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0 December 7, 2000
Volume 31 Number 8
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Thriving Under Pressure

Self-talk Allows Individuals to Make Positive Choices

Walt Schafer
Walt Schafer

(Photo by Ian Gilmore)

Jason faced three mid-terms, two term papers, an oral report, and a marketing club meeting during the next three days. He determined the only way to get through this period successfully was to take it as a challenge -- dig in, focus his energy, and organize his time carefully.

Jessica faced a similar circumstance -- but reacted quite differently. She felt overwhelmed and depressed, and saw this as one more instance of how unfair her professors were. She procrastinated by watching television, and dulled her growing anxiety with alcohol.

These students' contrasting experiences illustrate the fundamental point that circumstances do not cause distress. Rather, interpretation always intervenes between external stimuli and emotional, physical, and behavioral responses. This view is not new, of course, as reflected in the following quotations:

  • Epictetus: "People are disturbed, not by events, but by their view of those events."
  • Shakespeare: "There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so."
  • Donne: "The mind is its own place, and it can make hell of heaven or heaven of hell."
  • Twain: "I have had a great many troubles in my life, and most never happened."

The assumption in these statements -- that how you think matters most -- has profound implications. Most of all, it empowers individuals to shape their own experiences. It is no longer those "stupid, irresponsible, threatening, or inconsiderate people" who cause upset. Rather, it is your self-talk about them.

Listen sometime. You silently talk to yourself 100 percent of your waking time. Self-talk is self-fulfilling. If you believe others are untrustworthy and selfish, that probably is what you will get. If you assume you are capable and up to the task at hand, you probably will be relatively anxiety-free and will succeed. If you endlessly blame yourself when events don't go your way, if you think it is always this way in most parts of your life, you probably will be continually depressed.

Most of all, self-talk can be self-regulated. Because patterns of thinking are driven by the "repetition compulsion," changing them is not always easy. Hard work, time, and patience may be needed.

One step in managing self-talk is recognizing and correcting patterns of distorted thinking. Here are illustrations of such patterns:

  • Awfulizing: Turning a difficult or unsatisfactory situation into something awful, terrible, or intolerable.
  • Catastrophizing: Expecting that the worst almost certainly will happen.
  • Overgeneralizing: Generalizing from a single event or piece of information to all or most such things.
  • Polarized thinking: Things are black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, perfection or failure. No middle ground exists.
  • Magnifiying: Making more of an event than it actually is. Making a mountain out of a molehill.

Another step is to recognize, question, and, if needed, change irrational beliefs. Beliefs (enduring assumptions) are irrational if they are distorted rather than factual, extreme rather than moderate, or harmful rather than helpful. To what degree do you carry with you these illustrative irrational beliefs? Other people or outside events upset me. I am thin-skinned by genetic nature -- I was born that way. It is imperative that I be accepted by others, especially by those who are important to me. If things do not go my way, it will be awful, terrible, or even catastrophic. I should be thoroughly competent in all respects. If I don't do it perfectly, I have failed. To be criticized is to be diminished -- hence, it is intolerable.

Reprogramming irrational beliefs requires three simple steps:

  • Deliberately use new self-talk. (Examples: I respond to criticism with humor. I thrive on challenge. I am calm and confident. Like everyone else, I'm an FHB -- fallible human being.)
  • Use self-talk repeatedly (e.g., 25 times per day) to gain familiarity.
  • New self-talk becomes natural.

As a start in managing your self-talk, consider using the P and Q technique the next time you are in the midst of a potentially upsetting situation. Pause with a deep breath, then ask these questions: What is my self-talk right now? How am I upsetting myself? Is this truly worth getting upset about? How can I reinterpret this situation so I will respond with reasonable feelings and actions?

Walt Schafer, Sociology and Social Work, is the author of Stress Management for Wellness, 4th edition.
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