“Negative self-talk.” I’m pretty sure the first time I heard this phrase, it was being uttered by Dr. Phil on an early episode of his talk show. Soooooo, that was a long time ago. As he drawled his way through a metaphor about a tape recorder and how some thoughts are “real” while others are Memorex (a LONG time ago), I wondered how I hadn’t heard the actual phrase “negative self-talk” sooner, since it describes something I excel at.
The bigger question is why I was watching Dr. Phil, but that’s not important right now. The phrase had me intrigued. I understood and was familiar with the concept, of course, having been a participant in numerous kinds of therapy by that point, deeply engaged in a battle royale against my master-level negative self-talk tendencies… just not calling it by that label.
If negative self-talk came as early and seemingly involuntarily for you as it did for me, then you also had to be convinced that it was even a thing and that you were doing it, possibly even before naming it. As an adult and with all of that aforementioned therapy, I can identify where and when certain sentences of self-loathing became my mental truths; mostly in childlike mimicry of messages from my abusive childhood, or in answer to situations I couldn’t explain other than to blame myself.
While I will trumpet the benefits of (productive) therapy and counseling forever and ever, I’m presently in a place where I find myself less interested in the past and more interested in practical ways to handle my negative self-talk. Right. Fucking. Now. It’s certainly at superhero levels and as such has a gripping origin story that might make for a slick TV show one day, but on this day I need to kick its ass.
Which is why I’ve just been completely drawn in by the new website WANT: Women Against Negative Talk. Founded by Katie Horwich, the site aims to offer “pragmatic yet positive tools and resources to shift harmful talk and perspective into ones that could allow [women] to be inspirational and authentically human role models for themselves.”
The website goes on to say, in part:
“Trending positive affirmations like ‘Speak positively about yourself,’ ‘Choose to be happy,’ or ‘Love the body you’re in’ are nice and a step in the right direction, but WANT was created out of the realization that there needed to be more.
Positive phrases wouldn’t cut it in the long run without a solid framework for how to make them work on a personal and individual basis.
WANT recognizes the effects of negative self-talk, internal and external, on the mind, on the body, in the workplace, in the world…WANT is that pragmatically positive tool kit, that courageously human hub, that place that takes the idea of ‘empowerment’ to a whole new level – that missing piece we’ve so needed to make magic happen on our own terms.”
There’s a reason why self-help and empowerment, especially as aimed at women, is a bazillion-dollar industry but there’s no one method that trumps them all; no clear frontrunner in the market whose success is built on tangible proof alone vs. exploitative hucksterism and emotional snake oil.
So many of us want it and are actively working toward our own empowerment, and yet it has to truly be our own, otherwise it’s just a cool story, bro. WANT seems to realize that, offering experiences and ideas and perspectives toward wellness, while reminding us to remain true to ourselves at every turn. That’s the effed up thing about all of this; if there were one true way for all of us to emotionally level up, we’d know it by now and the person who wrote that book would get the bazillion dollars we’re collectively ready to throw at them.
Instead, we are our own navigators on an unknowable road, where even Dr. Phil can be right sometimes. The handful of times when I’ve seen his program, I’ve noticed that he’ll often ask a guest who has just described an admittedly self-destructive behavior, “…and how’s that workin’ out for ya?”
Of course we know it’s “workin’ out” pretty poorly, otherwise they wouldn’t be a guest on Dr. Phil’s show to begin with, but the good doctor’s inquiry is actually one I make a point of asking myself frequently, albeit hopefully with a bit less smugness.
As Katie says in the WANT manifesto, “Negative Talk –especially the automatic ‘Casual Negativity’ that’s become our vernacular – keeps us in a safe zone of sameness. It’s a deceptive mother-effer that sneaks up and distracts us, convinces us we’re doing something to activate true, lasting change.”
There are times when I’m mantra-ing it up and praying and yoga-ing and there’s still that icky undercurrent of negativity going on, or maybe I’m feeling “positive” but in a way that’s shakable by even the tiniest of emotional tremors. I have to stop and ask myself, “How’s that workin’ out for ya?”
It can be tempting to put my issues in a box and try to “fix” things, but it’s more realistic to recognize that it’s a constant negotiation and I can shore up my reserves and add tools to my toolbox, but exactly which to use when will change frequently. To me, empowerment is about developing a personal constant; a set of core values and coping mechanisms and personal ideals that are unique to each of us.
I’ve written and spoken frankly about dealing with depression and anxiety, and how I fight to overcome cripplingly low self-esteem. I’ve gotten some incredibly supportive feedback, especially from this community right here (thank you xoJaners!), and sometimes people express surprise that I could personally be in such a self-esteem deficit, being a performer and an extrovert and because of how I “carry myself” and whatnot.
Lots of layers going on there, and often people are projecting: I look a certain way or I’ve done certain things, so, to them, I must be a self-esteem machine. Of course loads of artistic people and performers, even highly successful ones industry-wise, have self-image problems. I feel like that’s an understood truth, but, like issues of addiction and substance abuse in the industry, people don’t always talk about it in detail or while they’re in the everyday grip of addiction or struggle.
If they did, we might hear more about good days and bad days, successes and steps backward and everything in between. That’s what I found at WANT—neither candy-coated Pollyanna-isms nor the most extreme portraits of despair. The extremes matter too, but navigating the ups and downs that can change hourly for some of us is necessary.
I love that Katie writes openly on WANT about how confidence is not exactly the same as having a positive self-image, which is a crucial distinction in my life. When it comes to performing, I’m brimming with confidence, but it never translated to genuine self-worth. My confidence was based either on superficial excellence, or just a defense mechanism when my talents put me in the proverbial spotlight as a child but my parents weren’t there to cheer me on.
I’ve felt for years that I’m an excellent actress and a really unsuccessful human. I’ve felt that I excel in many areas, but I suck at being Pia. And then of course I’d pull at the thread that to be a successful artist one has to include all aspects of themselves, so if my personal humanity is lacking, then I’m probably a far shittier performer than I think as well… so, my confidence could get me through an audition or many performances, and it could also unravel like a poorly knitted scarf if given enough time alone with my thoughts.
An initial WANT exercise is to identify your through line. This is a big issue for me because too many things that I do lately are not lining up with my overall goals and purpose, and I feel like I have to be extra aware of how much negative self-talk that dissonance generates.
I also really connected with Katie’s personal story of learning negative self-talk at an early age, especially when she says, “Negative talk was the norm in my life when it came to the women around me. I began to think it was normal to complain about the size of your thighs, the way your stomach looked, how much you had eaten that day. I was told I was too sensitive when my feelings were hurt, I was told I was a show-off when I was proud of my work.”
It’s always raining wrongness under the umbrella of negativity; you just can’t win. Nor can we employ blind optimism. We share our stories, our highs and our not-so-highs, our mistakes and triumphs and lessons learned, because, as Katie says, “in order to want it all, you need to learn to feel it all.”
“No one cares about you, Pia. You’re talking too much about your issues and that only makes you more of a mess.”--That’s what my negative self-talk has been telling me all throughout writing this. I can’t pretend it isn’t there, but I can acknowledge it and say I think maybe it’s wrong.
So what about you? Is there negative self-talk in your head too? Let’s acknowledge it. Because maybe it’s wrong.