which might prevent us to experience failure. It is true that It does sometimes keep us away from what we want to do or be, but it is not made with a malicious intent.
So, how can we approach our self-negative talk?
Compassion can be a start. When we hear ourselves saying “I’m an idiot”, we can first say “ok, I hear what you’re saying, and it must be a very unpleasant thing to believe”. In doing that we honour the part of ourselves who’s hurting. We start to make peace.
There are also a number of exercises we can do to defuse the impact such a kind of statement can have on us, to alter our deep seated beliefs about ourselves, such as identifying the sensations attached to the thoughts, using metaphors, and playing compassionately with the words making up the statements up until the contents of the words disappear completely.
Yet, the first step is to greet our negative self-talk with kindness, like we would greet a sad or frightened five-year-old child.
Reference: Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q. E., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive thinking: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, 20, 860-866.