Tell Me Something Good

Barbara Martin

Taking Control of your Self-Talk.

Have you said “Hello” to the voice inside your head? You know the one you talk to all day. It is called a “self-narrative.” Your self-narrative affects how you interpret feelings, whether they are negative, positive or neutral, which, in turn, affects how you behave, make choices and relate to others. Often, individuals unknowingly have self-narratives that do not benefit their careers, relationships or life goals. The silver lining is that the story of yourself can be changed or “reframed” in a way that benefits you rather than hurts you. You can reframe a harmful self-narrative by first identifying what it is, more specifically the story you are telling yourself of your past, present and future. Reflect on what is helpful or harmful about your narration and then identify ways to reframe your story so that it works for you rather than against you. The challenging part about reframing your narrative is that it is not an overnight fix; you will need time and effort to change, requiring mindfulness, deliberateness and consistency.

Many patients I work with often feel anxiety and depression due to their daily struggle with their inner dialogue, often consisting of negative themes such as, “I am not intelligent enough,” “I am not that attractive,” “I am not thin enough,” “I am not likeable,” as a few examples. At the core of their negative chatter is an underlining detrimental self-narrative that most likely began long ago.

Attachment theorists would argue we start to formulate the story or ourselves when we are born. As a baby, the initial part of our narrative is focused on how we will survive in the world. A baby’s survival depends on their caregivers providing them with all the necessities they need to survive, such as food, shelter, love, care and nurture. How caregivers respond to their baby’s needs will influence how their baby will attach to their caregiver. For instance, a baby who interprets that their needs are not being met will either become significantly clingy, detached or exhibit both extreme behaviors (chaotically attached) in order to get their needs met and/or pacify themselves. A baby who interprets a secure attachment to their caregivers will behave neither in a clingy nor a detached manner, but rather trust that they can rely on the relationship to provide for their needs.

Why is attachment theory significant to the evolution of our self-narrative? Because the way we attach as infants to our primary caregivers can have long lasting implications and determine the self-construct of how we attach to people in the present and future. If we are clingy babies, the more likely we will be clingy adult lovers and friends. Thus the story of ourselves begins at the beginning, for better or for worse.

As we move through childhood, we continue to formulate our self-narrative through our interpretation of our experiences and relationships. Children tend to soak in external messages like a sponge because they are in the acute process of piecing together their story. For example, a child who receives constant external feedback that they are overweight or does not look the way they “should” will absorb this feedback as part of their self-narrative. Even when the child loses weight or is not overweight in adulthood, their negative self-narrative may remain the same, “I am overweight and don’t look good.” A self-narrative etched in the past may follow us into the present and future even though it may be a distorted story.

In adulthood, our negative self-narratives can continue to play out and become an obstacle in all that we desire to achieve. For instance, individuals who believe that their quietness, shyness or introversion makes them unlikable in social situations can unintentionally create a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. By telling themselves they are unlikable, they may unknowingly behave in unlikable ways, further challenging them in social situations and reinforcing their negative self-narrative.

The way to transform negative self-narratives is to first identify your story. What is the past, present and future story of you? Where did your story come from? Is it still true now? Are you interpreting situations, experiences and relationships in ways that do not benefit you and may actually harm you?

Once you identify your self-narrative, the next step is to challenge the negative pieces. Is this narrative really true and founded on fact?

The concluding step of the self-narrative transformation is reframing your narrative into a positive or a neutral version of what you were telling yourself. For instance, accepting your introversion and telling yourself “it is ok that I am quiet; it doesn’t mean that people won’t like me,” will have a better social outcome and reinforce a more positive mindset.

All of these steps require the mindfulness of identifying your story, the consistency of tracking and identifying the negative pieces of your story and the deliberativeness of changing your narrative. One of the most rewarding components of my work is seeing individuals transform their mindset by reframing the negative pieces of their self-narrative into a powerful story that empowers them in their present and future endeavors. What is your story?

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