“I can never do anything right” . “I always say the dumbest things”. “Why am I so stupid?”. Have you ever said these things to yourself? If you’re like the rest of us, chances are you have. Often. However, if these thought patterns continue as a form of running commentary all day every day (meaning they are left virtually unattended), they have potentially damaged your sense of self. We get so used to these whisperings that we do not even notice they are there. So they shape our lives.
According to a type of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), our mind is like a master storyteller continuously telling us stories. It is in a constant monologue with us from the second we wake until the second we go to sleep. In fact, even as we sleep our storyteller continues to tell its stories or replay memories (often painful ones). According to this approach, very little of what your ‘storyteller’ (your mind) tells you (via thoughts) is fact where there is a ‘true’ and ‘false’. Rather, the stories are opinions, judgements, criticisms, beliefs, assumptions, and ideals. They are simply a reflection of the way you see the world. And these stories can be changed. So, the mind creates a narrative based on interpretation. Once formed, this narrative is hard to dismantle.
A thought is just a thought. It is neither ‘you’ nor reality. It arises, lingers in consciousness for a relatively short while then fades. It is just a mental event that passes through the mind like clouds or weather patterns passing through the sky. We are always explaining the world to ourselves, and we react emotionally to these explanations rather than to the facts. All the feelings we feel are brought on not by the events in our lives, but rather the interpretation of these events.
We can be drawn into thinking our thoughts are true and they are us and we are them. Once we become them we can fall into ruminative brooding, basically going over and over an event in our minds, all the while pushing our emotional buttons and increasing our stress and anxiety levels, causing overwhelming demoralising feelings.
The ‘blueprint’ for how we treat ourselves was formed when we were children via the emotional availability of our parent or main caregiver . When an infant cries, the emotionally attuned parent attends to the infant. The process that ensues of soothing, reassurance and nurturance are all displays of ‘love’ that, when repeated hundreds of times per day, are critical to that infant’s identity development and sense of self.
So, why is it that the same person with the same ideals can be the nurturing, kind, positive support to their best friend when something goes wrong yet be the harsh, rude and stern internal critic to themself when they face the same type of experience? Do you treat yourself the way you would like others to treat you?
Try these 5 immediate ways to challenge your internal critic as outlined in The Happiness Trap (they’re so simple they may seem unrealistic, but they work):
1. Anytime you feel stressed, anxious or depressed ask yourself ‘what is my mind telling me now?’ Then ask yourself “Is this thought helpful? Does it make me the person I want to be?” If it is unhelpful, practice being more mindful of it using the techniques below.
2. When a distressing thought arises, repeat the thought in your head after inserting this phrase: “I’m having a thought that…”. When you practice this repeatedly you will find some distance being created as if you have ‘stepped back’ from the unpleasant thought.
3. Identify your mind’s favourite demoralising stories then give them names, such as ‘The Loser Story or the I’m Worthless Story. Then, when they pop up say ‘Ah yes, I recognise this familiar story’.
4. When a common self-critical thought comes into your head, defuse its hold on you by singing it to yourself to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Jingle Bells’ or another tune. As you practice this over time you will realise the thought is simply a collection of words, just like the lyrics of a song.
5. Remember, the story is the story. The story is NOT the event. Avoid holding on to these too tightly.
By practicing letting go of disparaging and demoralising thoughts, we are removing the shackles that keep us trapped in the prison of our own minds. Only then can we begin to learn how to observe the same respect for ourselves that we so readily offer others.
As the common Buddhist saying goes: “You can explore the universe looking for somebody who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and you will not find that person anywhere”.
References and further reading:
The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris.
The Mindful Way Through Depression. Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn.
By: Alison Lenehan
Psychologist, Alpha Psychology