Author’s note: This is Part 2 in a pair of posts. I encourage reading Part 1 (My Friend Q) if you haven’t yet seen it!
We live our lives largely unaware of the constant internal monologue we hold with ourselves, and for most the voice inside our head speaks with both positivity and negativity, building us up and breaking us down at different times. Occasionally, though, our inner voice becomes particularly mean and nasty, becoming less of a companion and friend, and more of an enemy—one we’re stuck with 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year.
This is our self-talk: the way we treat ourselves in our own minds and within our own heads. Earlier this week, I illustrated a glimpse of my own negative self-talk and the struggle I have fighting that voice inside my head— (I call her Q). At some point in our lives, we all fight with our own Q.
Rather, we must fight with Q. When we let Q run the show—when we allow her to continue to jabber away and tear us down time and time again, we suffer the consequences: a lack of confidence, self-loathing, depression, worthlessness, and more. We are constantly hearing about finding peace with ourselves, but sometimes, to find peace, we need to fight for the truth, because the truth is this: Q is a liar. Our negative self-talk paints an inaccurate, warped picture of who we are, and if we ever want to be happy with who we are, we need to stop lying to ourselves.
Consider this example. I am a teacher, and this week my students are preparing for midterm exams. They are stressed, anxious, and under incredible pressure—much of that pressure from themselves. You can imagine my surprise when, with my mind so focused my own self-talk this week, I overheard a colleague across the hall speaking to her students:
“Ladies, you need to stop with the negative self-talk. It is destroying you and breaking you down.” An hour earlier, I had a similar conversation with my advanced placement students, asking them what their test scores say about them as a person, and what their test scores really mean (hint: the answer is nothing). And yet the self-talk of so many high school students today is that their grades are representative of their success; they are failures if they get lower than a 95; they’ll never get into college; they’re too dumb to be in this school; their friends and classmates are so much better than them; they’re letting down their parents, their teachers… and on it goes. Q is hard at work within every single one of them, and in all of us, and in times like this, it’s only through conscious effort that we can shut her up and shut her down.
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So how do we address the negative self-talk?
- Recognize and separate the critic from yourself. For me, it helps to consider my critic as a separate person: someone who is not me, but who is with me all the time. This is Q. In recognizing that the critical voice inside our head is not who we are, and does not define us, but is rather just another voice among thousands of voices, we make it easier to look at the self-talk rationally, and take a stand against the lies it tells us.
- Talk back to the critic. This is where things get more difficult, particularly if your Q has been given free-reign for any length of time. This is the fight: instead of accepting the negative self-talk as true, we have to question it, talk back, and fight the lies it tells us. For me, I find that simply trying to think it away doesn’t help. I need to write it down: What is Q telling me about myself? Usually, the things Q tells me are extreme: I am a failure, I am an awful person, I am good for nothing, I make no one happy, I should give up. Then address Q’s claims: how is what she’s telling me distorted? We are never so black-and-white, all good or all bad. I’m not perfect, but neither am I so completely worthless as Q makes it seem. So fight back with a more rational response: I may have failed to make a great dinner tonight, but I’ve made plenty of good meals; I am not a failure. I may not have said exactly the right thing to make a student feel better, but I’ve helped lots of students through so many things; I am not a bad person. My work is not my worth; no matter what, I am valued by God, by my husband, by my family.
Recognizing is the easy part: it’s the talking back that’s hard. As someone with depression, the talking back often feels useless, pointless. It’s just about going through the motions: I talk back and create rational responses to Q even though I don’t believe them right now, because eventually, after enough work, practice, time, and effort, I’ll start believing, seeing through the lies and embracing the truth.
Keep fighting, my friends. We deserve to love ourselves and be happy, no matter what Q says.