Today’s topic: the internal monologue, also known as intrapersonal communication or, “self-talk.”
Now, before you go all Stuart Smalley on me, (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people LIKE me!)… I’m talking about something a little more nuanced and therapeutic than all that.
This is a skill I’ve been working on in my own life over the last decade, …though, at some level we do this from birth. Remember talking to yourself as a child? Or talking to an imaginary audience? Or just that silent dialogue in your head that you’d go through when thinking about something? It’s all part of it. But, for today’s post, I want to talk about self-talk, as it relates to interpersonal conflict.
One of the most difficult elements of relationships, is that all-too freely given – criticism. Some people are well-intentioned and offer up “constructive criticism” to help you – and to help heal/improve the relationship. Others are narcissistic jerks who feed on tearing others down to feel empowered and adored. And then there are all those moments in-between – moments that have SOME truth, and SOME unnecessary damage – all in one tidy conversation.
What do we do when criticism comes our way? And it will!
One of the first lines of defense, is the art of self-talk.
If you take the time to know yourself and to know what it TRUE about you, one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal is to TELL YOURSELF those truths WHILE someone is berating you. Imagine a scenario where someone is talking to you in a condescending way and intimating – not full-on saying it, mind you – but implying that you aren’t smart enough. You can be saying to yourself, in your mind – “I know that I AM an intelligent person.” And while it definitely doesn’t take the sting of the criticism away – it does take the “BUY-IN” out of the scenario. The buy-in (my own lingo) is that slippery slope where we allow ourselves to believe untrue things about ourselves because of others’ critical remarks.
A friend and therapist I really respect, told me that when you’re dealing with a narcissist (and this applies to generally disagreeable or critical people as well), you only have two paths to take:
1. Escape. This can come in the form of numbing the pain (drugs, addictions to distract, etc.), divorce/separation, or the ultimate escape – suicide.
2. Belief. This is, in some ways, the emotionally easier route. Though, it is extremely self-destructive. Believing that what the other person says/believes about you is, in fact, true.
This can look different for lots of different situations:
- Your boss makes you feel small, so you accept that you’re not an important piece of the workplace.
- Your boyfriend criticizes your appearance, so you begin to believe you actually are ugly/unattractive.
- Your mother questions your life choices so much that you start to think you’re not smart enough on your own. The list goes on and on.
Accepting criticism and hearing the truth in it is an elegant character trait. But, to do that wisely, you have to know what is true and what isn’t, and be able to hear criticism for what it truly is – to be able to tease out the truth. And the best way to do this is to know yourself and speak to yourself during and after conflictual moments.
Example: I had someone in my life who would become easily angered and then tear me down. It went quickly from the actual point of frustration to claiming things about me in more global attacks. Often, this person would call me “lazy,” or “selfish” or “foolish.” And while those words cut – and hurt – I was running my own internal conversation with myself, self-soothing if you will, where I reminded myself of what was true about me – that I do work hard; that I care about others; and that I try to be thoughtful and wise. Obviously I’m not perfect. And everyone is selfish. But, to the extent that I CAN overcome that base human instinct, I give it my best. I would remind myself of specific circumstances that prove that to be true – mothering my children, sacrificing things I wanted/desired so that others could be happy, etc., etc. So – when the conversation was over, instead of having TWO problems (licking my wounds and wondering how I’d become so worthless), I could concentrate on the injustice at hand – that untrue things were said. Because my self-talk kept me confident in what was true.
Try it. Next time someone comes at you with anything remotely conflictual, be listening to them while running a script in your mind at the same time about what’s true about you. Even if you don’t yet know what do say, you can begin wtih thoughts like, “I’m worthy of love. I matter.” And see if it doesn’t help shape your emotional response to the attack. Sure, you’ll still have an obligation to respond gracioulsy, but your own spirit won’t be crushed. You will be able to recognize the truth in what that person was saying (that is – areas where you maybe DID mess up or areas where you DO have a blind spot), as well as shield yourself from the more broad-stroked personal attacks.
Because, despite the enormously high cheese factor, Stuart Smalley was onto something …unless you’re in the estimated 3% of society who don’t operate with a conscience (and that’s a whole other post!), you ARE good enough. And knowing your worth can make a world of difference when your enemies attack.