Ever noticed the bully who lives inside our minds? The self-righteous judgment that we cast upon ourselves after we act in a less-than-perfect manner? “I’m no good. Everything is bad. It’s always going to be bad and I just have to accept that.”
This is a fundamental example of Beck’s cognitive triad. First proposed by Aaron Beck in 1967, this trifecta of negative self-talk is a staple of cognitive therapy. Negative views about the self lead to negative views about the world, leading to negative views about the future. The triangle is continuous, diving to the depths of low self-esteem and sometimes depression.
Beck is most notably regarded as the father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The premise of CBT is that it is not our circumstances, but rather our thoughts about our circumstances, that dictate our feelings and therefore our behaviors.
Beck’s revolutionary discovery was that it is in our power to change our thoughts, thereby changing our feelings and behaviors.
When I begin therapy with a new client, I consider it important to inform them of the therapeutic interventions I will be performing. This aligns the client and therapist towards the same goals, develops the therapeutic relationship, and enhances the client’s “buy-in.” One part of said psycho-education I don’t enjoy is sharing Beck’s discovery. It is usually greeted with eye-rolls, judgment, or a look that clearly communicates, “You can’t be serious.”
“It’s that simple, huh? Hey, I heard you’re depressed. Have you tried thinking differently?” The idea is much too simple to be taken seriously, “…and besides, it doesn’t work! I’ve tried that. I’ve tried everything!”
Here’s the problem. We can’t expect to wake up one morning good at “thinking differently.” Thinking differently can be more accurately described as “effective self-talk.” Like anything else, effective self-talk cannot be executed properly on the first, fourth, or even tenth try. It takes hard work and practice to learn this tool and use it in a way that impacts our lives for the better.
“Okay, so what should I do? Go ahead, teach me your ways,” the client continues after their “buy-in” is building, yet still skeptical.
The problem is, it doesn’t really work like that. Effective self-talk requires tacit knowledge. One can only learn to use effective self-talk through attempting, failing, learning from the experience, and retrying. Let me demonstrate with the following example.
Imagine your schedule changes and your husband will be alone with your four kids every Sunday for the foreseeable future. Imagine the train wreck of a home you will likely be walking into on that first Sunday evening. Imagine the stress when considering how to write instructions. Don’t forget to include allergies, food preferences, bedtime routines, and whose pacifier is whose. Imagine stumbling over your words as you try and explain what to do when this one is fighting and what not to do when that one is fighting.
“Here are the ‘4’ diapers, these ones are 6s, and the 1s are in the middle drawer. The pajamas are the stretchies, not the onesies. The ones with the footsies connected to the… oh whatever. Just put her to sleep in what she’s wearing.”
This one uses the potty, that one sings before bed, and this one needs a warm bottle as you hold her, but she doesn’t like when you hold her on the couch - it’s better on the rocking chair.
This example just scratches the surface of the multitude of information that will have to be portrayed.
It sounds complicated when we write it out, but at this point you don’t find it complicated at all. In fact, it’s second nature. Consider the stark contrast of “second nature” to the look of terror in your husband’s eyes as you walk out the door. You check that your ringer is on the loudest setting, and make your way to work.
Would the transition be so much easier if he was “taught” all the information in advance? Maybe we just need more time to educate him about the nuanced preferences of each child. But then again, no amount of teaching can prepare someone for the surprises of parenting.
One child is halfway through a particularly messy diaper change, another comes in screaming something about the spiderman doll and Esther is a meanie. Esther closely follows with a wallop to screamer’s noggin, and his response startles the infant who had just fallen asleep for the fourth time. You can’t teach the multi-tasking that needs to happen next: one-armed swoop of screamer, other arm with the masterful diaper change and disposal, distract Esther, reestablish diaper on naked baby, kiss everyone, redirect towards play, and now back to screaming infant. It’s an art. An art that can only be learned through attempting, failing, learning from the experience, and trying again.
We cannot wake up one morning and be master multi-tasking parents. We cannot wake up one morning and have mastered the art of effective self-talk. Positive self-talk requires practice. It requires patience, and the humility to fail over and over again until you get the hang of it.
“I’m 45 years old working a dead-end job. Things are never going to get better. Now matter which way I turn there’s always something that goes wrong. It’s such a disaster.”
Translation into effective self-talk:
“It’s really tough that my job isn’t as lucrative as I’d always hoped. It’s okay that this bothers me, but I’m so thankful to have a beautiful, healthy family. Jewish living is expensive, and even though it’s not always easy, nevertheless we always find a way to make it work.”
The first statement is how we talk to ourselves. The second is what we tell our children to say to themselves when they are struggling with something. We must analyze our resistance to being nice to ourselves. Why do we roll our eyes when considering using “statement two”? Are we worried that it will lead to complacency? That we won’t work as hard to change our situation for the better if we roll over and accept our circumstance?
Here’s a secret that I’ve found many people don’t realize: Our situation is what it is; no amount of self-hate will change it. Yet we try and try to talk down to ourselves in the hope of improving our lives. The opposite approach is 300% more effective! When we cut ourselves some slack and embrace our struggles, being nice to ourselves along the way, we grant ourselves permission to appreciate our successes. Success then breeds success, and we may just improve our lives by looking honestly in the mirror and radically accepting our imperfections. Confident people are not perfect; often, they are far from it. They are simply comfortable and permitting of their imperfections. Permission to be imperfect is confidence.
Let’s stop settling.
Let’s stop settling for a life of talking down to ourselves, and seek a life of self-love and acceptance.
Let’s stop settling for a life of hopelessness, and reach for a life filled with gratitude.
Let’s stop settling for a life marred by negative lenses, and grant ourselves permission to see the beauty that our loved ones see in us.
All it takes is the permission to be imperfect. Permission is not easily granted. It takes many months of practice and repetition, but those months are a small price to pay for the countless benefits of self-acceptance.
You can start right now. Try it. Talk nicely to yourself. Let me know how it goes.