Somehow, the idea of talking to yourself got a bad reputation as a sign of mental instability. Think of the television stereotype of the afflicted fellow mumbling to himself at the bus stop. But the truth is that talking to yourself can be a very powerful way to fight anxiety and depression and set the stage for extraordinary personal empowerment.
Who’s Listening, Anyhow?
The reason that talking to yourself can be so powerful is that none of us is just the person we see in the mirror today—with the social skills we have honed, the financial resources we have at hand and a maturity level consistent with being an adult. In nearly every one of us resides a less well-adjusted self which is still struggling with the disappointments, fears and pain of childhood. And that self can feel very isolated and alone, because we tend to want to bury it or build thick walls around it. Let’s call that part of you “the struggling self.”
The Struggling Self Often Has No Voice, But It Never Stays Quiet Forever
The struggling self is usually banished from consciousness because all of us want to feel strong. So we hide the part of us that really feels the full weight of being bullied or unloved—or worse. We hide it from others and we hide it from ourselves. And then we push it further and further away using all manner of shields—accumulating power or wealth or being seductive or overeating or drinking too much alcohol or using too much marijuana.
Deprived of being heard, relegated to an echo chamber deep inside us, the struggling self communicates its plight through a lexicon of feelings like anxiety, depression and irritability.
We May Refuse to Listen to the Struggling Self, But It Will Listen to Us
When we experience unwieldy feelings of anxiety, or disturbing feelings of depression, or destabilizing anger, one way to overcome them is to identify the most vulnerable time period we’ve lived through—perhaps when we lost someone close to us in childhood, or perhaps when we were powerless to stop someone from hurting us—and literally talk out loud to that younger, more vulnerable self.
What words might you use? Here’s an example: Think about a woman in her 50s whose youngest child is leaving for college. She’s feeling something more intense than empty-nest syndrome, though. She feels panicked. And she’s able to identify her father leaving her mother, when she was just 11-years-old, as the source of some of her distress. She might talk out loud to that younger part of herself and say something like, “Listen, I know I haven’t been willing to think about what you went through when Dad left the house. You were eleven. I get it. It had to make you feel completely panicked. And, then, Dad seemed to stay away forever. Well, I promise to take the time to go through those feelings with you, to really explore them and listen to them. And I want to try to comfort you and make you know I care about you. What might help you out? What do you need? Time to think. Time to walk. Time to read?”
Believe or not, the part of the woman that hasn’t healed since age 11 can hear that kindness and be reassured by it. And that can be the beginning of reduced anxiety and increased mood.
Figure Out How Your Struggling Self Got Created
Each of us who struggles with low mood or anxiety or, for that matter, obsessiveness or problems paying attention, should spend the time to try to discern how the part of ourselves causing this trouble got created and left behind. Unearthing that storyline is necessary to make the upcoming, healing chapters possible.
Need to Be Introduced?
Sometimes it helps to have someone skilled at helping to uncover the struggling self, to define how he or she got created and left behind, and to then make real, healing contact with it. That’s where a counselor or therapist comes in. And getting one to make a proper introduction of you to your struggling self will be one of the best investments you ever make.
Keith Ablow, MD
Founder, The Ablow Center