Unfortunately, we are so very good at talking ourselves down, often multiple times a day, often without even realizing. The negative labels we apply to ourselves may range from seemingly harmless ones like 'silly' over stronger ones like 'boring' or 'stupid' to very harsh ones like 'worthless' or 'no good'. However harmless or 'justified' those labels may appear in any given situation, they all have a very negative impact on us, especially cumulatively. Every time we call ourselves 'silly' or 'stupid' or whatever words we may be using for ourselves, we are chipping away at our self-esteem, bit by bit by bit. We are literally destroying the beautiful sculpture of our own confident self that we have taken so much effort in creating.
The more often we hear a message, the more true it sounds. And this is even more the case if this message echoes statements we might have heard from family members or people of authority earlier in our life. Sometimes the reason that a particular word sits so comfortably on the tip of our tongue is exactly because we have heard it used so frequently in relation to us. For some clients, these have been words like 'stupid', 'nasty' or 'bad' which they have had to battle with since childhood with far reaching implications for their adult self. If you notice that there is a negative label that you are using very easily and frequently for yourself, it is generally a good idea to see if you can trace it back to its origin. After all, when we are born, we are like a blank canvas waiting to painted on. So one way or another, this word must have found its way into our mind.
The good news is that no matter how embedded these labels are, it is never too late to start challenging them. And every time we are able to challenge one of these negative labels is a little win for us. In the same way that applying a negative labels is destructive, challenging one is constructive. So with every challenge we are re-building our self-esteem, bit by bit by bit. When clients start to pay more attention to how they talk to themselves, they are often shocked by how often they put themselves down in a day. Challenging all of this self-downing may feel like very hard work at first, but it does get easier with time. A change in perspective may be helpful here: see if you can interpret each time you notice a negative label as a golden opportunity for rebuilding your self-esteem. To stay with our metaphor, it is a real opportunity for repairing your beautiful statue of your confident self and bringing it back to its former glory.
Understanding the origin of the label, for example seeing it as an internalized parental voice, can help in distancing ourselves from it. As children, we absorb what is told to us like a sponge. Many times, we believe that the adults around us know best (little do we know about how little they know :). Moreover, we are very much dependent on them. So challenging their view of the world may not be possible or not be very wise. Especially, when clients have received similar feedback from different family members or figures of authority, a view may develop that this label must be true. However, as adults our situation changes. We become more and more independent and forge relationships with people outside of our school and family. Also, the adults around us and their view of the world changes with time.
What can happen in such a situation is that we may hold on to a pretty strict and diminishing internalized voice of a parent or authority figure while the originator of the message has long moved on. While we keep putting ourselves down, they may no longer hold this view of us. The negative label has become a straitjacket for us that severely limits our potential. We are standing in the way of ourselves and are holding ourselves back. This is where the positive self-statement comes in very handy – as a practical and effective challenging tool.
As the name says, it is a statement that is describing positive aspects of yourself. To give you an idea and get you started, a more generic positive self-statement that is often used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is 'I'm a unique, fallible, lovable human being.' However, what I have found in my work with clients is that the positive statement is most effective if it is actually tailored to you. And for some clients, describing themselves as 'lovable' when they are in the midst of a depression and filled with self-loathing is far too much to ask. Similarly to what I shared with you about the power of pep talk, what is most important here is that you can agree with the statement. It needs to contain a few words that you are genuinely in agreement with, whether that is on a philosophical level (that is applicable to all human beings) or on a personal level (that is applicable to you specifically). And if these can be aspects of you that you like, are a bit proud of or cherish, it is even better! Ideally, the statement summarizes the positive essence of you in some way.
In terms of the length of the statement, it generally works well to have one to three positive words or characteristics. Here are a few examples previous clients have come up with: 'I am a good person.', 'I am a driven, ambitious and energetic individual.', 'I am an empathic, non-judgmental and caring human being.', 'I am fair and loyal.' Remember: This is not a sales pitch or an exercise in self-presentation. What matters is that you genuinely believe this statement to be true and that it reminds you of some of the things that are good about you when it matters.
Now, how do you use this statement? First of all, repeating this statement to yourself can never be bad. If we consider the amount of times we have put ourselves down in our lives and the effect this will have had, we may struggle to ever make it up to ourselves! So getting familiar with your positive self-statement in moments when you are feeling happy is good. And it also makes it more credible and effective when you use it as a challenging tool. Whenever you find yourself applying a negative label to yourself, this is when the positive self-statement really works its magic.
This is the sort of challenge I suggest:
Critical voice: 'Oh, you are so stupid!' / 'Silly me' / 'The world would be better without me'
Positive voice: 'Stop. That's unhelpful. I am a good person.' (or whatever your self-statement says)
Notice that the positive self-statement acts as a way of stopping and replacing any negative label and thus redirects the mind to aspects you value about yourself. In time, it is perfectly possible to completely stop putting yourself down, at least whenever you notice. From working with numerous clients, I can confirm that there are significant mental health benefits to be gained from this simple but effective tool. As with going to the gym, the long term benefit comes from continuous practice.
Come up with a positive self-statement that is simple enough for you to remember and captures something positive you can agree with in relation to yourself – whether on a more general, philosophical level (I am a unique human being) or a tailored, personal level (I am an empathic, caring person). You may try a few different variations before you decide which statement to stick with. Get used to saying this to yourself. Whenever you notice applying a negative label to yourself, interject with: 'Stop, that's unhelpful.' followed by your positive self-statement 'I am a …' Over time, as you become more skillful at challenging your negative labels, you are likely to develop a more positive view of yourself and may dare to use more overtly positive words for your self-statement, too.
How is the positive self-statement helping you? Has it changed over time? Do you notice any effect on your overall mood?