I had lunch with a friend last week, and she told me about another friend of hers that she has known for years. She considers her to be very close friend—perhaps one of her best friends. Always there when she needs a hand, and always ready to talk at any time of the day or night.
As she was describing this great friendship, I could hear a “but” at the end of almost every sentence. After she finished extolling the virtues of this relationship, she paused for a few moments, reflectively.
I told her she was very lucky to have such a close, long-time confidant but that she didn’t seem truly comfortable with the friendship. Was there a problem somewhere? It turns out this friend is always there, but usually with a critical word. Whenever my friend thinks about trying something new, this friend comes up with a reason why it won’t work, or why it really is a bad idea. She always has a very logical view of why things should be left as they are. After all, it’s all been working well so far—why change it up, right?
If this friend isn’t very supportive, why listen to her and continue the friendship? She told me that she had known her for so long, and was supportive in other ways. She also had very good reasoning to support her critical thinking, usually turning out to be right anyway. Really, she was just saving her the wasted time and effort of trying something out that wasn’t going to work anyway. Isn’t that what friends are supposed to do?
Her situation isn’t so unusual. Most of us have friends that we count on for advice. And usually there is one that has been around forever that is our go-to friend. Always there, always ready with a word, sometimes even before we ask. This friend is a part of us, the voice in our heads always ready with a comment. And many times the comments aren’t always good.
Self-talk is a normal human condition. It’s one of the tools we use to make decisions throughout life. Many times self-talk can be very positive, but often the opposite is true, especially during periods of significant change. So often we come up with an idea we would love to try that could really impact our lives in a positive way, but it falls outside the borders of our normal behaviors. Cue the negative voice, coming up with all the reasons we shouldn’t try something new. It’s too dangerous. It might not work. People might laugh at us. We could lose too much money; any number of reasons why we shouldn’t even attempt the idea. And negative self-talk usually wins.
This is a prime example of the negativity bias. Humans pay more attention to the negative than the positive. It’s instinctive, and there is good reason for it. It has done a really great job of keeping us safe as a species. After all, the caveman who was looking out for the T-rex had a much longer life expectancy than the one who was only looking for the blooming daisies. So you can’t blame us—it’s genetic.
I’m guilty of listening to it myself. For years I was afraid to try new things or make major changes in my life. I could always count on my self-talk to explain very logically why my latest idea (whatever it happened to be at the time) simply wouldn’t work and was really kind of pathetic. Again, self-talk usually wins if left unchecked so I spent a couple of decades in a virtual holding pattern.
It wasn’t until I finally recognized negative self-talk for what it was that I was able to control it. Now I recognize when I am trying to sabotage myself. Using mindfulness techniques I can now acknowledge negative self-talk, accept it, and move on with my ideas and plans. I even know about when to expect a barrage. I’m very good at trying to derail myself around 9:00 pm—just before bedtime. Now I don’t even try to argue with it. I just look at it for what it is and let it go. It makes moving forward in the morning so much easier.
I broached the idea of negative or counter-support to my friend at lunch, but she wasn’t really ready to hear it. She relies too much on that friend for other reasons to try to make any changes at this point. And that’s perfectly fine. No one makes any change until they are ready. I just hope that when she is ready to explore the idea of nurturing constructive support, whether internal or external, she will call me for a positive lunch date.