We all experience self-talk to varying degrees. Some of it can be positive but mostly it berates us, make us feel guilty, angry, can encourage us to slip into addiction or procrastination and can certainly overwhelm us if not checked. Most people who describe how it affects them also describe how it keeps them stuck in situations that they often know they need to change. One of the best quotes I know about this topic comes from Jordan Peterson, who says ‘If you know you are doing the wrong thing, start doing the right thing’. Maybe easier said than done on occasions.
Self-talk will consolidate fears and anxiety and actually stop you doing the ‘right thing’ to the extent of taking the easy way out and doing nothing, accepting your situation begrudgingly and missing opportunities for positive growth. Self-talk is easy to listen to because it is not only very convincing but it is exactly what the term suggests, made by self. It was created by us as children to overcome real or perceived dysfunction around our caregivers. It protected us when we needed it to by alerting us to the risks and dangers around us and keeping us safe. However, it never knows when to stop and like an old computer uses the same outdated programs on the subsequent adult. It can cause untold misery and can undermine self-esteem, decision-making, will keep codependents codependent and maintain states of dysfunction in work, relationships and life generally. It is a subject, for me, that is at the heart of codependency treatment especially. Codependents often experience strong, self-defeating self-talk that keeps them tied to the wrong relationship for them.
To be able to deal with self-talk, one must first be aware of where it first developed. As already stated, it is the ancient remnant of protection measures used in childhood. However, it further develops into definable thinking ‘parts’ that govern our behaviour generally. These ‘parts’ work with each other, against each other but battle for supremacy in the ‘family’ of parts that we all have. The most common of these parts are the inner critic, the escape voice, the guilt voice, the anger voice and the ‘child’ voice but there can be many others who want a say into what is happening. When they sense a threat, they will all jump in with their opinion and the dysfunctional aim is to ‘protect’, which means for them either doing nothing or facing no risk at all. Hence the feeling of ‘being stuck’ that many people subscribe to. This can, to the extreme, be paralysing and I have heard of clients who will take weeks or months, sometimes years agonising over the simplest of decisions. It is the influence of the emotional side of us that tries to override logic and rational thought. I have heard clients say ‘rationally, I understand but emotionally..’. My answer always is, it is not wrong to listen to the rational side as well.
I often describe the process above as similar to a pinball machine. Throw a thought in and it will hit several ‘pins’ before coming to rest. In this case, the thought is the ball and the pins are the various ‘parts’ trying to influence the process. The key is not to play ball! Once we realise and understand the concept of ‘dysfunctional protection’ that self-talk offers us and we become aware that by listening to it, we are disadvantaging ourselves, we can start to counter it and move forward. To do this, we first need to find out what the ‘parts’ are protecting us from and who they are. Is it fear of change, rejection, expectations on us for success, fear of failure? Is it the inner critic exerting influence? Are we being driven by guilt? Are we listening to the message of non-responsibility given by the escape voice? Is anger the main factor?
All of the ‘parts’ are childlike voices looking for attention and validation and they use their dysfunctional messages to get it (classic self-talk). They are a part of us but are part of the ‘fragmented self’ and they dominate because they do not want us to relive childhood trauma. They need guidance and nurturing and being told what the self wants. This calls for the promotion of a ‘leader’ for the dysfunctional internal family who will give this direction, negotiate a functional path and positively discipline ‘badly behaved’ parts.
This is not a process that happens overnight. Much work must be done on discovering ‘parts’ and the influence they have. Once this valuable work is done, the ‘leader’ has all the information it needs to intervene and add a strong, positive voice as ‘head of the family’.