I've often not realized how damaging the little things I say
to myself and others can be. It may seem innocuous, humble or modest to
say something like:
"I'm not very good at this",
but when I hear my child repeating my very same words of
self-abasement to someone else, I suddenly recognize the tremendous power
hidden in those six little words.
My daughter asked me to help her tie a balloon string around
her stuffed animal toys at a recent birthday party, and I cheerfully agreed
to help. As I wrapped the balloon string around her stuffed toys, I was
surprised to hear myself saying,
"I'm not very good at tying knots... I can't remember
all the knots there are",
The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them --
like slippery will-o-the-wisps who blew through the garden unbidden and
unannounced. Once they'd burst out of my mouth, I could think of no way to
retrieve them. My eyes caught my daughter's eyes, as I looked for any clue
as to whether these words had slipped away unnoticed, or had landed on her
and taken root. My daughter's eyes shone with the simple joy that I was
helping her, and I hoped and prayed that my words hadn't become part of her
personal inner talk.
When I went to the bathroom a few minutes later, I overheard
two children talking outdoors through the open window in the bathroom. I
heard my daughter talking to a little girl, repeating verbatim exactly
the same words I'd just spoken aloud and instantly regretted!
In that moment, I could see how the things we think and don't say often get
their start in early childhood, when we listen with reverence and full
attention to every word our parents and care-givers say. These little
words sink in very deeply, indeed.
What the Research
Author Adam Khan shares a story in his book Self Help
Stuff That Works of how Randall Masciana, M.S., found out what kind of
mental strategy most improved a person's performance when throwing darts.
Masciana asked his dart-players to try everything from mental imagery
(visualizing hitting the target) to Zen meditation (clearing the mind of
extraneous thoughts). Masciana discovered that positive self-talk was the
best technique for improving the dart thrower's ability to hit the target.
This kind of positive self-talk is very simple -- it consists of talking to
oneself in a confident, reassuring, positive, friendly way. Surprisingly,
positive self-talk works better than anything else!
In her American Journal of Nursing article, "Making Self-Talk Positive",
McGonicle defines "harmful" negativity as being "awfulistic" - where
everything is viewed as being catastrophic, "absolutistic" - using "must,"
"always," "never", or "should-have" statements in one's self-talk. It's
generally healthier to refrain from all-or-nothing thinking, discounting
the positive, emotional reasoning, and personalization and blame.
In her book Your Body Believes Every Word You Say, Barbara Levine
recommends that we examine our seed thoughts for signs of mindless cliches
and other negative elements, so we can replace these thoughts with
something more constructive. Regardless whether our thoughts are positive
or negative, Levine suggests that we reflect upon how we are feeling when
these kinds of self-talk statements arise. We can then discover which
thoughts help us feel better, so we can pay more attention to those
thoughts more often.
Positive self-talk has been associated with reduced stress, which has been
shown in numerous health studies to affect our health. Both thoughts and
self-talk are based on beliefs that we form early in life. As I've now
witnessed first-hand, beliefs shape our self-talk, which in turn affects
our self-esteem... and our quality of life.
How to Transform Negative
The technique that works for me is to write two columns of
phrases down... one on the left with the negative self-talk that I've
noticed and would like to neutralize, and a column on the right for it's
antidote or reverse self-talk statement.
For example, if I wish to rectify my negative self-talk regarding my
feeling of inadequacy tying knots, I would write down the reverse of my
negative self-talk statement as something like this:
"I am very good at tying
At this point I am concerned more with my inner feeling
about tying knots than with my actual ability at knot-tying. I know that
by improving my confidence on the inside first, I will be able to more
easily learn what it takes to be good at tying knots.
Perhaps more importantly, I'll be setting a good example for every
impressionable person around me, and feeling much better about
Grainger, R.D. (1991). "The Use--and Abuse--of Negative
Thinking." American Journal of Nursing, 91(8), 13-14.
Khan, Adam, Self-Help Stuff
That Works (1999), a collection of 120 short chapters on taking your
attitude and your effectiveness to new heights. Write to Adam at
Levine, Barbara H. Your Body
Believes Every Word You Say: The Language of the Body/Mind Connection
(1990). Boulder Creek, CA: Aslan.
McGonicle, D. (1988). "Making Self-Talk Positive". American Journal of
Nursing, 88, 725-726.