“There are two things in life that you can control–your actions and your attitude”.
I used to absolutely hate hearing this phrase. And, to be honest, sometimes it still gets on my nerves. However, this phrase getting under my skin is no longer due to me not ‘getting it’, but because it’s usually at a time in which I need to hear it the most.
We hear a lot of phrase thrown around such as “manifestation” and “speaking what you want”, to the point where it typically just gets filed away into our mental cabinet of ‘cheesy things influencers say’. However, there is so much truth in these statements. We underestimate how much our brain processes the words we speak, and that alone makes it that much easier for us to speak negative into our lives.
Contrary to what a lot of us may believe, attitudes don’t “just happen”. Our attitudes on just about anything are heavily linked to what we believe. And what we believe is heavily reliant on what we tell ourselves everyday.
One of the first steps I learned when it came to the improvement of my attitude–towards life, my work, my craft, and myself–is learning how to speak to myself.
Self-Talk Directly Connects to Belief
Some people call it self-talk, and others may call it manifestation. Either way, the concept revolves around speaking what you want or what you’re aspiring to rather than speaking negative.
In his book What To Say When You Talk to Yourself, Dr. Shad Helmstetter claims that positive self-talk can be–and should be–a permanent habit in our lives. In short, the human brain will do anything possible you tell it to do if you tell it often enough.
Talking to ourselves can sound like a foreign concept for many, but the reality is that we are all doing it all the time. Have you ever heard someone claim that “they’re not good with names”? They seem to forget someone’s name minutes after meeting. This person will confirm this failure to remember someone’s name by, once again, stating “See, I’m just not good with names!” However, it may not have occurred to this person that the only reason they’re good at remembering phone numbers, fun facts, an address, etc. and not a person’s name is because they constantly say that they don’t.
Our subconscious mind (or our ‘internal programming’) doesn’t differentiate the negative or the positive that we tell ourselves on a daily basis. It just knows that this is information that is processed over and over again to the point that it is treated as a fact. Most of the talking that takes place within ourselves are phrases that we don’t even notice.
“Yeah, I’ll edit that for you. I’m pretty good with editing”.
“Sorry about that, I’m just really clumsy”.
“I can never focus on anything for more than a couple minutes”.
This type of self-talk is so ingrained in us that we don’t realize when we do it. All of it is based on what we truly believe about ourselves and the world around us.
The first time I read Dr. Shad Helmstetter’s “What to Say When You Talk to Yourself”, I was already pretty guarded. I started reading it after receiving a recommendation from a close friend that I admire. This was during a time in which I was still skeptical about ‘personal growth’ and ‘self improvement’ books. So you can imagine my surprise when I was reading the early chapters and ran across Helmstetter saying:
“The problem is not with the books. The problem is not with the seminars or with the motivational talks. There are a lot of self-help ideas and techniques that are good. They should work–and they could. But they don’t work, or they don’t keep working, because of something that all of us overlooked. That’s not how the brain works”.
I was taken aback when I read this; I didn’t think that this book from ’80s would level with me and read what I was thinking before I even hit page 20. But he’s right. These days, I’m very much into books and resources that promote self awareness and personal growth, but he’s definitely right about that.
In his book, Helmstetter breaks down the importance of self-talk, and explains how this constant repetition can become a positive habit.
It’s Not Enough to Avoid Negativity
Not too long ago, I started learning to be in control of what I speak over my life. And for me, and for many others, it starts out with not speaking negative over everything.
When we say “don’t speak negative”, it’s easy to just think about the blatant negative statements that come out of our mouth. We know we’re not supposed to blurt out things like “I’m so stupid” or “I’m so ugly” or “I’m worthless”.
Something that would happen with my small, strong group of friends is that whenever someone would say something negative, be it a joke or not, one of us would pipe up and say “Don’t speak that”. I know for me, I tend to have a bit of dark or dry humor. And a lot of times, that can create a gateway into humor that is more self deprecating. I remember saying one day (jokingly) ‘yeah, well you know I ain’t shit’. But immediately the friend I was talking to jumped in and asked me ‘Why do you say that?’
When that happened I was taken aback. I thought I made it clear that I was just joking. So I told her: “Girl, I just joking”. To that she replied “You didn’t answer my question. Why do you say that?”
And it really hit me in that moment that, even though I meant it as a joke, deep down inside of me I truly believed those words I was saying to myself. Something inside me was always telling me that I’m not a good person, and somehow I ended up coping with that with self-deprecating humor paired with a veil of false confidence.
So we believe the fix is simple. I’ll just stop speaking negative into my life! But it’s not what the only thing we need to pay attention to.
In his book, Helmstetter makes an excellent analogy with an apartment (your mind) filled with dirty and old furniture (negative thinking). One day, you make a decision to get rid of all that old dingy furniture! So you take the time to hoist all of it out of your apartment, every single piece, until finally you’re left with an empty apartment.
For a moment, everything is peaceful. But then as you sit there in the empty apartment you realize:”Well, I guess I do need to have something to sit on here”. So you go outside and pick up a couple of chairs that you threw out from the curb. When you come back in, you set down the chairs and then you bump into a wall. “Oh…maybe I need at least a lamp here”. So you go back outside and you retrieve one of the lamps you threw out. This cycle keeps continuing until eventually almost everything you worked so hard taking out has all filtered its way back!
In other words, it’s not enough to weed out the negative: we must also absorb and collect the positive. Making the decision to stop being negative is one thing, but it is only temporary unless we replace it with positive.
One exercise I did was that I wrote down a lot of negative statements, things that I have though to myself (or even voiced aloud) when it came to how I felt about myself, my life, my family, friends, etc. Then when I finished that list, I went line by line to replace the negative statements with an opposing positive statement. For example:
“I’ve gained weight” turns into “No matter my size, I am beautiful”
“I annoy people. They don’t want to talk to me” turns into “People are drawn to me”
“I’m not sure if I can do this” turns into “My drive and my ambition allow me to reach my goals”
“Maybe I’m just too weakminded” turns into “I rise above thoughts that try to make me feel angry or afraid”.
“I can’t think of anything to write” turns into “I am a gifted writer, my mind is full of brilliant ideas.”
All of these positive statements are part of my self-talk that I’ve dedicated to doing every single day.
‘Speaking’ and the Levels of Self Talk
“We cannot drive out thoughts with thoughts. We have to drive out thoughts with words”.
At first, I thought it was enough to just think positive but over time I realized that I also had to speak positive.
And I’ll be honest, the first time I did my self-talk I felt awkward. I was all alone, and I still had this strange feeling about just speaking out in the air the list of things I had written. Some of them I believed, and some of them I didn’t believe just yet. The more you practice, the better and less awkward it gets. But yes, the first couple times may feel very uncomfortable.
Helmstetter can definitely explain it better than I can, but essentially your brain picks up what you’re putting down a lot faster when you speak these words rather than let them lull around on the inside. A lot of the thoughts that we have about ourselves and our world at this moment are largely based on unconscious conditioning. This means that from an early age, we received messaging from those closest to us and, in turn, that is what we believe. What we seek to do when we learn about positive self-talk is to essentially reprogram ourselves from the things that we learned subconsciously, and make a conscious effort to replace it with thinking that will work for us rather than against us.
In actuality, you’ll read in Helmstetter’s text that self-talk actually comes in five levels:
Level One: Negative Acceptance
Level Two: Recognition/The Need to Change
Level Three: The Decision to Change
Level Four: The Better You
Level Five: Universal Affirmation
Level Five of self-talk aligns with what we more publicly know as “positive affirmations”. We speak in the present tense, there is no “I will” or “one day” or “I’m going to”. You speak it as if it is already there; this is whether your initially believe it or not. Because your mind will eventually believe what you tell it to.
The great thing is, the process of learning self-talk isn’t linear. The first levels of self-talk are actually things to unlearn, whereas the later stages of self-talk are things you can start learning and practicing right at this moment. But remember that there’s no ‘arrival’ date when it comes to affirming ourselves. It’s something that we continuously work on.
I read What to Say When You Talk to Yourself for the first time a few years ago, and it is a text that I continuously come back to. In fact, I think I’ve read it at least once a year since the first time I read it back in 2016. Obviously I can’t go over the entire book, but these have just been some of the highlights that I find very important. I definitely recommend it to anyone, but especially anyone who needs help building (or rebuilding) their self-image and outlook on life.
Reasons I found this particular book refreshing and ahead of its time (published in 1986) is that I didn’t feel as if it was demonizing negative thoughts. Rather, it was sighting how they are unhelpful and can never get me to the life that I want for myself.
Negative thoughts and feelings will inevitably happen, they are part of being human. And, as I’ve written before, there is such a thing as toxic positivity. This book brought to my attention the level of emotional control I wish to have, especially on those inevitable down days. Rather than the focus being on never thinking a negative thought again, it’s understanding that I have more control over my feelings than I initially thought. I have more control over my self-image than I initially thought. At the time of my first reading, I was actually in need of that solid reminder that no thought at any time can dwell in my mind without my permission.
I strive to talk to myself the same way I would talk to someone I love. And if you love yourself (or want to learn to love yourself) I recommend that you do the same. What to Say When You Talk to Yourself is available online on Amazon, or physically in major bookstores like Barnes & Noble. If you can, take some time to pick up (or download/order) a copy!
Your Friendly Neighborhood Awkward Penguin,