I was driving along one day and noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me, “Don’t believe everything you think”. It hit me like a brick, as it was at a time in my life when I was challenging many of my thoughts. I hadn’t really thought about it as succinctly as the bumper sticker, but when it I read it, it made so much sense. Just because I think it, doesn’t mean it’s a fact. But yet, sometimes the messages are so convincing that I treat them as fact.
It’s part of our nature to try and make sense of an event and apply meaning to it, often times with little information. Have you ever said “Good morning” to your colleague and they didn’t respond, and your story to yourself was, “They must be mad at me, I wonder what I did?” When the reality is they were caught up in their own thoughts about something that happened at home and didn’t even hear you? Or, your boss leaves you a cryptic message asking you to come to their office first thing, and what goes through your mind? If your thought is, “I bet I am going to get a raise!”, your emotions are excitement and anticipation, your mood elevates. You’ll likely walk into her office with a smile on your face. If your thought is “She did not like the report I submitted” or “I’m not getting the promotion I was hoping for”, your emotions are one of worry, anxiety, sadness, possibly even anger. You’ll likely walk into her office more timidly, maybe even defensively. Do you treat your thoughts as facts? What happens to your stress level as the thoughts go through your head? Your thoughts impact your attitude towards the meeting and subsequently, your behavior/response in the meeting. How you respond to someone who you anticipate is going to give you a raise is very different than someone who you anticipate is going to tell you that you aren’t getting the promotion you hoped for.
Have you ever paid attention to how your body responds when having these types of thoughts? We have physical responses to our thoughts which may include tightened muscles, headaches, or back pain to name a few. How about your emotions? Have you had days where you find yourself snapping at others, in a grumpy mood, or perhaps isolating yourself? Have you then ever stopped to think about how your thoughts (aka, self talk) may be impacting you in negative ways and later realized those messages you sent yourself weren’t even true?
Self talk is something we do all day, every day. If we are self-aware, we are more likely to consciously listen to it (vs. unconsciously, which we are probably doing most of the time), acknowledge it’s there, and then become curious about it. “What are these thoughts about?” “Why am I thinking negatively (or positively) about this?” “Where is it coming from?” “Is it true?” If we can stay in that “neutral” place where we are open to all kinds of possibilities, we are less likely to have the physiological stress responses, and less likely to have the negative emotional and physical responses. However, if we don’t slow down and take the time to recognize those messages, we aren’t able to challenge them and we can create a lot of undue stress for ourselves.
How does one begin to recognize their own self talk? The first step is to slow down and pay attention to the message(s), become more aware of them, and question where they are coming from. For example, have you ever thought “I can’t….”? I can’t play that sport, or I can’t take on that project at work. Have you then ever challenged those thoughts? Is it really that you are unable or is it something else? You are likely convincing yourself that you can’t out of fear. Perhaps fear of failure, fear of embarrassing yourself in front of others, or maybe you feel you “aren’t ready” to take the challenge on. If you allow yourself to sit with your thoughts, you will likely develop an understanding of where they are coming from and why. You can then begin to challenge them and change your thoughts and perhaps overcome an obstacle that you have created for yourself.
Christine M., APSW, CEAP, joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor and became a Consultation Specialist before being promoted to Manager of the Consultation Team. Christine has a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a bachelor’s in Child Development and Family Life from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Additionally, she is a certified wellness coach and leads the Online Leader Coaching Team.