If we repeat these enough to ourselves, they become automatic and feel like facts. Once this happens, it often does not occur to us to challenge them – they become part of our personal lens of perception that we see the world through.
Having these thoughts briefly or occasionally is not a problem, but getting stuck in them is. When we take a step back, a deep breath, and notice our self-talk, there may be clues to an unhealthy and judgmental inner voice that may be behind much of our distress.
Here are 6 common thoughts that indicate an unhealthy and self-defeating perspective, followed by solutions for calming that critical inner voice.
1. I shouldn’t feel this way.
If an emotion is there, it’s there. Resisting it won't make it go away – it will make things worse. Emotions don't like to be ignored, stuffed, or resisted. They tend to keep poking at us until we notice them. Turning towards the emotion we don’t want to have may seem counterintuitive, but it will actually decrease our distress.
Solution: Notice the emotion, identify it by name, accept that it's there, and allow ourselves to feel it. Feeling it doesn’t change any facts, it’s just part of acknowledging a reality, or what is.
2. It’s ridiculous for me to feel this way.
This takes #1 and adds judgment on top of it. Thinking not only shouldn’t I feel this way, but my feelings are ridiculous, will further inflame the emotion and stuff it down with shame. This leads to general negative self-perception. There's no benefit to shaming our own emotions, and we're often unaware of this form of self-bullying – we just experience it.
Solution: Step back, deep breath, empathize with our self. This means seeking to kindly and nonjudgmentally understand the emotion instead of ridiculing it. Ridiculing it is a cruel form of denial that distracts us from our healing path.
3. That was so stupid of me.
Whatever it was that we're calling stupid is in the past, so it makes sense to try to view it in the healthiest way possible. A common belief is that we need to be hard on ourselves in order to change a behavior, but we actually don’t – it just makes us feel worse and is discouraging. Noticing that we'd prefer to do something different next time is all that's needed. It doesn’t matter how big the mistake is. It’s not calling the mistake fine or great; it’s not trying to turn a negative into a positive. It’s about healing and self-kindness. There's no downside to either one.
Solution: Accept the fact that we're not evolved or designed to be perfect, and call a mistake by its name. Then use encouraging self-talk that fosters hope.
4. I try to think positively, but I can’t.
Trying to improve our outlook with positive thinking can lead to flip-flopping – a term I use when we try to lie to ourselves with a thought we would like to believe, but don’t. If we are truly worried or unhappy about something, thinking, “It’ll all work out,” or, “I’m fine,” is completely invalidating to our emotional part. When we pretend our worry or unhappiness isn't there, it builds and builds, resulting in an increase in stress hormones followed by an eventual outburst, an explosion, passive-aggressiveness, racing thoughts, or unhealthy coping behaviors. Then we flip back to the negative. It’s internal warfare.
The main problem here is black-and-white, or rigid thinking. If we notice an internal dialogue that sounds like, “It’s going to be fine! No it’s not!” we're flip-flopping and distressing ourselves unnecessarily.
Solution: Be self-validating, neutral, and hopeful. Just as we can’t tell the future with negative thoughts such as, “This is going to be a disaster,” we also can’t tell the future with positive thoughts, “Things will be great!” We can notice our rigid thinking, and look for a gray area. Thinking, “I’m noticing I’m feeling worried about this, but it may work out OK. Either way, I’ll do my best to cope,” is a rational and much healthier thought than positive affirmations that our brain doesn't believe.
5. I should be doing better, or, I’ll never be good enough.
Better than what? Good enough for who? Making comparisons is a natural tendency, but it’s often a harmful one – especially when our brain is irrationally filtering out positives. Life isn't a race and we can define success however we choose, as well as the perspective we would like to take on wherever we are in our lives. There is no bottom to this particular thought pattern because there is always some kind of “better.” A common false belief is that challenging this leads to complacency.
Solution: Ditch the “should” and the shame. Replacing it with, “I want to, I hope to, I’ll try to,” inspires hope, motivation, and action. Again, take that step back, deep breath, and then accept whatever facts are evident. Refocus on carefully chosen steps or goals, and replace these unhealthy comparisons with encouraging, rational, and healthy self-talk.
6. I’ll never forgive myself.
Many people confuse forgiveness with condoning or forgetting. Forgiveness means letting go of anger about some transgression, and has nothing to do with saying this transgression was OK. Forgiveness allows for redemption, healing, growth, and the release of toxic anger.
Solution: Allow our healthy part to wisely acknowledge that anger towards ourselves has no benefit. All it does is sustain shame and other negativity. Taking ownership of the transgression, making whatever amends we can, and forgiving ourselves, are steps towards healing and inner peace.
Click here for more information on managing thoughts and developing healthier perspectives with cognitive behavioral therapy.
Marsha Mandel is a therapist with a private practice in Cornwall, New York. www.mandelcounseling.com