“I can’t believe you just did that. How could you have said something so stupid? I mean, seriously, how could you be such an idiot? Where did you graduate from again? Did you graduate? You shouldn’t be here. You’re dangerous.”
It was my second shift as an intern in the ER and I was telling my attending about the most recent case I had seen, a young man with chest pain, so that we could come up with a treatment plan. I had suggested he might have viral pericarditis, an inflammation of the tissues surrounding the heart.
The attending had raised his eyebrows slightly. “Mmm, probably not,” he said, explaining why he considered it unlikely.
His response was calm, reasoned, non-judgmental — he had years of experience and I had med school plus a mere 12 hours of practice. No, the diatribe against me was of my own making. That demeaning voice was the one in my head. It can take over when I am at my most vulnerable, and it can occupy too much of my mind’s real estate as, instead of moving on, I continue to stew over a situation.
If you deal with your own negative voice, you know how distracting and downright debilitating it can be. In his latest book, More Transforming Negative Self-Talk: Practical, Effective Exercises, Steve Andreas offers a distinct approach to it. Andreas, a psychotherapist who has published a number of books and has expertise in many areas including neurolinguistic programming, provides a follow-up to his previous book on the subject, Transforming Negative Self-Talk.
Much has been written about the way we harangue ourselves. Typically my own approach has revolved around trying to ignore the voice or argue back, neither to great effect. So rather than try to suppress or contradict our negative voice, Andreas offers an alternative: the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach.
“When you have an internal voice that troubles you,” he writes, “that voice is a recorded echo of difficult interactions you have had with others in your personal history.” Argue with it — as you may or may not have done with real people in your past — and it argues back with even more determination. By instead joining with the voice, Andreas writes, you take the “first step toward really listening to it, understanding it, and how it functions.”
To illustrate, Andreas shares an intriguing story about a successful lawyer wracked by insomnia and a repetitive loop playing in his head as he struggles to fall asleep. By initiating the loop himself and mimicking its words and intonations, he is able to overcome the adversarial relationship he once had with the self-talk, allowing him to relax and fall asleep.
After you have stopped trying to fight self-talk, Andreas sets out to help you learn more from it — to clarify the meaning behind the words. Who have you heard these words from in the past? Where did that happen? The book moves through different stages of joining with the voice, learning from it, appreciating its “unique perceptions, skills, and abilities,” and working with it to make changes. Andreas proposes that even the most negative of voices has an underlying positive intent. Like a father who criticizes his son’s poor performance on a report card in hopes of spurring greater study and preventing future failure, our negative self-talk can have underlying good intentions.
To bridge the gap between these abstract ideas and practical application, the book is filled with brief examples as well as more extensive transcripts from seminars and therapeutic sessions. Although at times the detailed transcripts can be tedious, they give us a window onto how these principles might be used, either in our own lives or, for practitioners, in those of our clients.
Looking back at my own self-talk during my second shift in the ER, I recognize that my internal voice desperately wanted me to succeed — not just for the sake of my own ego, but because people in the hospital are ill and coming up with the correct diagnosis is important for their treatment. As an intern, I still have my supervisor to lean on when I am uncertain, but eventually he will not be there. The learning curve is steep, and my internal voice wants me to hurry up.
Andreas’s book gives you the opportunity to explore how your own negative self-talk may actually, beneath the surface, mean well. Once you recognize this, the voice becomes less distracting and disabling. For those who have found themselves struggling with their negative self-talk, this book offers a step-wise approach to turning that internal antagonist into an ally.
More Transforming Negative Self-Talk: Practical, Effective Exercises
W. W. Norton & Company, October 2014
Paperback, 144 pages