By Robine Jean-Pierre
My fiancé Angel is an avid reader. He carries around books the way a child would a blanket or a stuffed animal. Reading is his prescription for any affliction. He doesn’t read just any book though–no graphic novels or sci-fi or mysteries. He reads the kind of books which, at their core, teach you how to be a better person and live a better life. They are often referred to as positive mental attitude (PMA) books, or even self-help books. One of the most recent books he’s read is What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Dr. Shad Helmstetter. Now I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t give much of a summary. I can only share what I have gathered from conversations with Angel: self-talk is one of the most powerful forces in your life. It will be a determining force in everything you do.
I’ve had very low moments in my life when even the smallest sources of stress sent me on a downward spiral because I magnified the issue in my mind. I have rarely ever been driven to physically harm myself, but I have engaged in very harmful self-talk, which is just as bad, if not worse. To bring up an example I used in a previous post (The Right to Speak Up), trouble would start with me running late to school; this anxiety would become embarrassment from knowing I would disrupt the class and disappoint the teacher; then, frustration at myself for not having woken up earlier; then, anger for letting this happen too often and not learning my lesson, and finally, bitter self-loathing for being such a constant “failure.” I put this word in quotes because my friends and family would consider me the farthest thing from a failure. Even if it takes a few tries, most of my academic and personal endeavors end in great success and I’m not the quitting type. Yet when I’m in those really deep, dark moments in my mind, somehow I automatically end up saying these absurd statements: “I’m such an idiot. I’m so stupid. I feel like a failure. There’s something wrong with me.”
Angel would probably cringe if he read those words right now. He’s the biggest proponent for positive self-talk in my life, and without him, I might not have discovered soon enough that there is an alternative to these disastrous self-loathing cycles. Angel’s natural inclination is to compliment. He raves about food, movies and people, always finding something positive to promote. Since we are engaged, I have a front row seat of this spectacle; he tells me a variety of affirming statements like “I love you,” “you’re so beautiful,” “you’re a genius” and “I like your face” every single day, a dozen times a day each, and I’ll admit that even I get annoyed by the repetition sometimes, ironically. But then those priceless moments come when he reminds me, “Your subconscious mind can’t decipher between right and wrong. It just takes anything you give it and creates a new mental pathway for it. If I tell you something long enough, you’re going to start to believe it for yourself. Why do you think I call you beautiful all the time?” This is very true; sometimes I look in the mirror and I can hear Angel’s voice in my memory saying something sweet about every feature.
That might seem like a glib, redundant example, but honestly, people’s abilities and characteristics do not always line up with their perceptions. (This is why it’s still possible for me to call myself a failure–somewhere deep down I believe this is true and I need to change that.) I remember watching an episode of Say Yes to the Dress in which a woman who was, for all intents and purposes, gorgeous, struggled to feel beautiful in any of the dresses she tried on (and she had tried on some number in the higher double digits). She would put on a dress and look at herself in the mirror–tall, slender, and blonde with delicate features–and start to tear up; somewhere in her head a voice that sounded like her own had to be saying, “You look terrible. Just face it–you’re ugly. You should really just stop trying since none of these dresses can make you look how you want to look.” I am not one hundred percent sure, but it may have been revealed that she had struggled with some form of body dysmorphic disorder before. This is the power that the mind has over us, and the damage that can be done if we do not harness that power.
I am not yet at the point of fluently and actively using positive self-talk (which is changing very soon), but I have increasing awareness of my negative use of it and I plan to stop entirely. I am grateful that, until I reach the point where I can do it myself, I have Angel constantly speaking life into me whether I want to hear it or not. If I text him, “I’m struggling to get all my assignments done on time,” he replies, “Don’t worry, you got this. You always get your work done on time.” Sometimes I ask myself, “Wait, do I?” but then I realize that he is speaking in advance the reality that I am striving to attain.
The beautiful thing is that positive self-talk is not lying or simply wishful thinking. It actually works. If you think of your mind as a computer, then saying these statements is just like writing out a program or a command. Last year, when I took CST 1101 (problem solving with computer programming) Professor Siegel liked to use the saying, “Computers do what you tell them to do, not what you want them to do.” (He stressed this whenever he made a mistake in a program and an error occurred.) It is the same way with our minds. We need to tell them what to do, and in turn, they dictate what we think and how we perform, as weird and circular as that might seem.
I encourage you to give it a try. Speak positive things to yourself in the mirror. Write an affirming speech to recite to yourself daily. There is nothing cowardly about standing up to those negative thoughts in your head. You have the power to change your thoughts, which means that you also have power over your words, actions, habits, and overall self-view.
As a follow up, please check out my fellow blogger Neffi’s post, “ ‘You is Kind. You is Smart. You is Important.’ Affirmations 101.”