You’re a total loser. What a complete failure. You should be ashamed of yourself.
If I asked you whom you thought was uttering these words, you’d likely say a bully or a particularly abusive family member. The truth is, these types of cruel, judgmental and demeaning comments are the types of messages many people hear in their own heads, relentlessly. It’s called negative self-talk and it’s both toxic and pervasive. At its core, negative self-talk is a habit, usually acquired in childhood. It invades one’s thoughts and erodes one’s self-esteem, one vile comment at a time.
The first fact to note in relation to this concept is that these messages are not coming from the individual themselves. They are critical voices each of us has in our heads, sometimes called ego states or Gremlins. They are like back-seat drivers, peppering us with commentary about how we’re doing, if we’re good enough or what our value is. Another way of describing them is that they’re old-fashioned, mean coaches, yelling critical barbs designed to get our attention disapprovingly. Ostensibly, the purpose is supposedly to motivate us to change and be better.
The problem with this strategy is that these voices, while potentially well intentioned, almost always have the opposite impact. I once observed a counselling session. The client had a conversation with the voice in his head that was calling him names. The client would move back and forth between the chairs, in one voicing himself and in the other voicing his critical voice. In this instance, the client asked the voice why it was saying all of these venomous things. The critic responded that it was trying to get the “pathetic” client to stop being so “weak” and to “suck it up” and be better. The client told the critic that this technique was causing him to want to roll up in the fetal position and cry, not get up and go. The critic persisted. They went back and forth until the client ultimately asked the critic, given its stated intention to motivate the client to act, how it thought its effort was working. The critic was stymied. If its goal was the motivation of the individual, the critic was failing miserably because the individual was paralyzed and demoralized, disempowered and nowhere near motivated. The client subsequently reported that the critical voice got much quieter after that session. Figuratively speaking, the critic realized that its strategy for getting the client going was having precisely the opposite effect on him and so the critic stopped engaging in this futile, counter-productive scheme.
Negative self-talk is powerful and debilitating. We are suggestible creatures, we humans, and if the suggestions we’re hearing are that we’re terrible people, our brains take those messages to heart and our self-esteem suffers accordingly. We are often much harder on ourselves than we are on others. And when we judge ourselves harshly, we generally project our self-judgment on to others, expecting that they will judge us similarly. This is often why people don’t reach out for support from others and maintain self-stigma. Psychologist Ethan Kross studied this phenomenon and noticed that simple changes to the way we talk to ourselves can make a big difference in our moods. He noted that simply changing from internal “I” statements to referring to oneself in the third person using one’s name gives the person enough distance from herself to offer more compassion and less judgment. Words soften and are more productive.
To feel never good enough is a miserable existence. As I mentioned before, these internal dialogues usually begin early in life. Parents demand perfection and minimize accomplishment. Peers denigrate and isolate. Children learn early whether their value comes from who they are or what they do. People need to know they are lovable and valuable no matter what they do.
This pursuit of external validation is particularly acute in law students and lawyers. They constantly compare themselves — usually unfavourably — to their classmates and colleagues. They are not smart enough, hard-working enough or accomplished enough. If they encounter a particularly abusive or difficult senior lawyer, they feel as though they’re failing for not being able to endure the abuse. I’ve heard more than a few conclude in such circumstances that they’re not cut out to be a lawyer. What they’re not cut out for is abuse, but that coach is in there haranguing and demeaning them. Inevitably, in such cases, depression, anxiety and addiction can often ensue.
In the end, each of us defines happiness and success for ourselves. These things are only possible when an individual owns their own value and doesn’t seek its confirmation from others. Yours is a unique journey, incomparable to anyone else’s. Negative self-talk reinforces negativity and self-diminishment and almost never spurs positive movement. So, when you notice those voices in your head calling you names or demeaning you, call them out. Notice their impact on you. Are they really motivating or are they taking the air out of your tires? As simple a technique as it seems, hold your hand to your heart for a few seconds. This basic act has been shown to increase one’s instinct to be kind to oneself. You don’t need to congratulate yourself for every step you take — though there’s nothing wrong with that either — but start by turning off the voices that weaken you. If you can do that, you’re well on your way along the path of accomplishing success as you uniquely define it.
Doron Gold is a registered social worker who is also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.