Recently I had the opportunity to tell some would-be visitors how to get to our church. I felt very confident with the directions I gave because I drive there regularly myself. However, at one point in my instructions, I made a small error. I told them that when they came to a certain highway, they should head west. In reality, they should have turned east. Several hours into their attempt to find our church that Sabbath, they ended up miles away in the opposite direction, confused and frustrated.
Do you ever say or do things which end up being embarrassing mistakes? Do you wish you could crawl into a hole afterward and disappear forever? Do you scold yourself? If so, perhaps you use some of these remonstrations:
“I can’t believe I made such a dumb mistake!”
“How stupid of me!”
“What was I thinking?”
“I always mess up!”
“I can’t do anything right!”
At times do you feel you are your own worst enemy? I know I do!
WHO’S LISTENING, ANYWAY?
We spend a lot of time talking to ourselves non-verbally. Often we take ourselves to task for our failures and our self-inflicted, embarrassing moments. Sometimes we say cruel things to ourselves which we would never say to another human being. We try very hard to be kind, patient, honest, respectful, and non-judgmental with others, yet we are willing to be unforgiving and harshly critical of ourselves.
WHY AM I SO HARD ON MYSELF?
Positive or negative, our self-talk stems from our level of self-worth. Perhaps it’s also because we think it doesn’t matter what we say to ourselves. In truth, however, it matters very much. Moods, feelings, and our sense of self-esteem are further affected by what we say to ourselves. Our bodies listen, too, and the results are reflected negatively in our heart rates, blood pressures, immune responses, stress levels, and wear and tear on our internal organs.
There is also a connection between our level of self-esteem and the abuse we will or will not allow. If we don’t think highly of ourselves, we won’t expect others to think highly of us either. This would explain why some people seem to endure so much more taunting, teasing, bullying, and verbal or physical abuse, which others reject without a second thought. Even our relationships are a reflection of how we relate to ourselves.
Poor self-esteem can show up in our everyday conversations. Someone tells us they love the casserole we brought to the church fellowship lunch, and we shrug off the praise by saying, “Oh, it didn’t turn out very well this time.” Or we receive a compliment on an outfit we are wearing, and we resist the comment with “This old thing? I’ve had it for years.” If our self-esteem is low, we will find it very hard to accept personal praise.
IT’S MY PARENTS’ FAULT, RIGHT?
Influences exerted on us in childhood have a powerful effect. Although parents have the primary influence on the attitudes and ways of thinking their children develop, they aren’t the only contributors.
Teachers, caretakers, siblings, peers, relatives, and others give us thousands of messages that reveal their negative and positive thoughts about us. A young, impressionable child will believe these messages and internalize them; thus, the level of self-esteem is formulated. As kids, we survive as best we can, and then we spend our adult years trying to manage life’s situations with the emotional and psychological coping strategies we formed when we were younger.
And it’s not just other people’s words that affect our lives; self-criticism and harsh self-judgments make us feel worse about ourselves. They make us believe we really are dumb, awkward, fat, forgetful, unable, etc. Decades ago, the great French philosopher Rene Descartes stated this simple concept: Cogito, ergo sum. Translated, it means, “I think, therefore I am.”
SO I’VE GOT A PROBLEM. IS THERE ANY HOPE FOR CHANGE?
The good news is that we don’t have to be victims of circumstance. We can learn to turn negative thinking into positive thinking. The process is simple, but it will take time, practice, and prayer because we will be creating a new habit. Positive thinking doesn’t mean we are ignoring life’s unpleasant situations; rather, it means we will approach unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way, and we will start by improving our self-talk.
Anytime is a good time to make a change. Here are a few helpful suggestions:
1. Notice your pattern. Listen to the tone of your self-talk. Using self-talk that is optimistic and hopeful has stress management benefits, productivity benefits, and even health benefits. Did you make a mistake? Forgive yourself and learn from it. In Luke 6:35-38, we are told to love our enemies, to be merciful even as our heavenly Father is merciful, and to forgive even as we are freely forgiven. This counsel applies to how we treat ourselves (our own worst enemy) as well as how we treat everyone else.
2. Stop those thoughts. When you notice you are saying something negative in your mind, stop your thought midstream. Say out loud to yourself, “STOP.” Speaking out loud will have more power in halting the thought process. Turn the negative thought into a positive one. Did you get stuck in a traffic jam on the way to an important meeting? Turn the situation into an opportunity—to talk to the Lord, to take deep breaths and relax, to listen to soothing music, or to visit with your passenger (if you have one). Unexpected negative situations which cannot be changed can often become positive opportunities.
3. Avoid self-limitations. When we say, “I can’t handle this,” “I can’t do this project,” and so on, we very likely won’t be able to do it. The subconscious mind tends to believe the words we speak and the thoughts we have. Try turning this negative statement into a question, such as, “How could I handle this?” or “What does God have in mind for me in this?” Using positive self-talk brings more positive energy into our lives and opens the channels for rational evaluation and creative thinking.
4. Keep a sense of humor. Give yourself permission to smile and laugh, especially when the going gets rough. Looking for something in a tense, stressful situation to be glad about or to laugh about not only has healthful benefits but can also lighten the tension, encourage a better perspective, and facilitate a better solution. “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine . . .” (Prov. 17:22).
5. Surround yourself with positive influences:
a. Music: Listening to music that is soothing and uplifting can be a great boost to developing positive self-talk. Besides the wealth of beautiful classical music available today, the words of familiar hymns can feed the soul with encouragement and peace.
b. Books: Stories of faith, victory, answered prayer, and accounts of lives lived with strength and courage in spite of problems can encourage a positive outlook. The master book—the Bible—contains many inspiring accounts of ordinary human beings who made many mistakes but became extraordinary because they chose to be part of God’s family and His great plan. What great love our God demonstrated in their lives—and He loves us just as much. Listen to this statement: “God regards us as His children. He has redeemed us out of the careless world and has chosen us to become members of the royal family, sons and daughters of the heavenly King.”1 We are daughters of a King, royal princesses! How amazing is that? Talk about a self-esteem booster!
c. Positive people: Ideal friends provide support when we are down, fun when we are up, wisdom when we need it, and positive regard continually. They can encourage us to greater heights and acknowledge our strengths even when we can’t. Pay attention to how your friends make you feel and choose to associate with people who provide positive energy in your life.
If you tend to have a negative outlook, becoming an optimist overnight would be an unrealistic goal. But with practice, your self-talk will include less self-criticism and more self-acceptance. In your self-talks, include the Lord in your conversations. He hears your thoughts anyway, and including Him will open the door for divine guidance, assurance, and peace. Then share your positive moods and experiences so that you can provide enjoyment and an emotional boost to those around you.
B. J. Gallagher, Why Don’t I Do the Things I Know Are Good for Me? (New York: Berkley Books, 2009)
The Holy Bible, King James Version
1 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 142.