When I first started writing these blogs about how to rewire your brain to become happier, I said there were 4 kinds of things you would need to do if you truly wanted to boost your level of happiness: (1.) Things to start doing; (2.) Things to stop doing; (3.) Long-term strategies that take time to see the results; and (4) Short-term strategies that won't solve any problems you're facing but will, in the moment, help you feel happier and calmer. Well, most of what I've written about so far are things to start doing. Today I want to talk about something to stop doing, and if you really want to become happier in the moment as well as rewire your brain so you have a greater capacity for happiness, it's one of the most crucial components of any happiness boosting efforts. In fact, I've seen it be a game changer/life changer for a lot of people!
So here it is: Stop being your own worst critic, and stop talking to yourself in an undermining, pessimistic, critical way!
If you were to receive a computer printout of the way you talk to yourself throughout the day, how would it read? Many people would cringe to see evidence of an internal dialogue that is often demanding, demeaning, or critical of themselves or other people. "Now, why did I do that?" "That was a stupid thing to say...what was I thinking?" "How do I expect to succeed if I can't even do _____?" or "What was she thinking?" "How could he do/say such a thing?" Not surprisingly, people who regularly have conversations in their head like that often feel more anxious, insecure, angry, or depressed than people who refrain from those kinds of internal dialogues.
Would you like to see the power of your thoughts and words for helping you feel better or worse? If so, here is a little exercise you can do (but only do it if you have no injuries with your hips, knees, or ankles).
1. Pull up the Stopwatch on your phone and have it in your hand ready to start and stop it at the right times. Now stand with your back against a wall and your feet out away from the wall about 1 - 1 1/2 feet. Slide down until you are in a squat position like you're sitting in an invisible chair, and turn on the stopwatch. When you start feeling pain in your legs, focus on it and start naming the pain to yourself. Stay in that position for as long as you can while you focus on your pain. Stand up when you reach your limit, and immediately stop the timer. How many seconds were you able to stay in that position?
2. Rest for a few minutes and then do the exercise again, but this time, rather than focusing on your pain, see how many seconds you can remain in that position when you cheer yourself on or encourage yourself. How would you cheer on your favorite sports team? Or how would you encourage one of your kids when they are trying something hard for the first time? What happens if you say these kinds of words to yourself... "You can do it. Go for it. Give it your best. You got this. You're doing it. You did it. Yay! Way to go! I'm so proud of you!" If you said those kinds of words, how many seconds were you able to stay in that position?
Many years ago, I injured my back and right hip and was in a lot of pain, so I was referred for some physical therapy. After the physical therapist did an evaluation of my problems, he handed me over to someone who was to lead me through the exercises each time I visited. Quite frankly, I wasn't sure I could work with her because she had no smile, there was no light in her eyes, there was no encouragement, and she was stern and condescending The very first day she worked with me, she had me do that exercise, and because I was in a lot of pain, I could only stay in that position for 20 seconds. In a judgmental tone of voice, she said, "A woman your age should be able to stay in that position for 60 seconds. The next time I see you, I want you to be able to do 60 seconds." I'd never been in physical therapy before, so I didn't know that was really not helpful advice on her part, but because I take responsibility for my own health, I went home and started practicing that exercise. Guess what...I couldn't get beyond 20 seconds. I kept trying but I didn't improve, and since I only had about 1 1/2 - 2 days until my next appointment, I was getting frustrated.
Suddenly I stopped myself and said, "Vicki, what are you saying to yourself?" Well, I wasn't saying anything out loud, but my internal conversation went like this: "What's the matter with this woman? Why can't she even smile? Duh, I'm in pain. I do better with compassion and encouragement rather than what she gives. I'm never going to be able to do this." And that's when I realized my problem was that I was speaking to myself in a way that was undermining my efforts to heal. I then said to myself, "Vicki, you teach people how to change the way they talk to themselves, so why don't you take some of your own medicine? And besides, you don't need her to give you encouragement; you can give it to yourself."
So, I got back in that position and I began to say to myself something like, "Honey, I'm so sorry you are in so much pan, but we have to do this exercise to get healthy again. I know it's hard, but you can do it. You don't have to aim for 60 seconds. Just try for 5 more seconds. You can do it...hang in there...don't give up! Way to go, girl, you did it! I'm proud of you! Now, can you do 5 more seconds?"
Once I discovered I was much more successful with that exercise when I stopped speaking to myself negatively and started speaking encouragingly, I decided to make a game of it to see just how close to 60 second I could get by the next appointment time. I did that exercise on and off over the next 1 1/2 - 2 days, always cheering myself on, and by the time i went to my next appointment, amazingly, I had worked up to 60 seconds and soon went beyond that without pain!
So, if you did the exercise, what did you notice in your body's responses to the first time doing it versus the second time? What happened for you emotionally? Would you be willing to pay attention this next week to the way you regularly talk to yourself, whether you speak out loud or just have a conversation inside your mind? And then notice what happens if you interrupt the negative self talk and change to something encouraging.
This is just a simple but powerful little exercise that can give you some important information about how the way you talk to yourself affects you. Because I believe this is such a vital piece for feeling happier, I'm going to elaborate further on this in the next few blogs.
(photo credit - Michal_Petrov-96)