Tracy Robinson: Learning to challenge unhelpful self-talk

Dr Tracy Robinson is a senior research fellow at the Monash Centre for Health Research & Implementation. As a registered nurse and a doctor of psychology, she has extensive experience working in the field of mental health and supporting the wellbeing of young people. We’re most grateful to her for once again providing an article for this term’s newsletter.


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Socrates is famous for saying “an unexamined life is not worth living”. In this context, he was acknowledging that being able to reflect on past events and how we might have done things differently is a positive thing. This capacity to reflect on one’s own thoughts and feelings helps us gain insight and is a key component of what we call emotional intelligence. By becoming more self-aware we can better understand what it is we really want in life and what others are feeling and thinking. But people often confuse reflection with self-criticism.

We all have inner dialogue that we refer to as self–talk. It is like an inner voice and it determines how we perceive situations in life and the way we feel and act. Our self-talk often changes – sometimes it is positive and realistic (“I tried my best even if I didn’t win”) and sometimes it is negative and unrealistic (“I am a failure”). Often our self-talk is negative when our stress is high because it is easy to blow things out of proportion when we are stressed. This is when we often fall into what some people call “thought traps” – ways of thinking that make us lose perspective.

Some of the most common “thought traps” include over-generalising (“bad things always happen to me”), black and white thinking (things are either right or wrong with nothing in between) and should and must thinking (“bad things shouldn’t happen to people”). These unhelpful thoughts traps are commonly reported by people who have depression – but the good news is that because you create your thoughts, once you become aware of them, you can change them. When you catch yourself using unhelpful self-talk, you can try asking the following questions:

  • Am I jumping to conclusions?

  • Am I being hard on myself?

  • What is the evidence for and against?

  • Am I forgetting about the positives and focusing on the negatives?

  • Am I taking things too personally?

  • What would I tell a friend in this situation?

  • Is there another way of looking at this?

When you change your thoughts about a situation you can change your emotional reaction to it. Learning to challenge unhelpful self-talk does take some practice, but research has shown that this skill can be learned (even by young people) and that using this technique is associated with lower levels of depressed mood and negative feelings. The way to overcome negative thinking is to deal with our unhelpful self-talk. Like all habits, unhelpful self-talk can be hard to shake, but practice is the key.  Next time you find yourself depressed, angry, anxious or upset, take the time to become aware of your thoughts and ask the questions listed above.

You can also practice this skill with your children. For example, if they say “no one likes me at school”, rather than reassuring them, try asking “what is the evidence that no one likes you”? You can then work your way through the other questions.

Of course, if your child is experiencing bullying and can provide evidence that they are experiencing unfair treatment, then you need to take action, because we would not ask anyone to simply change the way they think about abuse and/or violence. In those situations, we need to take action and seek help. But for myriad other situations, practicing to recognise and challenge unhelpful self-talk can really help us become more resilient.

Perhaps what Socrates understood was that questions are more powerful than facts. One way we can support our young people is by building their capacity to question and challenge their thinking.