Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Changing Your Self-Talk

Those with low self-esteem are often pessimists. And pessimists have three bad self-talk habits. Dr. Martin Seligman discusses the differences between optimists and pessimists at length in his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.

First, according to Dr. Seligman, pessimists ascribe the cause of negative events to themselves. If their tire goes flat, it’s because they were careless about where they were driving. Optimists blame the damn construction site they drove through for causing a nail to get stuck in the tire.

Second, pessimists ascribe the cause of negative events to something permanent rather than something temporary. They say to themselves “The world is against me” rather than “Things didn’t work out my way this time.” And, conversely, pessimists ascribe good events to temporary causes. “I was lucky this time”--not “I am the best man for this job.”

Lastly, pessimists make negative generalizations about themselves, rather than focusing on the specific instance of failing. Instead of “I didn’t study hard enough this time,” they say “I’m not smart enough to learn this material.” And when they do do well, they don’t say “I am really good at chemistry”--instead they say “The teacher made the test really easy this time.”

How do you replace the old tapes that play in your head? As soon as you hear yourself doing any one of those three things mentioned above (blaming yourself, making the bad causes permanent rather than temporary, and generalizing the bad), stop yourself. If you’re into behavioral modification--or BDSM--put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it every time you catch yourself thinking that way. Seriously.

Once you stop the thought, you have two choices. You can argue with yourself or you can distract yourself.

Argue with yourself. Is what you’re saying to yourself true? What alternate explanations are there? Think of the last activity or assignment you did well. Write three separate lines about why you were successful. Do not make those explanations specific to the assignment. Make positive generalizations about yourself. Think of the last activity or assignment you screwed up. Write three separate explanations for why it went poorly. These explanations should either (1) blame an external force--not yourself (my boss is an idiot), or (2) contain a specific reason that is temporary not permanent (I was tired that day vs. I never have enough energy).

Distract yourself. Think about something else. No need to keep repeating that same old garbage to yourself. Read an engrossing comic. Talk to a friend about chaos theory.

Distracting yourself is not cheating. You may feel that you need to think through those pessimistic thoughts, come to terms with them, analyze them, blah, blah, blah. You don’t. They are worthless and meaningless. You don’t sit around and contemplate flat earth theory, do you? It’s not correct and has no relevance to your world. The same with your negative thoughts about yourself.

For more information on optimism, check out Dr. Seligman’s books, Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism.

Over the last couple of weeks we have discussed how to build self-esteem. Now it is time to go forth in the world and build competencies, volunteer, live with integrity by doing what you value and want to do rather than what others think you should value and want to do, and change your self-talk.

It’s that simple.

And that hard.

Up next Tuesday: I'll begin discussing how to manage social anxiety