Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. (1 Tim. 6:17-18)

Monday, August 16, 2010

How you talk to yourself determines your attitude (part 1)

You talk to yourself all the time

Have you ever realized that you talk to yourself? No, I'm not talking about the crazy people that walk around muttering to themselves. Everyday, all of us hold hundreds of conversations in our mind that can range from asking ourselves what we are going to eat for breakfast, what outfit we are going to wear to work, or how we are going to pay our bills this month. Even worse, we talk to ourselves in a negative fashion when it comes to our daily circumstances. We allow positive and negative events in our environment to control our thoughts or belief systems, which then leads to an emotional response - good or bad.

In the book Self-Talk: Key to Personal Growth, author David Stoop addresses the issue in this way (p. 28):
...We have been taught to believe that our feelings and emotions are determined by the events in our lives. Our culture, through the media - especially the advertising media - continually reinforces this belief. Are you unhappy? Then try this new mouthwash! Feeling lonely because no one will talk to you? Then try our shampoo and get rid of that offensive dandruff. Can't sleep? Try our new remedy in a capsule. The examples go on and on.
The truth is that our emotions and behavior are not dependent on what is going on around us in our environment. We can change mouthwashes and still be unhappy. We can use the new shampoo and still feel lonely. We can take a pill and still lie there wide awake. The reason is that something else is at work that determines emotional and behavioral responses to life situations. The cognitive theorists suggest that this additional factor is our thoughts, or belief systems. These thoughts, or belief systems, are what I call Self-Talk.
We are what we think

When I was growing up back in the 70s and 80s, I remember seeing a number of TV commercials regarding nutrition for kids. The end of these commercials would often say something like, "you are what you eat." The point that these commercials were attempting to drive home to our little brains full of mush was that if you eat junk food, then your bodies will be unhealthy, but if you have a well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy, and so on, then your body will be healthier.

The same thing is true with our minds. If we read a bunch of trash or if we watch a lot of unwholesome television, then we will start thinking unwholesome thoughts. When we allow negative people and difficult circumstances to shape our thoughts, we then end up mediating on these thoughts and hold unwholesome conversations with ourselves regarding these thoughts. We slip deeper and deeper into negative thought patterns which lead us to negative attitudes. Our tendency is to blame our circumstances for causing us to act and feel the way that we do. Some examples of this could include:
  • Billy Bob didn't ask me out on a date. I am ugly and lonely.
  • My kids won't stop fighting with each other. I am furious.
  • I was let go at work. I am a loser.
  • Susie won't return my phone call. She must not like me anymore.
When we start feeling and acting based on our external circumstances, we have a tendency to become very irrational in our thought process. In the above examples, maybe these responses would be closer to reality:
  • Billy Bob didn't ask me out on a date. He is really shy and nervous about talking to me because maybe he's attracted to me.
  • My kids won't stop fighting with each other. Children constantly get in squabbles with each other. It's just a part of growing up.
  • I was let go at work. My workplace had no choice but to lay me off with the state of my business and the economic climate.
  • Susie won't return my phone call. Susie is on vacation this week and hasn't checked her voicemail, yet.
A Biblical example of irrational self-talk

Job is probably one of the best Biblical examples of negative self-talk. Job is a guy that has it all. He was probably one of the wealthiest men of his time period and had a large family. The Bible says that he was the greatest man among all the people of the East (Job 1:3b). In spite of all of his earthly blessings though, Job was a worrier! He was always concerned that his children had sinned against God and regularly offered sacrifices on their behalf (Job 1:4-5). His behavior was compulsive.

A few chapters later after Satan's testing had begun, we see Job's worrisome attitude in his statement,
For my sighing comes to me instead of food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil (Job 3:24-26).
Yes, Job has much to despair at this point in his life. He has lost his family. He has lost his wealth. He has lost his health. The man that had everything worried about all that he had, and by the third chapter, all of Job's worries had become a reality.

How do we change our self-talk?

As the above examples illustrate, our irrational thought processes may or may not have any basis in reality. Most likely, there is a whole other set of circumstances in which we are unaware or have not even considered. How do we change these thought patterns that have become a habitual way of thinking for many years now?

The great news is that this pattern of negative self-talk can be broken! Here are some general tips as given by David Stoop in order to gain control of our thoughts:
  1. You do have a choice in how you feel and act. We can regain self-control by beginning with our minds. We must capture these negative thoughts, change them, and bring them into obedience to Christ. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
  2. You must watch what you think about. We must constantly guard our minds in what we allow ourselves to mediate upon. You will gain self-control by controlling your thought patterns. As you observe a pattern of negative self-talk, capture those thoughts, and examine them to see if they are truly worthy to be a part of your belief system. The Apostle Paul warns us not to conform our thinking to that of the world, but rather we must renew our mind through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).
In my next post, we will look at specific emotions such as anger and depression in connection to our self-talk.

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