Ditch the tormentor in your head!
“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.” Gautama Buddha
The day I started writing this blog post, I ended up in hospital only to be diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Essentially, doctors have told me, my pancreas has packed it in and I will be reliant on injectable insulin to stay alive for the rest of my life. In between learning how to count carbs, managing sugar levels and becoming comfortable with needles, I have found myself having a continuous stream of understandable but negative thoughts that only appear to add to my anxiety.
Life throws us many curve balls. Diagnosis of chronic disease, relationship issues, financial troubles, work related stresses and childhood traumas are just some of the few challenges that we all face. There is no escaping this. But what I have come to realise in my practice as a psychologist, is that one of the most effective tools in our ‘dealing with challenges’ toolbox is a nifty little strategy that I like to call “The Inner Mentor”. The extent to which we can ditch our negative self-talk and access our inner mentor, is the extent to which we can deal more effectively with the daily challenges we are faced with.
What is self-talk?
Did you know that research has found that we have over 6000 thoughts a day?1. Some of these thoughts are random, meaningless musings. Others are more cognitive or abstract. Thoughts present themselves in many ways but the main way we have thoughts is through self-talk. Self-talk is like our own very individualised commentary on life. Basically, our every waking moment is spent having some kind of inner self-chatter. The contents of our self-talk have significant impacts on our mental and emotional health as well as our cognitive performance2.
Negative versus positive self-talk
Our self-talk can be broadly divided into two main forms: negative and positive. Negative self-talk, or what I like to call our “Inner Tormentor”, is the voice of fears, doubt, and anxiety. It is self-limiting in its character, and self-sabotaging in practice. The inner tormentor is incessantly repetitive, focuses on the negatives and it is highly opinionated. Incidentally, our inner tormentor also happens to be a great fortune teller and can read well into the future, reminding you of all the disastrous possible outcomes. The inner tormentor also tends to focus on the past and likes to remind you of such. It complains, judges, and presents you with no workable solutions. It is fear-based, meaning it reminds you of the last time you tried and failed, the last time you were hurt, and it is here to remind you of this again and again.
On the other hand, positive self-talk or what I refer to as your Inner Mentor is the voice of your dreams, aspirations, and self-confidence. It is the voice in your head that says “yes” and has your back. This voice is the one that inspires and motivates you. It is solution focused and proactive. It recognises where the issues are, and it seeks to improve and problem solve. It focuses on self-improvement. It empowers rather than drains. It does not wear rose coloured glasses but in recognising the issues, it uses wisdom and experience as steppingstones towards achieving goals. I call it the inner mentor because that’s what a supportive and encouraging mentor would do.
Inner Tormentor’s many guises
There are 4 main ways that the inner tormentor shows up. You may recognise all or some of these. Generally speaking, we tend to predominantly lean towards one or two of these:
- The “What If” Worrier – This inner tormentor is significantly related to feelings of worry and anxiety. Its catch phrase is “What if” and with that catch phrase it can throw us into a sphere of anxiety and panic. It reminds of the worst-case scenario. It tends to exaggerate possible negative outcomes, while completely negating possible positive outcomes. The catch phrase to look out for is “What if…?”
- The “Poor Me” Victim – This inner tormentor is there to remind you just how weak, incapable, or troubled you really are. It is the inner tormentor that’s significantly related to depression and low mood. Its focus is not the future but rather right now. Right now, it defines you as hopeless and the road ahead as too difficult. It tells you not to bother as you’ll never be good enough. The catch phrase to look out for is “You’ll NEVER…”.
- The “You Must” Perfectionist – This inner tormentor is usually accompanied by chronic stress. It’s the tormentor that sets up unrealistic standards, difficult goals, and unrelenting expectations on you. It can easily be seen during burn out and feelings of fatigue. It is entirely intolerant of mistakes and sees mistakes as a character flaw. It is oriented towards others and constantly reminds of what others do and will think of you if you don’t achieve. This is one heck of an exhausting inner tormentor. One of its favourite tormenting tactics is to compare you to others. It does not relent or let you slack off. The catch phrase to look out for is “You MUST….”.
- The “Can’t You Ever” Critic – This inner tormentor relies heavily on questioning your ability, sanity, and wisdom. It is usually accompanied by feelings of self-loathing and self-doubt. Low self-esteem is usually the result. It will ask you questions such as “can’t you ever do anything right?” It is the supreme judge and will happily point out your shortcomings, down falls, and it is very good at ignoring or minimizing your strengths. It’s catch phrases are many but they usually revolve around “Cant’ You EVER….?”
How to connect with your Inner Mentor instead?
Connecting with your inner mentor is essential, not only for good mental health but also for achieving your goals and reaching your aspirations3. In order to connect with your inner mentor and ditch the inner tormentor I have come up with a 3-step process:
- Observe your thoughts – this practice is called meta-awareness. Meta-awareness is the ability to monitor and become aware of what is going on inside our heads. It is shifting gears from automatic thoughts to becoming aware of our thoughts. One incredibly simple and powerful way of developing meta-awareness is the practice of mindfulness.
- Develop your self-curiosity – Self-curiosity refers to the practice of observing, sitting with and gently questioning the thoughts and experiences that pass through our conscious awareness. Becoming aware that you are NOT your thoughts can help you question the validity of some of your self-talk.
- Connect with your inner mentor – Bring to mind a mentor/loving adult from your childhood: it could be your grade 3 teacher, your next-door neighbour, your grandad, or your soccer coach. Anyone from your past who treated you with kindness and was encouraging, supportive, and understanding. If you are currently facing a challenge, what would that mentor do or say to you? How would they advise you? How would they support you? By bringing a past mentor to mind, you can connect with an inner mentor that’s supportive, encouraging and kind.Bring to mind a dear friend (current or past): Imagine them having a similar challenge as yourself. What would you say to them? How would you support them, encourage them, show kindness and understanding to them? Practice (as hard as it maybe) speaking with yourself as if you are speaking to that dear friend.Bring to mind an iconic figure: Sometimes it helps to bring to mind an iconic (real or mythical) figure. These figures could be movie icons, book characters, heroes of some kind etc. How would they encourage, support, help and treat you? Of course a little bit of imagination would have to go into this, however, with a bit of imagery work, you’ll be able to connect to your favourite kind, compassionate and wise figure.
Jump forward 4 weeks and I am still getting my head around the Type 1 diabetes diagnosis and what it means for my short and long term wellbeing. As I have been learning more and more about the disease and its management, I have also been very aware of, and intentional about the kind of thoughts that I am having about the diagnosis. Most of my thoughts would be classified as positive, and proactive. Do I have the occasional “What if Worrier” or “Poor Me Victim” thoughts? Absolutely! But by becoming aware of the thoughts, observing them, being curious about them and then practicing connecting with my inner mentor, I reckon I’ll be alright in the end.
- Seng, J., Poppenk, J. (2020) Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism. Nat Commun11, 3480. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9.
- Kim J., Kwon J., Kim J., Kim E., Kim H., Kyeong S., Kim J.(2021) The effects of positive or negative self-talk on the alteration of brain functional connectivity by performing cognitive tasks. Sci Rep. Jul 21;11(1).
- Cortland, J.,Wilson-Mendenhall, C., Davidson, R. (2020). The plasticity of well-being: A training-based framework for the cultivation of human flourishing. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2014859117
This article has been written for the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine (ASLM) by the documented original author. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the ASLM or its Board.