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Negative Self-Talk

Our inner critic is no doubt our harshest critic – always with us, judging, attentive, and quick to evaluate not only our actions, but also our aspirations.

Framers of the DSM-IV contemplated adding another Axis II personality disorder, The Self-Defeating Personality Disorder. They believed negative self-talk was as pervasive as any other disorder.

Everyone suffers to some extent from paralysis of the inner critic. Someone said, the only people who aren’t insecure are actors and criminals.

David Burns in Feeling Good elegantly and comprehensively explains the irrational thought processes that hold us back, such as generalizing one incident to one’s life: I was refused a date by that girl, so I am a loser, unattractive to all women.

Realistically, however, positive self-talk isn’t the answer either. As American philosopher Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry said in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I cannot play in the NBA, but neither can Michael Jordan.

Much has been written and said about self-esteem in recent decades. I guess it means feeling good about yourself. But self-esteem is not obtained by people telling you you’re okay, it’s about achievement. Run five kilometers, knit a sweater, pass a math test. That’s how you get self-esteem; you earn it. Along with that comes self-efficacy – the belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and achieve goals. Something magical happens when you achieve something. Your mind says, “If I can run 3000 meters without stopping, what else can I do?” It transcends the task and reinforces mental and physical toughness.

Achievement should also involve variety. Take on new things. It expands one’s vision, contributes to happiness, and mitigates senility.

The bottom line is this: does my negative self-talk hold me back from achieving my life’s goals, or even today’s goals?  A sober inventory of aspirations, achievements, failures, and non-starts is the first order of business. If one has a pattern of non-starts or failures, it could be due to self-sabotage. Sometimes it requires a therapist to assist in uncovering those patterns and barriers.

In the words of Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

L. Michael Tompkins, Ed.D. is a licensed psychologist practicing in Sacramento, California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

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