Living with a chronic illness can predispose us to negative self-talk. It can be hard to prevent our limitations – real and perceived – from changing how we see and value ourselves.
I don’t know anyone who claims to be immune to the potential ravages of negative self-talk. We all do it – although not necessarily to the same degree. Self-doubt, self-loathing, self-consciousness, self-deprecation – I could go on. But I’m guessing you know exactly what I’m talking about.
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt 100% comfortable in my own skin. But I am sure that my perspective of myself took a dramatic nose dive when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2004.
Aside from the primary concern for survival, my self-perception transformed into a warped image. It was like looking at myself in a wonky carnival mirror where the image staring back at me was still my image… but a frightening and completely distorted one.
Some of my most vivid memories are of my first days home from the hospital after my stem cell transplant. I was easing back into some semblance of normal daily activity.
I stood in the shower and for the first time in weeks took full notice of my body. There I stood, weighing in at 99 pounds. I was bald from chemotherapy. And I was struggling to keep the spray of water from leeching under dressing of the bulky triple-lumen catheter still implanted in my chest. It was all a reminder of how I saw myself: as damaged goods.
How did I feel? Vulnerable. Ugly. Useless. Compromised. Unworthy of being alive.
I know those are hard, angry words. But they’re honest. And whether I articulated them or not, there they were: etched into my psyche, sometimes whispering, sometimes screaming and rarely silent.
Negative self-talk is toxic
Don’t underestimate how toxic it is. If we fall prey to its wiles, negative self-talk will gradually become an unintentional and dangerous habit. It will chip away at our motivation, limit our ability to think rationally, steal our joy and coax us toward depression.
It can destroy our relationships, too. If you don’t feel you’re “worthy” and you’re swaddled in self-loathing, are you really going to be able to be fully present in any relationship?
When I was diagnosed with myositis two years ago, I knew that for the sake of my emotional and physical healing I couldn’t fall into the abyss of negative self-talk again. And I’m admitting right here that I probably haven’t fully escaped it yet. Old habits die hard, don’t they? It can be a Herculean effort to change them.
Priming yourself to tame negative self-talk
There are a number of different strategies for managing and reducing negative self-talk. The one thing that they all have in common is that they aim to bring your focus back to a neutral place so that you can think from a realistic perspective.
Have you heard the term “priming”? The term is used in psychology to describe exposing a person to something that will influence his or her behavior later on – without that person having any awareness that what you exposed them to is what’s guiding their behavior.
I thought about how priming can be useful as a tool for helping us understand that we do have the ability to influence – and adjust – the way that we think.
There’s a simple exercise that author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins has spoken about. It’s an easy way to get a first-hand understanding of how much our perception or expectations influence what we see – or don’t see.
Here’s how it goes:
Pick a color (let’s say green) and spend no more than ten seconds looking for that color in the room. How many green items did you find? Now pick a different color (we’ll go with blue) and without looking name all of the blue items in the room. I’ll bet you didn’t find nearly as many. Why? Because you were only focusing on the color green.
We’ll find what we look for because we’ve trained ourselves to do that. All of that negative self-talk? We’ll find plenty of reasons to believe all of it because we’re not looking for anything else.
Three ways to minimize negative self-talk
1. Meditate – even if it’s just for a few minutes
Quieting your mind with a guided meditation or soothing music reduces anxiety and helps you to relax. You can also meditate in silence. There are so many resources for meditation, and what you find to be most helpful will be unique to you. A search on YouTube will give you many options. Check out Mindful for some great guidance on getting started.
2. Name what you’re thinking
Say it out loud or write it down. The simple act of hearing it spoken or seeing it on paper can help you realize that it’s unfounded. It also reduces the power it holds over you. Ask yourself if you would say these words to a friend – or how you’d respond to a friend if he or she said them to you. Be honest – deliberately hurtful, shaming words have no place in a healthy relationship, whether it’s a relationship with a family member, friend, or yourself.
3. Stop the thought – and replace it with something positive
It may take some time to recognize all of the shapes that negative self-talk can take. You may find yourself articulating critical thoughts to yourself, or being self-deprecating and subtly disparaging yourself to your friends. Sometimes this toxic negativity is far less distinct. Maybe you find yourself avoiding trying something new or treating yourself to a small indulgence because you don’t believe you’re “worth it”.
When you recognize the negativity, stop yourself. Pinch yourself or visualize an image that will trigger you to halt the thought. Then immediately shift it to something positive. Make a pact with yourself that for every negative self-thought you have, you’ll replace it with two positive ones.
Be patient. Apparently it doesn’t take just 21 days to form a new habit – it takes 66. It’s a marathon, to be sure. But I’m pretty sure that once you start to see some progress you’ll be motivated to keep working at it.
Let me know how it goes!