You can talk yourself through anything. I know it sounds strange, but it is true. Self-talk is the most versatile, useful, and powerful of all of the coping skills. It is also remarkably simple. When you are in a difficult situation or are feeling upset in some way, a little voice kicks in inside your head. It’s a healthy, soothing voice which puts things in perspective, and talks you through the challenging moment.
To illustrate self-talk and how useful it can be, I’d like to share a personal story with you:
When I was twenty-six, I was under a lot of stress. I was trying to finish my degree while also needing to make enough money to live in Boston, where I had recently moved from Arkansas. I barely had enough money to survive. I wasn’t accustomed to the early darkness, the people, the crazy driving, or the high cost of living. I had a very difficult job, running therapy groups for addictions with court-ordered people in a high-crime area.
One night I left work to walk to my car, and it was gone. I was 45 minutes from home, and I knew only very few people in the Boston area due to my recent move there. So for help, at 10:00 on a Wednesday night, I called a guy I had only just met and had a few dates with. He drove the 45 minutes, picked me up and took me to the police station to file a report. He took me home, and offered to let me drive his car to work the next day. Needless to say, I was very impressed with his kindness. (In fact, I married him five years later, but that is another story).
The next day, I drove his shiny new Honda Accord to work, as planned. As I was driving home, I side-swiped another car in tightly packed rush hour traffic. I will never forget that moment when the side-swipe happened. I heard a screech of metal. I knew that serious damage was happening to my almost-boyfriend’s pride and joy. A shot of adrenaline coursed through me, and I started to shake. I pulled over to the side behind the other vehicle, whose driver was walking toward me angrily.
This is the moment when I stumbled upon the value of self-talk.
I was on the verge of breaking down into wild sobs, when a voice kicked in. Inside my head, my own voice said this:
“It’s okay. Worse things have happened. It’s an accident. Accidents happen all the time. Just deal with it, get through it. You can handle this. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Suddenly, I was in control. I got out of the car, apologized, exchanged information with the other driver, and then drove home. I called my almost-boyfriend and explained what happened. Later, home alone, I let myself cry.
I have never forgotten the exact words of that inner voice in that crucial moment. And since then, I have seen, over and over again, for myself and my patients, the value of self-talk. It works not only in urgent moments such as my accident, but also for many other types of stressful situations.
You can talk yourself through a challenging moment in a job interview. You can use self-talk to help you think through a mistake. You can use it to combat self-doubt, anxiety, and fear.
You can do it quietly, on your own, within your own mind. So you can do it in public, in a meeting or on a train. Remind yourself of simple, honest truths which will help you keep things in perspective. Here are some examples of things you can say to yourself at those crucial moments:
• It’s only a feeling, and feelings don’t last forever
• You know you’re a good person
• You can do it
• You know you meant well
• You tried your best, and it didn’t work out
• It was an accident
• It’s not your fault
• Just wait it out
• This will pass
• I need to figure out what I can learn from this, and then put it behind me
• You can handle this
• You’ve managed worse things than this before
• It’s okay
The possibilities are endless. There is a self-talk strategy for almost any situation. I think it is a useful tool that everyone should keep in their back pocket, to be pulled out as needed.
There is great value in sharing our concerns and feelings with others. But there is also great value in being able to sooth ourselves, calm ourselves, and keep our own perspective. After all, there’s not always someone there to help you. But everywhere you go, whatever happens, and whatever you are feeling, your own inner voice is always there for you.