A few years ago I had a client whose chief complaint was that he had difficulty building and maintaining good relationships. He felt he was in a state of near constant conflict with others. He argued with his family, his girlfriend, his friends, and his co-workers. In fact, the “final straw,” and why he decided to come in for counseling, was when a co-worker filed a complaint against him for an argument during which my client physically pushed the other man.
As I worked with the client, it became apparent to me that he did not really like himself very much. He was not what I would diagnose as clinically depressed, but he did not have a great deal of self esteem. I began working with him to identify his automatic thoughts that preceded several conflicts that he had experienced with others.
As I expected, many of his thoughts were distorted, negative, and often hostile. He seemed to automatically assume the worst in many situations, which triggered defensiveness, and in many instances, hostility towards others. I worked for several months with my client, identifying the cognitive distortions that escalated his defensive reactions. He began to journal regularly, and started dissecting the situations and thoughts where he felt he over-reacted.
Not surprisingly, he developed a greater ability for restraint as he began to recognize situations which would likely end in conflict. He began to be more aware of his thoughts and the way he felt in his body as his defensiveness grew. However, while he became more able to control his temper and his reactions, he still felt tense and uncomfortable, and often vented after the event.
Two types of self-talk
While there are many different kinds of cognitive distortions, there are basically two types of self-talk. One form of self-talk is directed outward. This is the self-talk that you use to describe what you perceive is happening around you or to you. For example, if you are confronted with someone who makes a comment about your shirt, you will have a series of thoughts about that person and that comment. These may be positive, negative, or neutral. But these thoughts are important as they shape the way you view your external environment. They play a huge role in constructing your external map of reality.
It is this type of self-talk that my client was beginning to learn to control and modify to be more positive. His thoughts were often negative, and his external reality was one that was full of criticism and danger. His thoughts created a world in which he had to be on the defensive. It is easy to see how his world was full of conflict.
The second type of self-talk is directed inward. It is how we talk to and about ourselves. This inward directed self-talk plays a large part in how we feel about ourselves. It affects self-esteem, and also plays a role in shaping our maps of reality. Typically, a person with a low self-esteem will view the world differently than someone with a high self-esteem. For instance, a person who does not believe his needs will be met in a relationship – either because he does not feel worthy, or strong enough to maintain boundaries – may lash out against others, either to force them to meet his needs, or perhaps to undermine the relationship entirely. In this person’s reality, this is safer than fostering a relationship, or compromising.
Unfortunately, this strategy usually fails to achieve the person’s needs being met – either the other party leaves, becomes resentful and refuses to cooperate, or otherwise withdraws – reinforcing the feelings of unworthiness and lowering self-esteem even further. As you can see, this may easily become a cycle in which the person’s cynical map of reality is supported and strengthened.
As we continued discussing my client’s discomfort in personal relationships, and the automatic thoughts that often occurred during interactions with others, it became apparent to him that much of his negative self-talk was directed at himself. Thoughts like, “I can’t do anything right!”, “I always screw things up, so why even bother!”, or “I’m such an idiot!” were common with my client. He slowly came to the realization that fixing his externally directed self-talk was an important step in improving his relationships and hapiness, but not enough. As he said in one session, “how can I really like anybody else if I don’t even like myself..”
A lesson to be learned
There are a lot of valuable insights to be gained from this case study. There are lessons about boundaries, cognitive distortions, the importance of self-talk in creating our individual realities, and the role of self-esteem in our relationships. All of these are important.
However, the message I really wanted to convey in this case study is that we should seek to be aware of our internally directed self-talk. If this self talk is regularly negative, judgmental, or derogatory, then we are essentially attacking ourselves, and weakening our own self esteem. The results can be damaged relationships, failure to achieve our goals, lack of fulfillment, unhappiness, and a general cynical outlook on life. In the extreme, they can result in severe depression, or even suicide.
During one of my final sessions with this client, we were discussing his progress and how he might continue to work on his self-talk in the future. I knew he “got it” when he paused, looked up at me, and said, “I am going to try and speak to myself as if I were my own best friend.”