We hear a lot about self-something these days. Self-love, self-compassion, self-care, self-acceptance and for the older generation, self-discipline and self-sacrifice. These are all important terms and mean different things to us at different times. I use them all the time in session and of course, the language we use around those terms is important. For me, the most important “self” is one that we tend to forget and will often instigate change in the others. That is our own self-talk.

“Words matter. And the words that matter most are the ones you say to yourself.” 

David Taylor-Klaus

It’s called self-talk, emotional traffic, inner conflict, internal family. Call it what you will, it can have a marked effect on the way we see the world. These ancient childhood voices are primed to protect us from facing childhood trauma that we found difficult to cope with at the time. Those first gentle messages in a child’s mind about avoiding dysfunction have, in some cases, turned into raging voices of abuse, escape, guilt, anger and shame and as adults, we listen to them and act on their advice. They are trusted confidants and they have been with us all the way. However, if we listen to them, we are likely to be stuck.

I am firmly convinced that if we can become aware of how this internal talk started and take action to master it, we can recover from just about anything. Simply stated, we become what we think and we can learn to think differently. However, as we know, things are never quite that simple and many ingrained thoughts and habits might need to be worked through before things get better. The first stage of this process is understanding where the self-talk came from in the first place.

“If human emotions largely result from thinking, then one may appreciably control one’s feelings by controlling one’s thoughts – or by changing the internalized sentences, or self-talk, with which one largely created the feeling in the first place.”

Albert Ellis

There is a widely recognised process that occurs in childhood when dysfunction is sensed by a developing child. “Splitting ” is a neurological and psychological process that protects the child from perceived threat of neglect, abuse and abandonment. On a psychological level, it is a question of dissociation away from the present moment of danger into a “protective me” personality, leaving the “other me” child behind which holds all the innocence of a young child, that is, staying in the moment inquisitive, curious and trusting. The “protective me” takes over which is full of measures designed by the child to shield it from the dysfunction going on around him or her. This could include rage or avoidance, shutting down or sadness. This is also where the origins of our internal family of thinking or self- talk comes from. 

This “protective me” is the one that is often developed into adulthood with the measures still in place and working hard to further protect the “host”. The early protection measures develop into complex thinking parts that when triggered will give input to protect the Self. These include the Inner Critic, a managing voice that keeps rigid patterns of thinking alive. Along with guilt and shame elements, it can drive the feelings of perfection, overwork and fuel self- doubt. The avoidance part of our thinking can instigate escape methods such as procrastination and to the extreme addiction to substances and eating disorders. As we said, what we think, we become.

As stated, these ancient voices pop up when we are triggered to protect the Self from dysfunction and feelings felt as a child. Their preferred option is that the host does not do anything risky (an essential element of life) but spin their wheels thinking about what they can do. This avoids facing rejection and the feelings of not being good enough but it solves nothing. Many people listen instinctively to these voices and thus have a constant stream of emotional traffic defining the way they see the world. It is an attitude of fear that means that facing uncertainty is extremely difficult and avoided at all cost.

We all experience self-talk to varying degrees. Some of it can be positive but mostly it berates us, make us feel guilty, angry, can encourage us to slip into addiction or procrastination and can certainly overwhelm us if not checked. Most people who describe how it affects them also describe how it keeps them stuck in situations that they often know they need to change. One of the best quotes I know about this topic comes from Jordan Peterson, who says ‘If you know you are doing the wrong thing, start doing the right thing’. Maybe easier said than done on occasions. 

Self-talk will consolidate fears and anxiety and actually stop you doing the ‘right thing’ to the extent of taking the easy way out and doing nothing, accepting your situation begrudgingly and missing opportunities for positive growth. Self-talk is easy to listen to because it is not only very convincing but it is exactly what the term suggests, made by self. It was created by us as children to overcome real or perceived dysfunction around our caregivers. It protected us when we needed it to by alerting us to the risks and dangers around us and keeping us safe. However, it never knows when to stop and like an old computer uses the same outdated programs on the subsequent adult. It can cause untold misery and can undermine self-esteem, decision-making, will keep codependents codependent and maintain states of dysfunction in work, relationships and life generally. It is a subject, for me, that is at the heart of codependency treatment especially. Codependents often experience strong, self-defeating self-talk that keeps them tied to the wrong relationship for them.

To be able to deal with self-talk, one must first be aware of where it first developed. As already stated, it is the ancient remnant of protection measures used in childhood. However, it further develops into definable thinking ‘parts’ that govern our behaviour generally. These ‘parts’ work with each other, against each other but battle for supremacy in the ‘family’ of parts that we all have. The most common of these parts are the inner critic, the escape voice, the guilt voice, the anger voice and the ‘child’ voice but there can be many others who want a say into what is happening. When they sense a threat, they will all jump in with their opinion and the dysfunctional aim is to ‘protect’, which means for them either doing nothing or facing no risk at all. Hence the feeling of ‘being stuck’ that many people subscribe to. This can, to the extreme, be paralysing and I have heard of clients who will take weeks or months, sometimes years agonising over the simplest of decisions. It is the influence of the emotional side of us that tries to override logic and rational thought. I have heard clients say ‘rationally, I understand but emotionally..’. My answer always is, it is not wrong to listen to the rational side as well. 

I often describe the process above as similar to a pinball machine. Throw a thought in and it will hit several ‘pins’ before coming to rest. In this case, the thought is the ball and the pins are the various ‘parts’ trying to influence the process. The key is not to play ball! Once we realise and understand the concept of ‘dysfunctional protection’ that self-talk offers us and we become aware that by listening to it, we are disadvantaging ourselves, we can start to counter it and move forward. To do this, we first need to find out what the ‘parts’ are protecting us from and who they are. Is it fear of change, rejection, expectations on us for success, fear of failure? Is it the inner critic exerting influence? Are we being driven by guilt? Are we listening to the message of non-responsibility given by the escape voice? Is anger the main factor?

All of the ‘parts’ are childlike voices looking for attention and validation and they use their dysfunctional messages to get it (classic self-talk). They are a part of us but are part of the ‘fragmented self’ and they dominate because they do not want us to relive childhood trauma. They need guidance and nurturing and being told what the self wants. This calls for the promotion of a ‘leader’ for the dysfunctional internal family who will give this direction, negotiate a functional path and positively discipline ‘badly behaved’ parts.

This is not a process that happens overnight. Much work must be done on discovering ‘parts’ and the influence they have. Once this valuable work is done, the ‘leader’ has all the information it needs to intervene and add a strong, positive voice as ‘head of the family’. In therapy, it takes time to identify the range of thinking parts and what they are protecting the host from. That can be found by working with childhood issues and the origin of the dysfunction. Once a clear sense of awareness is found, an adult voice can be developed that not only challenges the childlike critics and inner family and soothe them at the same time. This will eventually lead to releasing the fear of action. Once the first step is taken, it is less difficult to take the next one, building courage and self- esteem as the process develops. By doing this we can reconnect with the parts of us we left behind.

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