Monday, December 3, 2012

The Power of Negative Self Talk

I've been thinking about writing this post for a while, and I usually sit and hammer out a post all in one go as part of a therapeutic purging but this one I think might take time. We'll see.

I want to talk about the incredible power that your self talk has over your self image. Because I don't think I can understate the incredible difference that this has made in my life. And its still new for me but I want to share because it has been such a change for good, that I can't not share what I've learned with those I love. Ya know?

Some definitions before we start so we're all on the same page. Self talk is the things you say to or about yourself and how you say them. You can say them out loud or in your head, it doesn't matter, they have power either way. These things can be good or bad. And sometimes its not immediately obvious which category they fall under b/c as a society we tend to be fond of self deprecating humor, but that too is often dangerous. I'll talk more on this in a bit.

Self Image is how you see yourself. This includes both your mental image of yourself and what you see when you look in the mirror (which is not usually what is really there but can be strongly altered by the filter of your self image). Some one who is depressed is liable to have a very negative self image and what they see when they look in the mirror might be very accurate on the negative end of the spectrum but they can't see any of the good that others see. Other mental illness such as eating disorders can warp your perspective so badly that while they might look like a holocaust survivor to anyone else, but when they look in the mirror all they can see is a fat person. Literally. Some one with Narcissistic Personality Disorder would look in the same mirror and see only good things (possibly far more good things than are actually there) and none of the bad.

I think one of the healthier goals you can have in life is to have a fairly accurate and overall positive self image.

I'm also going to pull the terms Pride and Self Esteem and in my usage they're not going to be the same thing. Self Esteem is positive self pride - for example - when you are rightly glad and proud of yourself for the good things that you have done and for the accurate evaluation of your own strengths. Its a good thing to have good self esteem. You want to have positive self worth.

Pride in my usage is akin to arrogance and over statement of your own achievements. You fail to recognize the support that others give you in your tasks. Everything you do is good and perfect and wonderful and you did it all by yourself and others should kiss your grits.

Negative Self Esteem is what happens when you feel worthless because you fail to recognize the good and give credit to yourself.

And now I'm going to share w/ you an image that I slaved over in photoshop that, sadly, came as something of a revelation to me in my early 20s. Because somehow I got it into my head as a teenager that there were only two options:

If you said good things about yourself, then you were arrogant and stuck up. And I had been horribly bullied by arrogant, stuck up girls so I desperately didn't want to be like them so I avoided saying anything nice about myself at all costs.

This was bad (also wrong).

The reality is that its a spectrum. There are 3 options and not just two. And like most things, swinging too far in either direction is a bad thing but theres a happy place somewhere in the middle that you want to aim for where life is good. With out further ado here it is:

Aren't you amazed at how beautifully colored and detailed that chart is? I know its amazing. lol. But ya know what? It works great to illustrate my point. Its a spectrum and I've discovered that not only can you say nice things to yourself and about yourself with out becoming one of "Those" people, you SHOULD say nice things to and about yourself because its healthy and does good things for you.

Ya know for years in Psych I read about and was taught about the power of positive and negative self talk. And somehow I just didn't think that really applied to me. Yes, in this one area I had rocks in my head but the good news is that I have learned.

I used to have horrible self esteem and an even worse self image. Looking in the mirror used to reduce me to tears. Literally. When I looked in the mirror all I could see was someone grotesquely obese (regardless of my actual size at the time) and borderline deformed in the face. I couldn't see a single positive thing and all I could see were all the horrible imperfections and it seemed the longer I stared at them the more pronounced the deformation.

And the things I said to myself and about myself were even worse. It started when I was in middle school and people called me an arrogant bitch because I was intelligent and wouldn't let people copy off my papers (because I felt it was morally wrong and I didn't want to be a sinner).

People said I talked funny. (The clearest I could get anybody to elaborate on what it was I was doing wrong, so I could try to fix it, was that it was my vocabulary and I had no idea how to fix that.) But I learned quickly that if I made fun of myself first - that self deprecating humor I mentioned earlier - then it diffused the situation and they laughed with me instead of at me. It was survival in the horrible school I was in (I was living in the ghetto and my name was "Hey White Girl" for a few years). And like many survival skills for horrible situations - they might save your life then but applied to normal life, are terribly unhealthy.

Then we moved and I hit puberty and now because I had boobs and hips when none of my peers did, they called me fat and I learned to apply self deprecating humor to that as well.

I have a pet theory that this is why so many fat comics commit suicide. Because they too learned that if they made fun of their weight before others did that they could avoid being laughed AT and instead be laughed WITH. But they, like me, didn't realize the terrible price of that humor...

The problem, that I didn't realize at the time, is that long term - I believed it. I started to believe I really was stupid and fat. It happened so slowly I didn't notice but it did happen.

By the time I was in high school, I was seriously considering an eating disorder as a viable weight loss option because I was so unhappy with how I looked. Even when I lost weight and was dang near perfect in my proportions (in hindsight) I still thought I was fat. I compared myself to the other girls and because I wasn't perfect, I was worthless.

And that is more or less how I thought until college. And there a few wonderful roommates and companions on my mission taught me the revolutionary new thoughts that "Chubby girls get married too" and "Anybody who doesn't want you because of how you look, isn't the kind of person you want to be with anyways" and "Just because you're not perfect doesn't mean you're worthless".

Those might sound like "Duh" statements to you, (and I sincerely hope thats the case) but sadly, for me they were revolutionary.

And then I met Adam. And for what he has taught me in this area I will forever be thankful. Because prior to getting married to him I avoided all negative self talk in his presence (okay maybe more like 90% of the time I managed to keep it hidden) b/c I loved the way he saw me and I didn't want to point out all the things wrong w/ me in case I managed to convince him of them and he'd lose interest...

So when we got married and he started hearing more of it (harder to hide things from people you live with) his response was thusly: "Hey!! Nobody gets to talk smack about my wife! Not even my wife!"  lol. It made me smile and it seemed to truly, deeply bother him when ever I did it so I made a conscious effort to avoid negative self talk aloud in his presence.

And sometimes the difference was subtle. Instead of going "Omg, I am so stupid!" (which would get me in trouble lol), I could say "Oh man, I had a stupid!" (Which he also objected to initially and I pointed out, that no I'm not stupid in general, but in this one decision was a poor choice etc etc).

Doesn't sound like much of a difference but I started to notice a change in the feeling. When I would call myself stupid, it didn't feel nice. It was a pang in my chest. But when I would say "Oh man, I can't believe I had that stupid moment", I didn't get that bad feeling. I like avoiding bad feelings so I kept it up. I even started to watch how I worded things in my own head.

Then I realized I was going to be having children and that I desperately didn't want them to learn my bad self image habits from me (because "Do what I say and not what I do" has never yet proven to be an effective parenting technique). And, this sounds silly, but I learned I couldn't look at myself in the mirror with out a barrage of negative thoughts. So I avoided it. Unless I'm doing my hair or make up, or just checking to make sure I look okay before walking out the door, I didn't look in the mirror.

It was kind of a "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" and since staring at myself in the mirror naked lead to involuntary negative thoughts (not that I made a habit out of that or anything, just more, I catch sight of myself after say a shower and go "OMG!" and then stare for a few minutes at what I felt was a train wreck and poke and prod and jiggle and catologue all the parts I hated... you wanna talk about powerful negative reinforcement....). But so because I couldn't look with out bad thoughts, I made sure I avoided looking.

And I did this for probably a year or so. I'm not sure exactly. I still find its not advisable for me to stare. Its much healthier for me to only check out my weight loss progress in the mirror with clothing ON. And to make sure to ridgidly control my thoughts. "Yes this does not look how I would like it to look, BUT it does look better than it did before and that is positive". I also make sure I include at least one positive for every negative to try to keep balance.

And something miraculous started to happen. After I'd do my make up and look in the mirror, instead of wincing and going "Well thats as good as its going to get", I'd actually look in the mirror, wince free and think "I actually look pretty decent!" I even got so far as thinking I looked pretty.

Then another little miracle happened. I posted a bunch of headshots to FB for opinions from friends (I needed a new profile pic for work) and an old friend of mine who is gifted with photoshop took one and played around with it. She sent me a copy and apologized and hoped I didn't mind.

And no, no I didn't mind one little bit.

In fact I stared at this image for weeks afterwards (which sounds incredibly vain now that I write it but I swear its not) just because I was so shocked that that girl in the picture was ME and she was beautiful. I had never put myself and the word beautiful together in a sentence. I was pretty, maybe, with make up. But I'd never be so arrogant as to call myself beautiful. But that was the only word I felt was accurate for that picture. I think it helps A LOT that the pencil-sketch like quality of the picture means you only see the features themselves and not any imperfections in the skin or circles under the eyes. You just see the features that are very pleasant.

But either way it was the start of a recognition of the revolution that had happened with out my hardly even noticing. I discovered that I actually liked myself, that I could look in a mirror and LIKE what I saw there and that while I don't look like I want to look like, in terms of "I'd like to be skinnier because I want to be healthy", I don't hate or punish myself for not looking like I should.

And I credit it to my positive self talk. Its important people. Don't ever, ever call yourself dumb or stupid or ugly. Never. Not even for a joke. You might have made a stupid decision or made an ugly face but you yourself are not stupid or fat or ugly.

So please, start today. Resolve to never, ever say bad things about yourself. Not even in your own head. It hurts. Even if it seems silly or frivolous, I thought Adam was full of it and I only stopped abusing myself to keep the peace in our house but I cannot understate the powerful positive impact this has made in my life.

Self abuse robbed me of the energy I need to accomplish things, don't let it steal your joy and your energy. You can have positive self esteem with out being prideful. Be accurate and fair to yourself. I am not fat. I have weight I would like to lose so that I can be healthier. I am not stupid tho I occasionally make stupid decisions but I can learn from those and not do them again.

(For the record, this took a couple weeks to write).


  1. It's good to know I'm not the only one who fights this. I mean, self-help book sales be damned, one tends not to see they truly aren't alone until they know someone they know knows how they feel.

    ...That was a lot of knowledge I just dropped there...

    Seriously though, what is it about a large vocabulary that scares people? I have to say things three different ways sometimes for people who aren't "wordies"... Maybe I need new friends....

  2. lol Yes yes that was a lot of knowledge you dropped there. :) And I think you're right. It somehow.... validates the experience when someone else you know has it too.

    And I vote you need new friends w/ dizzying vocabularies. lol Sounds like fun to me anyways. (Confession: I do still occasionally have to make my mother stop what she's saying and then I go "Okay now I need you to repeat that in english". Thankfully its almost entirely limited to medical jargon now and even that is less often lol).