Managing Self Talk

A friend sent in this comment: “Despite knowing what you say, we are unable to stop feeling unhappy.”  So true.  There is no easy or quick way for us to change our mind.  It requires years of diligent practice. Failures are common.  But one needs to stay the course.  Experts feel that to become really good at anything we need to have 10,000 hours of practice.  It’s no different for the practice of happiness.

Which means that you must really really want to overcome unhappiness.  Indeed my experience and that of many others is that, it was a crisis in our lives that impelled us to take action. Here is a motivational podcast from Steve Pavlina.  He talks about this lucky moment when he was caught for shoplifting at the age of 19.  It completely changed his life. He is an entrepreneur and motivational speaker who is passionate about personal development.  A must hear.

The good news is that we can benefit from as much we practice.  It is not as if, we will get the rewards after reaching some difficult milestone. Every step on the path pays back.

Now to the main subject of today’s post: Self Talk

In the last post we talked about how we feed and nourish unhappiness in the mind. Driving this cycle of negativity is the self talk we engage with in our minds.  The nature of this self talk determines how we feel and how we perceive the world around us and in turn our behaviour.

Try this simple exercise.  Sit down in a quiet place. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Do this for about 15 minutes.  Try to stay with the breath. It becomes clear and apparent that we are unable to stay focused on our breath as the mind interrupts every few seconds.  There is a LOT of talk happening inside.  And this is happening continuously.

Constant self talk tends to reinforce our beliefs. In his classic “What do say when you talk to yourself” Shad Helmstetter says that 70% of this self talk is negative –  “I can’t”, “I wish”, “I ought to but can’t”, “I am no good” and so on.

Here is a structure for what is happening.

  1. Core beliefs drive irrational operating beliefs
  2. Beliefs drive our evaluation of the situation
  3. Evaluation creates feelings
  4. Feelings determine action (this is behaviour: the part that is visible to others)
  5. Action create results

It is through this self talk that our mind processes situations. So when the mind tells us to do something, it rapidly runs through LAYERS of processing.  Feelings and beliefs are a key part of the decisions we arrive at.  We may think that we have logically thought through a situation.  The truth is that feelings are involved and we selectively look at data that support our predisposition towards a certain decision.

Here is an example from my own experience.

The Situation

My colleague shouted at me in a meeting where several of my juniors were present.  I felt hurt, angry and walked out.  I wanted to resign. But a reality check held me back and I swallowed the insult.  I came back with coffee to make it look like I had just taken a break.

Now, here is a more detailed look at what happened in my mind
My Mind Under The Microscope

Self Talk Feeling Action Operating Belief Core Belief
I don’t need to take this shit. Let me walk out.
I should leave this organisation. All I have got is insult.
Angry, hurt I walked out Bad things must never be said about me. I have an undeniable right to feel nice.
I need the money.  Let me just hang in. Fear Had second thoughts. Irrational fear1:
It is better to flee than fight.
Irrational fear2:
I am responsible for the well being of my juniors. I will scare them by showing the enemity between partners of the company.
I can’t fight!
I am not good. I keep up appearances.
I don’t want to be seen as weak by my juniors. Anxiety Planned to come back to the meeting gracefully I must be seen to be competent by others at all times I am not good. I keep up appearances.
I will return to the meeting. I will take revenge later. Grudge Came back with some coffee to show that I had just taken a break. Rational belief: I will reconcile
Irrational: I must not show my weakness to others
I am not good. I keep up appearances.
Planning ways of taking revenge More anger My hurt will be compensated by giving him hurt. I can’t fight!
And I hate myself for it.

Here is the point: Most of the beliefs mentioned are irrational, can be refuted and have no factual bases.  Yet the mind habitually plays them out as if they were undeniable fact.   My unhappiness was the resultant feeling.  If I had acted on my feeling of revenge I would further hurtled towards even more unhappiness.

So What Do We Do

The first step is to become aware of this process.  Second is to practice being mindful of what is happening at the level of body and mind.  The third is to then change the self talk in ways that will lead us to happiness.

We will look at these steps in more detail in the next post.


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