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How to work with a positive self-statement

Unfortunately, we are so very good at talking ourselves down, often multiple times a day, frequently without even realizing it. The negative labels we apply to ourselves may range from seemingly harmless ones like ‘silly’ over stronger ones like ‘boring’ or ‘stupid’ to very harsh ones like ‘worthless’ or ‘no good’. However harmless or justified those labels may appear in any given situation, they all have a very negative impact on us, especially cumulatively. Every time we call ourselves ‘silly’ or ‘stupid’ or whatever negative label we may be using, we are chipping away at our self-esteem, bit by bit by bit.

The more often we hear a message, the more it rings true. And this is even more the case if this message echoes statements we might have heard from family members or people of authority earlier in our life. Sometimes the reason that a particular word sits so comfortably on the tip of our tongue is exactly because we have heard it used so frequently in relation to ourselves. For some clients, these have been words like ‘stupid’, ‘nasty’ or ‘bad’ which they have had to battle with since childhood with far reaching implications for their adult self. If you notice that there is a negative label that you are using very easily for yourself, it may be a good idea to see if you can trace it back to its origin. After all, when we are born, we are like a blank canvas waiting to be painted on. One way or another, this word must have found its way into our mind.

The good news is that no matter how embedded these negative labels are, it is never too late to start challenging them. And every time we are able to challenge one of them is a little win for us. In the same way that applying a negative label is destructive, challenging one is constructive. And with every challenge we are rebuilding our self-esteem, bit by bit by bit. When clients start to pay more attention to how they talk to themselves, they are often shocked by how often they put themselves down in a day. Challenging all of this self-downing may feel like very hard work at first, but it does get easier with time. A change in perspective may be helpful here: see if you can interpret each time that you notice a negative label as a golden opportunity for rebuilding your self-esteem.

Understanding the origin of the label, for example seeing it as an internalized parental voice, can help in distancing ourselves from it. As children, we absorb what is told to us like a sponge. Many times, we believe that the adults around us know best (little do we know how little they know :). Moreover, we are very much dependent on them. This is why challenging their view of the world may not be possible or not be very wise. Especially when clients have received similar feedback from different family members or figures of authority, a view may develop that this label must be true. However, as adults our situation changes. We become more and more independent and forge relationships with people outside of our school and family. Also, the adults around us and their view of the world changes with time.

What can happen in such a situation is that we may hold on to a pretty strict and diminishing internalized voice of a parent or authority figure while the originator of the message has long since moved on. While we keep putting ourselves down, they may no longer hold this view of us. The negative label has become a straitjacket for us that severely limits our potential. This is where the positive self-statement comes in very handy - as a practical and effective challenging tool.

As the name says, it is a statement that describes positive aspects of yourself. To give you an idea and get you started, a generic positive self-statement that is often used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is ‘I’m a unique, fallible, lovable human being.’ However, what I have found in my work with clients is that the positive statement is most effective if it is actually tailored to you. And for some clients, describing themselves as ‘lovable’ when they are in the midst of a depression and filled with self-loathing is far too much to ask. What is most important is that you can agree with the statement. It needs to contain a few words that you are genuinely in agreement with, whether that is on a philosophical level (that is applicable to all human beings) or on a personal level (that is applicable to you specifically). And if these can be aspects of yourself that you like, are a bit proud of or cherish - even better! Ideally, the statement summarizes the positive essence of you in some way.

In terms of the length of the statement, it generally works well to have one to three positive words or characteristics. Here are a few examples that previous clients have found for themselves: ‘I am a good person.’, ‘I am a driven and ambitious individual.’, ‘I am an empathic, non-judgmental and caring human being.’, ‘I am fair and loyal.’, ‘I am kind.’ Remember: This is not a sales pitch or an exercise in self-presentation. What matters is that you genuinely believe this statement to be true and that it reminds you of some of the things that are good about yourself when it matters. Now, how do you use this statement? First of all, repeating this statement to yourself can only be positive. If we consider the many times we have put ourselves down in our lives and the effect this has had on us, we may struggle to ever make it up to ourselves! This is why getting familiar with your positive self-statement in moments when you are feeling happy is good. And it also makes it more credible and effective when you use it as a challenging tool. Whenever you find yourself applying a negative label to yourself, this is when the positive self-statement really works its magic.

This is the sort of challenge I suggest:

Critical voice: ‘Oh, you are so stupid!’ / ‘Silly me’ / ‘The world would be better without me’

Positive voice: ‘Stop. That’s unhelpful. I am a good person.’ (or whatever your self-statement says)

Notice that the positive self-statement acts as a way of stopping and replacing any negative label and thus redirects the mind to aspects you value about yourself. In time, it is perfectly possible to completely stop putting yourself down, at least whenever you notice. From working with numerous clients, I can confirm that there are significant mental health benefits to be gained from this simple but effective tool. As with going to the gym, the long-term benefit comes from continuous practice.


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