Internal Dialogues

Tuesday 9 October, 2012

We all talk to ourselves, whether in full conversations or just one-liners. The things we say can be destructive, corrective, empowering or belittling. Some are deliberate, whilst others are less conscious; a background noise of barely noticeable messages which nonetheless have a potent effect on our well-being. The dismissive remarks range from casual admonishments for the everyday mistakes we make – spilling a drink or walking into a glass door – to the more harmful comments with which we put ourselves down.

There are also encouraging statements, designed to help us get through a testing period; or assertions intended to rewire the critical messages we have been repeating for too long. Someone very close to me, whenever I say anything disparaging about myself always says, “That’s not a self-supportive statement.” She says it with an immediacy which seeks to erase my comment before it reaches its exclamation mark. Sometimes her intervention feels intrusive, as if she is interrupting a private conversation in a relationship I have had with myself for years. But it has a positive and lasting effect on how I relate to myself because now, even when she is not around, her voice overlays any surfacing self-criticism.

In Transactional Analysis we use the ego state model to understand our interactions with each other (see here for more details). But it is also useful in highlighting our internal dialogues. The first diagram below represents the comments we make about who we are, what we are doing, or how we behave. Two negative examples and two positive examples are given which come from the Controlling Parent (CP) and Nurturing Parent (NP) ego state respectively and address the Child ego state. (The type of strokes for each comment is given in brackets.)

CP: ‘You’re no good.’ (negative unconditional)
CP: ‘Every time you open your mouth, you put your foot in it.’ (negative conditional)

NP: ‘You can do this.’ (positive conditional)
NP: ‘You’re wonderful.’ (positive unconditional)

These messages can just as easily come from another person. They often do and, if we are told something often enough, we start to believe it and we end up giving ourselves the same message. It is surprising how many of the comments we make to ourselves have their origins elsewhere. In fact, it is the very early messages we receive which make up our Parent ego state.

In the same way as we have a choice how we relate to other people, we also have a choice in how we talk to ourselves. The line from P to C in the above diagram represents any number of possible remarks we make about who we are. By becoming aware of those messages we can improve not only how we think of ourselves but, with a healthy Parent ego state, we can also increase our effectiveness and our output as well as our attitude, our approach to life and our well-being.

Sometimes we go a step further than a single statement and have an internal dialogue. The second diagram shows such a dialogue between our Parent and Child ego states. Say, for instance, we have a difficult report or an uncomfortable email to write; or any one of those tasks we routinely put off because they are boring, difficult or inconvenient. We may have no interest at all in doing it and say to ourselves, from our Adapted Child (AC):

AC: ‘I don’t want to do it. I want do something else instead (something more enjoyable).

In such cases we need a strong Parent ego state to say:

CP: ‘No, you need to do this first (then you can do whatever you want).
NP: ‘Do this now and you’ll feel much better for it, because you know how much it’s been affecting you.
NP: ‘Get it done and then you can have some ice-cream.

There is another example at the end of the post, Just When We Think We’ve Made It. Incidentally, the Adult ego state is the one we use when something else comes up while we are writing the report or the email. We will use our Adult ego state to assess the situation, gather all available information and make an informed decision on how best to proceed. I worked with a client last year who was writing her thesis. On one particular day she was demotivated and struggling. Her Child ego state kept telling her to give up and go out into the sunshine. Her Parent ego state overruled these promptings, asserting the need to get the work done. And then the roof started to leak. The urgency of the problem put a stop to the internal dialogue. She resolved the issue using her Adult ego state (and a plumber) and then continued with her work without any further internal dialogue.

The woman mentioned in the second paragraph once listed, as one of her qualities, the fact that she is able to get on and do the things she doesn’t want to do. That’s because she has a strong Parent ego state. It had been provided by her parents during her upbringing, but we are also able to provide and shape our own. As with everything to do with personal development, it just takes awareness and practice: become conscious of the messages you are giving to yourself, maintain the positive ones and change the negative ones. And tell yourself to keep doing it.

Related post: A Strong Parent Is Required

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