Quieten your harshest critic

Quieten your harshest critic

I should not have attempted the exam.”  “I never get things right.” “Why do others have it easy compared to me?”  “I won’t amount to anything. Why bother trying?” When our spirits ebb, negative thoughts clutter our minds. From chastising ourselves to bemoaning our plight to predicting a bleak future, the persistent chatter in our heads does little to elevate our moods.

Cognitive behaviour therapists refer to this ongoing monologue in our minds as “self-talk.” While self-talk isn’t necessarily gloomy, when the tide is rough, it is often clouded by pessimism. In his book, The Curse of the Self, psychologist, Mark Leary, warns that unless we learn to curb the naysayer in our heads, we can become our own worst enemies.

Thinking is good, not over-thinking

Though we encourage children to grow more thoughtful and less reactive as they age, over-thinking can be as disastrous as impulsivity.
Ruminating over our decisions can diminish our satisfaction. While most people believe that making considered opinions and deliberating over options are helpful, an overdose of thinking can also be detrimental to our well-being.

Most negative emotions, including anger, jealousy, worry and sorrow, are often abetted by the self. Leary states that people straddle two worlds — an external world or “so-called real world of objects, people, and events,” and an internal, subjective world comprising of a person’s thoughts, feelings, hopes and worries. (Nowadays, we also have the virtual world to contend with.) We inhabit both our internal and external worlds and straddle between them on an ongoing basis.

Often, when we experience a series of negative events, we tend to overly engage with our inner selves. Leary contends that “too much inner dialogue” can be pernicious as it detracts from our ability to fully engage with the external world. When we are working, “our self-generated thoughts” about the past and future can interfere with our ability to focus wholeheartedly in the present moment. Our inner speech can also prevent us from falling asleep if our minds are abuzz with plans, worries or stratagems.

Leary recognises that self-talk plays a pivotal role in our functioning. Reminiscing about the past and planning for the future is what makes us uniquely human. While the goal is not to annihilate self-talk altogether, we need to learn to use it judiciously. Ideally, we should be able to switch it on only when “conscious self-thought is needed for optimal functioning.” If you are like most people, you need to curtail your internal speech.

People sometimes exacerbate their negative feelings by reacting “emotionally to their emotions,” creating an endless downward spiral. And, they may resort to the numbing effects of alcohol or drugs when their self-talk and the cascade of negative emotions it engenders becomes unbearable. But Leary reminds us that “most emotions are generated and maintained by how people talk to themselves.” By changing or switching off your self-talk, you can alter your emotions.  

Likewise, many interpersonal disagreements and conflicts arise when people anticipate “threats to their egos.” But if each person changes how his or her self interprets the situation, many misunderstandings can be thwarted. Our perception of “reality” is veiled by our views, notions and expectations. If we reduce our self-talk and its concomitant “interpretations and judgments,” we may experience “reality” differently. Definitely worth a try, especially if life is weighing you down.

If you need to quieten the perennial nag in your head, engage in relaxing activities like watching a movie, reading a novel, cycling or gardening. Another method, that is gaining popularity world-over, is meditation where you simply watch your thoughts, like a disinterested observer, without following or reacting to them. Gradually, you realise that thoughts, however bleak or portentous, are ephemeral provided you don’t “latch on” to them.

Leary also recommends being compassionate towards yourself. When things go wrong, forgive instead of berating yourself. You would also do well to remind yourself that your interpretation of the world is just that —your interpretation. Perhaps, you would do yourself a service by giving others the benefit of the doubt, more often than not. By cultivating “non-egoic ways of living,” we promote individual, interpersonal and societal harmony.

(The author is Director, PRAYATNA)

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