Everyone has one: An inner critic. Your thoughts. That little voice in your head that is very opinionated, telling you how to act, what to do and what not to do, judging your appearance, scolding your short-comings. That inner voice holds incredible power over us. Unfortunately, that voice is often extremely self-critical and demeaning. What thoughts run through your head?
"I look terrible. I am so fat."
"I never do anything right."
"I'll never find happiness. I will always be stuck in this situation."
Think about it: How many times have you criticized yourself or thought negatively about your life in the last 24 hours?
Women are especially prone to such self-criticism. This inner voice is the source of stress, negative self-esteem, unhappiness and worry in our lives. There's an entire psychological discipline dedicated to helping people overcome negative thoughts. It's called cognitive therapy and it aims to help people recognize patterns of negativity and replace them with positive thoughts.
Where do these negative thoughts come from? Mostly, they're the collective, cruel voices of our past — parents, siblings, significant others, high school bullies — that we've internalized.
You might not even realize what you're thinking or saying since your thoughts and perceptions come so naturally. To change it, you must become aware of what that voice is saying. It helps to write down your negative thoughts and your re-vamped, positive responses. If you take time to tally the comments you make to yourself, you may discover that the vast majority are negative.
Start by keeping a "thought log." Three times a day, take a few minutes to write down what you've been thinking. All of it… your thoughts about what your spouse did or didn't do that morning… what your mother said to you… how you felt about your child's behavior. Don't edit— write down the exact words. Keep your thought log for two weeks. This will also help you learn the true nature of your "thought chatter" and better understand your personality by uncovering the patterns.
Once you've identified your thought patterns, it's time to start talking back to them. As you notice yourself saying something negative in your mind, you can stop your thought mid-stream, then replace that thought with something more positive.
Modifying Your Thoughts
Here are six major types of negative thought patterns common among caregivers. Following each unhelpful thought pattern is an example of a more positive — and realistic — response that you can use as self-defense against that voice.
1. All-Or-Nothing Thinking
In this line of thinking, everything is black and white. If your performance isn't perfect according to your standards, then you see yourself as a failure. You take one negative situation or characteristic and multiply it. You see a single, unpleasant event as a continual pattern of defeat. All-or-nothing thinking often includes use of words like "always," "every" or "never." Don't over-generalize! Isolated mistakes or failures do not indicate that you will always fail.
- Negative thought: You are preparing to go to a doctor's appointment. You're running late because Mom had an incontinence episode and you had to change her clothes. When you get in the car, the battery is dead. Your inner voice scolds, "Something always goes wrong. I am always late."
- Positive response: "I am not always late. There are plenty of times when I am on time. Sometimes, circumstances beyond my control make me late and that is not a reflection on me as a person."
2. Discounting the Positive
Instead of looking at your positive accomplishments, you magnify your perceived failures. You overlook the good things about you and your circumstances and focus on the bad.
- Negative thought: "Anyone could do what I do. I'm not a good caregiver."
- Positive response: "Caregiving isn't easy. It's a tough job that takes strength and compassion. I'm not always perfect – no one is – but I do my best."
In this line of thinking, you predict negative outcomes in the future. You always think the worst is going to happen. You refuse to try things, because you are afraid that things will go wrong, and the outcome will be negative.
- Negative thought: "I'm not even going to try to take Dad to adult day care because I know he will hate it. He's so disagreeable and closed off to new experiences."
- Positive response: "I can't predict the future. He may not like it, but I won't know for sure unless we try it. Surely the staff has run across difficult elders before. I will ask them for their advice and help in getting dad acclimated."
4. "Should" Statements
Everyone has their own list of rules and expectations about how we — as well as others — should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. Telling yourself that you "should" or "shouldn't" do something may seem like a good motivator, but it often has the opposite effect: It's a de-motivator. What you think you "should" do is in conflict with what you want to do. You end up feeling guilty, depressed or frustrated. When you constantly tell yourself you "should" do something, and then you don't do it, the result is frustration, guilt and a dislike of yourself.
- Negative thought: "I should exercise right now. If I don't work out, I'm going to keep getting fatter."
Feeling like you should do something makes it seem like work, or an obligation. You're also thinking about what will happen if you don't exercise. In other words, you're threatening yourself with punishment (the image of being fat). Subconsciously, you're flooding your mind with negativity.
- Positive response: "I am working on losing weight to improve my health, but I can accept my body at my current weight. I'm going to make a list of activities that I enjoy that will help me get in shape."
You identify yourself or other people with one characteristic or action. You call yourself names. "You are a terrible person." "You are getting old and fat." Most of us wouldn't dream of speaking to another person like that. But we have no problem routinely addressing ourselves in a disrespectful way.
- Negative thought: You procrastinate and put off doing the laundry and think, "I am lazy."
- Positive response: "I am not lazy. Sometimes I don't do as much as I could, but that doesn't mean I am lazy. I often work hard and do the best that I can. Even I need a break sometimes."
You take responsibility for negative circumstances that are beyond your control. Everything is your fault. You assume responsibility even when there is no basis for doing so. You arbitrarily conclude that what happened was your fault or reflects your inadequacy.
- Negative thought: "Mom has to be put in a nursing home because I failed as a caregiver."
- Positive response: "I have taken good care of Mom for three years. Her condition has gotten progressively worse and it is to the point where she needs constant medical supervision. It is her condition and not my shortcomings that require her to be in a nursing home."
Knowing that negative self-talk is destructive behavior is one thing. Stopping it is another issue. The first step is to draw attention to the voice in your head. What is it saying? Then, to live a happier, more positive life, re-frame your thoughts by using the examples above. Don't listen to that voice! Instead, talk back to it.