Words are powerful. I can see this when I am talking with patients, my children, my spouse and my friends and colleagues. In this post, I am thinking about how powerful words can be to someone who is scared, feeling out of control, or uncertain of what is going on. This situation is common in a doctor’s office and in the hospital where people seek help when something unpleasant is happening that seems to be out of the control of the individual seeking care.
Studies have shown that patient outcomes are often impacted by what they hear from healthcare providers even when they hear something indirectly- if they believe it is about them. Consider this: What happens to a patient in the ER, frightened and waiting for a test result, hearing someone outside of the room saying, “Yeah…he’s a train wreck. It’s not looking good. There’s not much we will be able to do. He will have to follow up with his primary care doctor…”? Later (feels like HOURS to the patient), the provider comes into the patient’s room and says, “Thank you for waiting. Your labs were unremarkable and your chest x-ray came back and you do not have pneumonia. It’s probably just a viral upper respiratory infection. We recommend you follow up with your primary care provider…” Might this person be reassured by this visit?
People can be scared, feeling out of control, or uncertain of what is going on outside of the doctor’s office or hospital. There are times when our senses hyper-sensitized, when we are on high alert, and what we hear, enters deep into our subconscious mind and begins to influence our feelings, thinking and behaviors. This hyper-alert state is usually when we are feeling strong emotions, when our mind is “wide open.” Words at these times are very powerful. They may be accurate and rational, but they may not be. Sometimes, we are aware of these influences and many times we are not.
In my practice, I see that there is much suffering related to the hostile and negative words we have absorbed at various vulnerable times in our lives. Maybe a parent, family member, teacher, partner, close friend, colleague said something hostile or we misinterpreted some comments which were deeply painful and our brain absorbed it and was altered by it. When I hear hostile and negative words being used against oneself, “I was bad,” “I failed,” “I have no discipline,” “I just can’t do it,” “I’m not strong enough,” “I’m hopeless,” “I’m no good,” “I’m stupid,” “I can’t help it,” “I’m just out of control,” I recognize one of the keys to healing and success will be to develop a capacity for self-compassion.
We have mentioned self-compassion before. When we develop the capacity for self-compassion, healing begins. When we practice self-compassion, success follows. If you use hostile and negative words to describe yourself or your character, stop now. It seeps in unexpectedly and it has no purpose. It blocks your ability to progress and limits your success. Good news! This negative self talk can be phased out and left behind. Replace it with a healthy practice of self-compassion. Here’s how:
- Become aware of it if you hear yourself saying something judgmental and negative about yourself. “I was bad (this implies a character flaw), I ate that cake even though I knew I shouldn’t. (a routine character flaw)”
- Identify it and label it. “That was my negative self talk and it’s not true.”
- Reframe it. “I feel bad (this implies a temporary feeling). I ate that cake even though I knew it would interfere with my weight loss goals. (a simple mistake)”
- Reflect. “I have been very stressed and bought the cake to “treat” myself. I don’t actually feel better after eating the cake. My stress is not improved after eating the cake.”
- Learn. “Taking a walk outside, listening to music, dancing, calling a friend, drawing, or journaling DOES relieve my stress and also would be distracting me from the desire to eat cake.”
- Empower yourself. “Next time, I can try some or all of my other stress relieving activities. If I still want the cake, then I can still choose to eat a smaller piece of cake, but maybe I won’t have it. If I do, I will own it and move on. I will know that I am doing the best that I can, at that moment.”
- Reaffirm. “I am doing the best that I can, right now.” If you then hear yourself responding, “Well…actually, I COULD do better…” then smile to yourself and say, “I know you can… And, you will when you are ready.”
Given the power of words, imagine what might happen if you protected yourself from negative self talk. Imagine what your day would be like if you heard warm, loving, supportive comments all day and accepted you are human and humans make mistakes and allowed yourself to regularly reflect and learn how to get better and better. Can you appreciate how much you’d flourish and achieve? When you practice self-compassion, you open yourself to your incredible capacity for success and joyful living.
Let me know how you have conquered negative self-talk or how you practice self-compassion.