One of the great privileges of being a psychotherapist, and there are many, is that you are involved in change. Every day you work with people who are looking to change or understand why they think or act a certain way.
People generally seek out therapy when they realise something is hindering them or holding them back. Maybe they glimpsed something for a moment they know is unhealthy and want to change it. Whatever the reason for coming to therapy, change is the most common driving factor.
So, a question I get asked most in my clinic is, ‘how do I change?’ Of course, it is important to start by looking at the thought or behaviour that is causing problems. You look to see where did that develop. Why did you adopt that thought and internalise it? So, let’s say the client explains that they want to stop all this negative self-talk and the most recurring thought they have is, ‘I’m not good enough’. I hear this a lot in my clinic. I often use an externalising conversation to find out where that took root.
Externalising is a technique developed by narrative therapy, essentially you turn the issue into a person and interview it. The client is often struck by what they hear themselves say as they give a personality to the voice in their head. Those utterances can be enough to bring change. You are only a prisoner to your behaviour until you see it. Your blind spot can no longer be a blind spot once you know it’s there. In those externalising interviews, I hear the same mirky genesis of corrosive self-talk.
Maybe a parent had been particularly hard on them and labelled them as stupid, or a teacher made some very negative remarks that they never forgot, or perhaps a group of peers rejected them and said nasty things about them that they then internalised. Whatever the reason for the negative talk it all started because the client believed whatever negative labels were launched about them and ruminated on them and eventually they became self-talk. We generally believe the talk that goes on in our head is ourselves talking. But none of us said at four years of age, ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not pretty’ or ‘I’m stupid’. We hear these comments along the way and they change how we talk to ourselves.
Neuroscience explains this by the old saying, ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. What they are saying is that the more you run a neural-circuit in your brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. For example, the more you practice the guitar or learn off your lines for a play the more proficient you become at that activity. The more you say something negative to yourself and listen out for others to say it, the more that thought becomes a pathway and so the only thought available to you.
Clients say to me, ‘I don’t know why that negative thought always creeps in. I could be really enjoying myself and all of a sudden I think this awful thing about myself’. When I hear this I ask them to write their name on the flipchart with their dominant hand. This, they do with ease. Then I ask them to write their name with the other hand, this is not so easy. It is awkward and clumsy. I ask them what they are feeling, generally they delineate a sense of discomfort and a desire to return to their dominant hand. This analogy illuminates how we come to think in familiar patterns. The more we think something it becomes a dominant thought.
But what would happen to the right-hand dominant person if they lost the use of their right hand? Well, very quickly the brain would reorient itself and learn to write proficiently with the remaining hand. But it would take practice. The same is the case for negative self-talk. Just because you have been running a neural circuit for many years does not mean you cannot interrupt it and create a new more positive one.
Change takes work and it is an intentional thing. As we move out of lockdown and into our lives, we should ask ourselves - what do we want to leave behind from our old life that we know is not good for us? Negative self-talk holds us back, it is the reason we do not venture out and push ourselves to succeed. When we change how we talk to ourselves we are changing our reality. When we do this, anything is possible.