Cultivating positive self-talkMonday Feb 21, 2022 | Series personal growth
I have struggled with depression and self-esteem issues for years. Over the last few years (I think) I have started to put the pieces together to fundamentally improve how I go through life happier. I started to realize that my negative self-talk was holding me back. I was unable to recognize the parts I do like about myself.
When I wasn’t depressed I talked myself back into it, because ‘I didn’t deserve’ to be happy. I was never good enough according to myself.
I’d like to share the pieces that made my growth towards (more) positive self-talk and self-image improvement in the hopes that it helps someone else.
Be in the present
Knowing what you want to change is the first step and takes quite some introspection. However knowing what to change is a lot easier when you’re looking back and reflecting on what you did or felt. Actually changing requires you to be aware of what you feel or think as it is happening.
So the first piece I put in place is mindfulness. It allows me to have the presence of mind to process and adjust how I react to thoughts or feelings. Instead of being swept up and overwhelmed by everything that comes at me in the moment. Usually resulting in me shutting down completely and feeling like I failed. Compounding the issue only further.
Meditation is a way for me to improve your mindfulness. It can take quite some effort and time for it to ‘click’.
While I’m not sure that what I do is meditation exactly, it is most definitely a regular exercise of mindfulness. Three times per week I sit with some white noise, usually rain or forest sounds, and focus on observing my thoughts.
Scheduling it more than 3 times per week seems to make it a chore for me and reduces the chance that I’ll actually stick to it. At times I do it more often, however I don’t force myself to do it more.
My mind tends to be running 24/7, that seems to be the calmest it gets. When it gets out of control it feels more like wild water rafting without a paddle. Or maybe like doing a rodeo for the first time on the most difficult bull.
So you can imagine that just sitting there alone with my thoughts would just end with me being swept away and going down the rabbit hole.
My goal is to try and remain aware that I’m sitting and observing my thoughts, keep some distance between ‘myself’ and my thoughts. Instead of getting fully immersed in them. When I inevitably do get swept up my goal is to bring myself to awareness again and bring myself back.
Giving myself a paddle to control the raft, to extend the wild water rafting analogy. I allow myself to follow the water/thoughts, but I can’t get swept away by it.
While learning how to meditate I chose to focus on returning to being aware instead of not losing focus.
It can help to have something to bring yourself back to, some focus point. A common one is your own breathing. Sometimes I like to use the white noise. A bird call in a forest white noise can be a nice external trigger to remember you got swept up and need to get back to being the observer.
It is getting easier with practice however some days are better than others. And that is ok. Over time I started to realize that the observing became a habit that started happening in everyday situations. Allowing me to examine my feelings and thoughts in realtime.
You are the observer
Part of what made meditation or mindfulness ‘click’ for me was to have an answer to the question ‘who am i?'. I had often read about the notion that you’re not your thoughts but rarely was there any exploration or answer to who you are instead.
Being the observer, while still very vague and abstract, gave that enough form to make the concept work for me. It put some distance between me and my thoughts. And allowed me to pose the question ‘would I say this to someone else? If no, why am I telling this to myself?’.
In turn this allows me to still ask critical questions to search for self improvement. At the same time it allows to reject any non constructive negativity.
‘Solve for Happy’ is where I read about being the observer for the first time. It is a great read, I highly recommend it.
Believe in myself
Where meditation is helping me catch my negative self-talk red-handed I still needed a tool to fight it. My first step here was to realize that negative self-talk is a habit. A bad habit.
Habits can be hard to get rid of, especially if you have nothing to put in its place.
The obvious option is to just replace the negative self-talk with positive self-talk. If you’re like me however and you have low self-esteem that may not be that easy to come by.
I had no idea what positive self-talk looked like, at least not in a way that I believed and therefor would stick.
Some time ago I got a tip from my manager at the time to write down good things as a reminder. At the time I wasn’t sure what to do with them after that though. It still ended up forgotten when I needed them the most.
Until I started collecting notes with compliments from various teambuilding exercises. And seeing them on my desk during a bad time. Going through them right there made me feel better by realizing that I have good aspects. And so my stash of positive ammunition was born.
I had shifted my personal growth goals for a while to being kinder towards others. I’m not sure why but it made me question if not accepting compliments was the nice thing to do…
Practice on good days
As with anything positive self-talk needs practice. I realized that only trying it on days that I was feeling down would make it much much harder to improve.
So I started to look at the stack of positive ammunition (the notes with compliments) and go through them from time to time. To read and internalize. Start believing it for myself. Accepting that these were genuine positive aspects as seen by others. Accepting their perspective of me.
Over time I started to believe it myself and was able to build on it. Expanding on it and as a result my self-esteem has been (and still is) growing.
Adopt positive self image
Having that external validation is a good start if you’re lacking self-esteem. However it should not stay only external. I started using it to build believe in myself.
By using the positives and link them to values that I hold I could build a positive self-image. With slowly growing foundation of internal validation I could start to also start accepting parts of myself that I don’t like about myself that much.
Seeing my own positive aspects is still a big part of the growth that I’m going through. While at times I still have those negative voices in my head that try to dimiss my growth I’m now able to offset them.
At the same time I use that critical internal voice to stay humble. To keep learning and to keep growing. Nothing is always all good or all bad, at least now for me its grey instead of all black.
In all this growth it is important to keep another aspect in mind. Compassion. Where at one point I was aiming to be kinder to others I changed that to include myself.
That practiced critical internal voice can be loud and destructive. It will spiral me to rock bottom if I let it.
By now a key phrase when I notice that I’m having a lot of negative thoughts is ‘would I say this to someone when someone came to me with this? if no why would I say it to myself?'
Remember “Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day."
Being the observer helps me here too. It is often easier to be kind to others, if I can at times talk to myself like I’m talking to someone else it makes it easier to be kind.
It is a slow process, but turning external validation into internalized self-believe and self-esteem is building a good foundation for confidence in lots of areas in my life.
Combining mindfulness, compassion and positive ammunition has turned my internal monologue/thoughts more balanced. Which has had as compounding effect that I start to have a more positive outlook. It has been liberating.
I would like to emphasize that everyone is different. So don’t treat the above as a step by step plan but as inspiration to build your own framework. If this didn’t make it click keep on reading. Someone else might have put it down in the right words for it to stick for you.