Families, Inc. therapist Dr. Dana Watson has been featured regularly this year on KFIN’s Breakfast Club to discuss maintaining a healthy mindset during the coronavirus pandemic. The following transcript is of her conversation with KFIN’s Brandon Baxter on February 28, 2021.
Q: Sometimes I think we don’t even realize that we are talking to ourselves—and how much influence those thoughts or self-talk have over us. I can remember some of the pep-talks I gave myself when I was wrestling and how that mindset was so powerful for how I performed. Even now before an event or show, I know the way I talk to myself can influence how well I do and how enjoyable the event will be.
Exactly! Wright Thurston, a leadership expert, says “Positive self-talk is the most powerful form of communication because it either empowers you or it defeats you.” Our inner dialogue is really just a combination of our conscious and unconscious thoughts, our general perception of ourselves and our environment. A lot of the voice comes from how we were spoken to as children, and some of it has been influenced by experiences and relationships—both positive and negative—along the way.
So, it’s important that we are mindful of our inner voice and thoughts and exactly how those words are influencing us. It can be very revealing when we realize how much the way we speak to ourselves influences our mood, our stress level, our behavior, our choices, and ultimately, how our lives will play out.
Q: I can see how optimists would have a different self-talk than pessimists.
People who generally have a positive outlook—optimists who expect mostly good things—are those who have healthy and encouraging self-talk. That’s not to say they can’t have doubts or get nervous or feel rejected, but overall, they’re pretty content and satisfied with themselves.
They were probably spoken to kindly and gently and in an affirming way as a child. They were probably securely attached to their caregivers and felt loved and safe. They knew that even if they failed or disappointed a caregiver, no one was going to stop loving them.
As adults, they anticipate life will work in their favor most of the time and they know they’re able to change course if they do fail because the voice gives them the ole “That’s okay, you tried and you learned something. Now get up and dust yourself off and try again!” speech.
Q: But those who self-talk negatively most of the time, probably had a very different experience as children?
In a lot of cases, yes. They heard messages like, “There’s no way that will work, second place is the first loser, you don’t have what it takes, you’re lazy.” Even the non-verbal messages were similar: “You’re not as good/pretty/smart/cool as your sibling, you’ll never amount to anything so don’t even bother, you are a disappointment.”
Sometimes caregivers were ill or preoccupied and the children learned to not express their needs or when they tried, they were shut down or told they were selfish. So, what else could these people do but learn to head off any pain or rejection by learning how to talk themselves out of even trying. If you anticipate failure, you don’t risk as much—you don’t try as often—so you don’t lose as often, people don’t laugh at you, they don’t realize how (in your mind) unlovable you are.
Q: So, it is really always the parents’ faults?
As a parent, I am relieved to be able to tell you it’s not always the parent’s fault. However, what influences us as children is our perception of the world around us and how we believe we fit into it. So, for a few different reasons, it is possible that a child misinterprets a parent’s comment or behavior and that misinterpretation creates a negative lasting effect.
Q: Oh, thank God.
Right? It’s also possible that the rejection or disappointment we felt when we didn’t make the cheer team made us come to the faulty conclusion that we were too clumsy or fat. Or that when we weren’t invited to a popular kids’ birthday party, we began to wrongly see ourselves as different or unlikeable.
Q: Obviously, the way we talk to ourselves can increase our stress levels and make us feel bad or insecure about ourselves and probably hinder us from taking chances or trying new things, right?
Yep. I have a plaque in my office that says, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I can’t tell you how many patients I have seen study that plaque and want to talk about it. Not failing is almost a foreign concept. They’ve never felt successful—even when they were!—because the voice was still there to tell them they could have done it better, so and so would have done it better, nobody really likes them anyway so it doesn’t matter how they did it, blah blah blah.
My patients who have more healthy self-talk say things like, “OH! I’d be an astronaut or a race car driver or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company!” They’re happy with what they are doing and who they are so all the things they imagine are much more fun and grandiose. They aren’t as scared to dream or to envision themselves succeeding.
Q: Do you think most of us talk to ourselves more harshly or critically than we talk to others?
I think that’s true for a lot of people—to be kinder and more forgiving toward others, at least outwardly, and to be a little harder on themselves. But now, if you show me a person who belittles or demeans others, I can promise you that no matter how they seem on the outside (full of themselves or confident) they are miserable people who think little of themselves. It’s incompatible to be truly happy with yourself while looking for faults in others.
Q: You mentioned how some of our self-talk comes from childhood and other relationships. I think about how my son sees me talk to myself and how what I say or how I act can influence his feelings about himself. It makes me realize just how important it is that I model healthy self-talk, especially when I might be a little down on myself.
I love this quote: “Take care of how you speak to yourself because you are listening.” We could extend that to say, “Take care of how you speak to yourself because you are listening—and so are the little people around you.”
We want the message to our ourselves and our children and loved ones to be: “I love you as you are. You don’t have to be anything or do anything or achieve anything other than be you to be loved by me. Win or lose, you are loved. First place or last place, I encourage you to try—and try again if you want to!” We humans are only going to do what we think we might be able to do. We are never going to try anything if we genuinely believe we will fail. It’s counterintuitive to our physical and emotional survival.
Q: What if we didn’t get that kind of message from our parents? How do we create that kind of self-talk that says, “I love you as you are. I will love you if you don’t get that promotion, if you get more wrinkles, if you get divorced, if you spill your glass at dinner….”?
Start by paying attention for a week of what you catch yourself saying or thinking. Write it down. The good and the bad comments, when you were nervous what did you say to yourself, when you were disappointed what did you tell yourself? When you looked really nice what did you tell yourself? Or did you go a whole week without thinking something nice about yourself at all?
Create awareness of what’s going on inside you—it might blow your mind. Maybe you’ll be pleased to hear the kindness and gentleness in the way you comfort yourself if you’re stressed or feel rejected. Maybe you’ll hear a couple of negative confidence busters you can work to alter into more realistic and supportive words. And if you hear really harsh, critical language, notice how it makes you feel, how it makes you act toward others, and how it affects your energy.
Q: We could talk to ourselves like we would talk to a child or another person who was struggling.
Yes, but a lot of people may not know how to do that if it was not modeled for them. It might seem fake or foreign. I had a friend once who was blown away when she first heard how I speak to my children. I say things like, “Precious girl, would you get Mommy her glasses?” or “I know you are so proud of yourself for how hard you worked, and I am, too!” I was socialized by my mom to speak like that to myself and others so it’s natural and incredibly genuine. If you were not raised that way, you can start today by saying one encouraging and affirming thing to yourself every day and to every person you cross paths with.
If you tend to have a negative outlook, don't expect to become an optimist overnight. But with practice, eventually your self-talk will contain less self-criticism and more self-acceptance. You can become less critical of the people and the world around you. There are so many emotional and physical benefits to more healthy and positive self-talk.
Q: If someone realizes that their own self-talk is hurting them—or even just holding them back—they could also reach out to a counselor or therapist at Families, Inc. 870-933-6886.
Yes! We do telehealth and in-person visits. Life is so short! What a pleasure it would be to accompany someone on that journey of learning to love themselves, feeling more comfortable in their own skin, and to really crank up the enjoyment they can experience in their everyday lives.