In this post, we want to share an empowering strategy taught in WISE’s Honest, Open, Proud program. For more information about HOP, click here. It is called the 5 step strategy for challenging our hurtful self-talk. Hurtful self-talk is a form of internalized stigma or shame, which occurs when we come to believe the negative, limiting, critical things that we have heard elsewhere. To read more about self-stigma, click here. The beauty of this strategy is that it can be applied to negative self-talk that is related to virtually anything – not just our experiences of mental health challenges.
Step 1. The first step requires a degree of mindfulness, as we must first recognize our negative self-talk. We all have degrees of negative self-talk. Harmful self-talk is a limiting belief, an inner voice that is skewed toward the negative. Red flags for negative beliefs may include the words “always,” or “never.” One good way to identify our negative self-talk is to ask ourselves if we would say it to a best friend. For example, if we wouldn’t tell friends they will “always be crazy” because they have mental health challenges, it is a good indicator that it is a hurtful self-belief if we say it to ourselves! While it can be difficult to notice this inner critic, this is the first step towards challenging and conquering these unhelpful beliefs and doubts!
Step 2. The second step is to imagine instead that we have this belief about others. In this step, we create a universal statement and apply it to people in general. This step creates some distance between us and our belief. The key to this step is to take our belief out of an “I” statement and turn it into a “universal statement” by using the word “people.” For example, if our hurtful self-belief is “I am weak because I need medication,” then we might say “People who need medication are weak.” In this step, the belief already starts to lose a little of its power, as many people are much more compassionate towards other people than they are towards themselves! Some people may already begin to think ‘that sounds untrue when I think about it that way.’ But, since many of our hurtful self-beliefs are very deeply rooted, this step alone is often not sufficient enough to counter our negative belief.
Step 3. Many of our hurtful self-beliefs are self-defeating, irrational, and untrue! This step asks us to engage in reality testing and to gather evidence to find out whether our thoughts are actually true. Ideally, we will identify people we trust and whose opinions we value so that we can seek out their opinions. If we are not comfortable asking people their opinions, we can collect evidence in two additional ways. First, we might seek out evidence in popular media, online, or look for examples from famous people we admire; for example, if we have a belief that people with mental health challenges are unable to recover, we might look for examples of people who have done so. A second option: we might imagine someone we trust and what they might say regarding our self-belief. The key here is to identify someone (or multiple people) unlikely to validate our hurtful self-belief!
Step 4. And then we ask (or for those using alternate means, then we collect facts and ideas that challenge our belief). For this step, to avoid being too vulnerable, we can ask about our universal belief (step 2), rather than share our self-belief. Framing questions using the universal question also helps ensure we are more likely to believe people’s answers; then we cannot convince ourselves that they are just being kind. For example, if we believe that we will never have a healthy, long-term relationship because of our challenges with addiction, we would ask our trusted person if they believe people with addictions are capable of having relationships. Ideally, we collect this information by talking to people we trust, as shame tends to break down when we hear people being compassionate about the very things that we have beaten ourselves up about.
Step 5. The final step is to create a realistic counter statement. The key word here is “realistic”! Our counter statement needs to be a statement that is believable so that it can be internalized into our self-concept. We don’t want it to set off our internal lie detectors! This step is sort of like creating a personal mantra, something that we can remind ourselves of whenever our negative self-talk starts to creep up on us. This counter can also take advantage of the power of “possible” thinking. For example, if our negative self-belief is that “I must be unattractive because I am overweight,” then a neutral (and believable) counter may be “I’d like to lose 10 pounds” or “People my size have friends and lovers.”
Let’s catch ourselves the next time our inner critic speaks up and try this approach to challenge those beliefs. With enough practice, this strategy will help us grow our self-compassion!
To learn more about strategies and activities in the Honest, Open, Proud program, visit: https://eliminatestigma.org/blog/an-introduction-to-honest-open-proud/ or email WISE@WISEWisconsin.org.
Sarah and the Wise Team