“I haven’t been able to stay sober/clean in the past – why should it be any different this time?”
“I hurt everyone around me, no matter what I do.”
“I’m not strong enough to achieve any of my real goals.”
Negative self-talk is the stream of thoughts and dialogue in our minds that’s linked to hurtful, traumatic or destructive past experiences and the distorted beliefs arising from such. When we spot it in ourselves or someone else, we see it’s capable of having a profound and lasting adverse effect on one’s perception of oneself and the world. There’s no doubt negative self-talk can have a destructive impact on a person’s self-worth, giving rise to maladaptive behaviors and perpetuating substance abuse or addiction.
Surely, each of us have moments of self-doubt, but if we allow it to “rent space for free” in our minds and hearts, it can create devastating patterns of thinking and behavior that can be extremely challenging to break free from and replace.
We emphasize behavior here, because our experience has shown that the way we treat ourselves literally shapes how we see ourselves. If we behave kindly toward ourselves—for example, maintaining daily hygiene, wearing clean clothes, getting sufficient amounts of sleep each night, etc.—we tend to view ourselves with greater esteem, compassion and care (or at least by practicing such self-care, we eventually begin seeing ourselves in a more positive light).
In many addiction treatment programs, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)—a therapeutic approach designed to point out errors in thinking and help prevent relapse—is used to help clients examine the sources of their negative self-talk, and corresponding beliefs and attitudes, and test their appropriateness. Upon honest (and oftentimes courageous) exploration, many of these statements prove to be untrue, even though they were part of past hurtful scenarios that hurt, even severely wounded, the client long ago.
Once having realized the negative thoughts aren’t true, a client in treatment can (with the help of an onsite therapist or counselor) work on recognizing their unhealthy effects and replace them with desirable thought and belief patterns.
Another aspect of one’s recovery from addiction and overcoming one’s negative self-talk involves healing shame. Negative thoughts and beliefs can be a huge source of shame. Problems or trauma in one’s early family life, poor performance in school, being ridiculed or abused by parents, siblings, friends, classmates or teachers, even harsh words or punishment from misguided parents or other authority figures can lead directly to shame and a seemingly permanent imprint on one’s self-esteem and world-view.
A ground for relapse occurs when we hold in certain painful emotions that truly need to be worked through and released. In cases of negative self-talk, we beat ourselves up and, naturally, these pent-up feelings lead us to buy into such false beliefs, which we may choose to act on through reverting back to substance abuse.
Through the use of CBT and other therapeutic approaches to identifying and addressing shame, the treatment center therapist or counselor can help build a client’s ability to identify and manage negative emotions like shame, as well as negative self-talk. For example, a client’s progress can be seen when he/she begins to honor themselves—as a replacement for shaming oneself—in one’s thoughts, words and behaviors (see the final bullet-point below for examples).
Here are a few helpful “positive self-talk” practices for those looking to counter negative self-talk:
- Say it Differently — It’s not just what we say to ourselves that affects our mood and emotions throughout the day – it’s also how we say it. For example, practice talking to yourself in third person – using “he” or “she” – to help gain some perspective and to force yourself to look at the situation with more objectivity.
- Ground Yourself — If you become too wrapped up in negative self-talk, you may find yourself starting to spiral. Instead, ground yourself by focusing on the sensations around you. What are you seeing, hearing, smelling at this very moment? Sometimes, this method of grounding can lift you out of the stream of negative messages in your mind and back more firmly into the present moment.
- Practice Honoring Yourself — Speak of your wounds/failings with tenderness and love; ask for what you need; make healthy boundaries, whenever necessary; practice self-care (e.g., eat your meals with calm and gratitude, instead of quickly “wolfing down” your food); speak kind words to yourself regularly.
By harnessing your attention (with the help of a therapist or counselor) to identify “negative patterns” of thought and action, and by consciously replacing those old negative beliefs with healthy, positive perspectives, and by engaging in new self-care behaviors, you can strengthen your recovery and create greater protection from relapse, one day at a time.