WORDS MATTER: Especially When We’re Talking to Ourselves

June 18, 2019

Words have power

I said to a client yesterday, you never hear a fan of a sporting event or a race from the sideline saying, “You suck! But you can do it!”  We don’t hear this because we can’t motivate someone or ourselves if we start with critical or self-deprecating  messages. When we hear those critical messages, we feel hurt and shame and we want to give up. However, this is often how I hear clients approach themselves when they first express an are interest to make a change in their behavior with themselves or with others.

Motivation is made up of two key components – importance and confidence. In order to feel motivated, inspired, wanting a change we have to deem it to be important, meaning it has value to us. We also have to feel capable of making that change. We have to have confidence that we have the internal and external supports necessary to navigate the discomfort of giving up an old way to find joy in a new way. Change always has some component, sometimes short lived and sometimes not, of discomfort. We like to stay with the familiar, the path well worn. We know the familiar path, and even if it’s a path that causes harm to us or others, we are reluctant to give it up.  Humans are creatures that prefer to stay with what we know and not venture into the uncertainty of the unknown and new. Confidence is built up over time. It’s developed by celebrating small successes, so that each success can build on the other to develop a strong foundation of trust. In order to celebrate any successes, we have to see ourselves as worthy and deserving of that celebration.

In therapy, we aren’t just working towards the change we want to achieve, we are working to feel and believe that we are deserving of that change. We are making an effort to develop a more compassionate relationship with ourselves, and to honor that most often we are doing the best we can with the tools we have. If we want to do something different, we have to develop new tools and that takes times and often involves mistakes.  In the end, we develop a practice of paying attention to ourselves, noticing when we feel frustrated, exasperated, defeated; welcoming our feelings and getting curious about what they need.  When we welcome our feelings, they don’t need to scream at us, and when we aren’t screaming “you suck!” we feel more interested and supported to consider venturing into the unknown. Into the unknown, we now get to take a voice that says “keep going, try your best, it’s ok if you fall, you can get back up.”

As an example, this is one of my recent Instagram posts –
I joined a competitive tennis league this year for the first time in over 25 years. Today I played in the semi-finals. It was fascinating (and a bit unfunny at first) to observe how my self-talk so quickly reverted to old patterns of wavering between “you suck!” to “it doesn’t really matter.” And then I took a breath or 10 and connected to the voice I’ve been cultivating during those 25 years off the court. It said: “this does matter. You want to win. It’s ok to be nervous. Find your footing. Keep your eye on the ball. Swing all the way through. Put in your best effort.” And so I did! Now onto the finals!

Motivational Interviewing, William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick
Changing for Good, James A Prochaska, John C. Norcross, Carlo C. Diclemente
The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown

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About the author
Kathryn Grooms

Kathryn is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over twenty years of experience working with issues of substance abuse, trauma, sexuality, gender, mood disorders and anxiety. Kathryn is passionate about empowering her clients to navigate their unique journey of self-discovery and emotional healing.