Imagine you’re back in high school and one of your good friends is giving an important presentation in front of the whole class. Knowing your friend, you notice that they’re visibly nervous, tripping over their words and stumbling through the presentation. As you watch, what are your thoughts? Are you thinking that your friend who was up all night prepping for this difficult task is a total loser? Do you lose respect for your friend because of this one, poor performance? Are you ashamed of them? Or, does your heart go out to them, pulling for them, feeling their pain? When it’s over, do you comfort them and tell them how much you admire them for giving it their best shot? I bet you would.
Now, imagine you’re that friend, stumbling through the presentation. What would you say to yourself? Would you give yourself the same compassion that an outside observer would give you? Unfortunately, if you’re one of the many people who suffer from anxiety and depression, chances are you’ll find yourself saying some pretty ugly things to yourself. In fact, many of us who suffer with anxiety endure this monumental self-shaming regularly in everyday situations.
The culprit is what we refer to as “automatic thoughts.” These automatically-generated thoughts are often painful, critical and rooted in untruths, exaggerations, or fears. When faced with the situation above, we might experience what we see as failure and think things like:
“Oh, man, I’m such an idiot.”
I totally blew that entire thing.
I always screw everything up
They all probably think I’m a moron”
Pretty rough, right?
These thoughts are cognitive distortions- thoughts that simply aren’t true, but they reflect our deepest beliefs and fears about who we really are. The evidence for this is if we ask ourselves a very difficult question: what would it mean about me if all of those things are actually TRUE? What if I AM an idiot? What if I DO screw everything up? What if they DO all think I’m a moron? What would that say about me? What would it mean?
Many times, for people with depression and anxiety, the answer is profound.
It means I’m not good enough.
It means I’m worthless
It means I’m not worthy of being loved.
These core beliefs are just not fair. They hurt us. And we deserve a gentler belief system about ourselves.
If you find yourself suffering with anxiety or depression, a first step in recovery is to start to pay attention to your thoughts. Are you having those automatic critical thoughts? Try keeping a log, maybe in the notes on your phone, over the course of a week or so.
When you find yourself getting anxious or down, tune into your thoughts. What are you telling yourself in those moments of pain? Write them down. Then, look for patterns in your thoughts. Are you self-critical? Are you labeling yourself with names like “loser” or “failure?” Inept? Incompetent? Stupid? Some of the things we say to ourselves are simply heartbreaking. But write them down.
Challenging those thoughts can be as simple as stepping away from yourself for a moment. What would you say to your best friend if they were experiencing this? What would you say to your child? What would you say to your loved one experiencing this kind of stressful event? Chances are you would be really kind to someone you love. You’d tell them something soothing and TRUE about themselves. You’d encourage them to be kind to themselves and to give themselves a break, right? And to keep trying, because they’re worth it. That’s the kind of thing we can do for ourselves. We can develop a practice of listening to those things we say to ourselves-- listening closely-- and challenging the negative thoughts with positive, true statements.
If you need help with negative self-talk, reach out to a counselor who can help to show you some tools to practice crushing those negative automatic thoughts. You CAN feel better.