We’re all familiar with the rather clichéd proverb that in order to love others, we must first learn to love ourselves. But the expression does carry truth – addressing our self-care by tuning into how we talk to ourselves as we go about our daily lives is a recurring theme and a bedrock of my therapeutic practice.
Normally this ‘inner chatter’ runs like a never-ending tape player in the background, completely unconscious to us, yet informing and guiding so much of our conscious thought, feelings and behaviour.
And a surprisingly huge chunk of it can be negative, increasing our anxiety and stress levels, restricting our ability to step out of our comfort zone and hindering the chance of bringing positivity into our lives.
These Negative Automatic Thoughts (or gNATs for short) constantly buzz around our headspace, getting in the way of clearer, calmer and kinder thinking. They commonly emerge in moments where we feel that we’re not fully in control, casting doubt over our ability to take a risk, go for it, and emerge successful.
Over time, these gNATs become entrenched, breeding anxiety which latches itself, like spiky burrs with their tiny hooks, onto more and more things in our lives.
The result is that we become increasingly bogged down with worries, leaving less and less headspace for clear and reasoned thinking.
One useful tool for helping identify your gNATs is to imagine that you are a stick of rock. Bear with me! What might some of the words or phrases be that would run through you? One of mine used to be ‘I’m not sporty’, followed by ‘I’ll never be able to ski’.
It can often help to think about the mantras, or ‘life-scripts’ that your parents or extended family may have carried themselves, that you have unknowingly picked up. Things like: ‘The worst usually happens’, ‘I’m stupid’, ‘we never do well’, ‘you’ve made your bed so you lie in it’, ‘I can’t cope on my own’, and so on.
The poet and writer Seamus Heaney must have understood something of this, when he said: ‘if you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way’. But trying to pin down exactly how we talk to ourselves takes practice.
Writing things down in black and white can really help us to capture and take control of our negative automatic thinking. As you begin to notice your inner-chatter, keep a list of things you say to yourself and then conduct a ‘sanity- check’.
We so often have kind words of comfort or encouragement for those around us, but when it comes to ourselves, we’re great at hanging onto the negatives and beating ourselves up! As a child, maths wasn’t my strongest subject. The more I struggled, the more I told myself I was no good at it.
Eventually, fear started to rear its head, which has several effects: it scrambles our thinking by filling our headspace with negative messages, creating an assumption from the outset that we won’t be able to succeed. This sets up a self-fulfillling prophesy, where we can then say: “See – I told you so!”
On the day I started my first (and only) bar job as a student, I felt too sick to eat. The thought of totting up prices in my head on-the-hoof terrified me.
I now know that I worked myself up into a frenzy of negative thinking – hearing ‘I can’t do it’ on repeat isn’t going to give anyone the best chance of succeeding.
The underlying script I was resurrecting was ‘I will fail, and people will think I am stupid’. But the irony is, if I had remained calm and not put myself under pressure, my mental arithmetic would have been totally fine.
4 ways to clear your head
Identify your gNATS
It’s time to identify and write down those gNATS. Once you’ve gotten your list, look at each one and think about whose voice this might originally have been.
Is it something that you’ve created after a certain experience or difficulty, or is it something that someone close to you has passed on? If it’s a parent, for example, was this opinion justified? Can you make sense of why they were saying this, now you are older and wiser?
Find your positives
Now you’ve identified the negatives, you need to find the positives.
Imagine that you are one of your good friends; someone who is always there for you and cares about you. What might you want to say to yourself if you were them? What do you think they like about you as a person? What encouraging words would they say to you?
Build your Mental Tool Kit
If we’re going to get rid of your gNATs, we’re going to need healthy, positive thoughts to put in their place. Imagine that you’re always carrying a virtual toolbox with you. This is your Mental Tool Kit, where every newly learnt understanding or technique, helpful thought or healthy belief should be stored away and carried everywhere, so that it can be reached for when anxiety or stress threaten negative thinking.
What do you already have that you can put in your toolbox? Adding to it can then be a life-long practice.
Spring clean your mind
Now we’ve done all the preparation, it’s time to spring clean your mind room. Identifying and letting go of our negative inner chatter enables us to clear some headspace, making room for a much more reasoned and compassionate style of thinking.
It’s akin to clearing out that spare room of all the unwanted and unloved junk we’ve thrown in there over the years with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude, investing in some lovely décor and giving it a fresh new identity, so we can feel proud of our inviting new guest room/home office/craft space.
How much more pleasurable life will be if we can let go of some of the unhelpful ‘noise’ we’ve been lugging around and beating ourselves up with, and begin to embrace more of the positives that life can offer? But just like a spare room, it can be easy for your mind to become cluttered again as the years go by.
Make sure to repeat this practice whenever you notice those pesky gNATs popping up, keeping your mind clear for plenty of positive and happy thoughts.
Jo Bisseker Barr is an accredited psychodynamic counsellor and mindfulness practitioner from the New Forest, UK. Read more from Jo at www.writeyourmind.co.uk
This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine, issue 9.