Talking to Yourself: Mental Health’s Best Tool

Whoever said talking to yourself was a sign of insanity sold us a bill of goods! In Tim Keller’s book, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, he writes about the role of our inner dialogue in our own personal well being. The quote I liked best from his musings was actually from D.M. Lloyd-Jones, “We must talk to ourselves instead of allowing “ourselves” to talk to us.  In spiritual depression we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self…Have you realized that so much of the unhappiness in your life is due to the fact you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” Many of us have some kind of critical or anxious inner voice that chatters at us incessantly. Listening to that voice without interruption or intervention inevitably leads to feeling low or anxious.

A lot of the therapy that has really helped me and that I do with my clients is around how to talk to oneself with compassion and wisdom and to bring spiritual truth into the inner dialogue.

Examples of “ourselves” talking to us:

  • You’re such a screw up! Why’d you have to do that?
  • What if no one speaks to me at the party and everyone thinks I’m a pariah?

Examples of talking to yourself:

  • You’re OK; it’s OK to feel this.
  • That’s an interesting thought brain, thank you. I’m going to focus on what I’m doing now.
  • Breath prayer: “Lord Jesus, have mercy.”

Sometimes the thinking that feels least conscious and most automatic is the least helpful for us. The first step is learning to recognize the automatic inner dialogue. The next step is to bring in the voice of your conscious and awake self. If you think about it much of the Christian discipleship is a process of learning what to say to yourself when your inner chatter takes over.

I’m curious how you experience talking to yourself in away that helps you. What are the best things you’ve learned to say to yourself to stay in a good place internally? Please share your best practices!

The Language of Depression

Do you know that research indicates that thinking more concretely can halve levels of depression? This research suggests that the way our inner voice talks can make us more depressed. The language of depression is global, general, and vast. Whenever you notice yourself using “always”, “never”, or “most”, you might be falling prey to the language of depression. It’s easy enough to do. If something happens more than once, it feels like it ALWAYS happens. If we can’t get out of a rut, we can worry the pain will NEVER end. But here is what the research shows; whether or not you figure out if something ALWAYS happens, thinking about how it ALWAYS happens will not help you feel better. Getting specific and concrete helps much more.

Take this evening, for example. My kids and I are at odds and my mind starts going, “It is always like this. I won’t ever figure out how to avoid these arguments. My kids will remember me as always nagging them and will tell their future therapists that I’m the cause of all of their problems.” One evening becomes a global indictment against myself as a parent! How can I get out of the language of depression and into concrete thinking? Here’s how that shift from the language of depression to concreteness might work;

  • “It is always like this.” >>>> ”This has been a really rough evening. Were there warning signs I could have noticed?”
  • “I won’t ever figure out how to avoid these arguments.” >>>> ”Tonight I got into an argument I didn’t want to have. How did I get sucked in?”
  • “My kids will remember me always nagging them.” >>>> ”I do not want this evening to be a pattern. What steps can I take to change things next time?”
  • “I’m the cause of all their problems.” >>>> ”Tonight I hurt them by raising my voice. When can I sit down with them and apologize?”

Here’s how the researchers instructed participants to think concretely:

  • First, focus on sensory experiences. What do I see, hear, and notice?
  • Second, notice how events unfolded. How did this unfold? What are warning signs? What might change the outcome?
  • Third, focus on how you can move forward. Break things down into discrete manageable steps. How can I move forward? What are the steps? What is the first step I can take?

Researchers noticed that asking “why?” is a telltale depressive question. Shifting to “how?” moved people away from rumination and depression. I hope that you find this as helpful as I have. I was able to end the evening very well with my kids; group hug and all! How we handle our inner voice is one of the most critical influences on our long-term spiritual/emotional health and long-term flourishing.

The research behind this article is found in the article: How to Reduce Worry and Rumination 1: Become More Specific Published on July 21, 2013 by Edward R. Watkins, PhD. in Mood for Thought.

A Makeover with Meaning

I visited my college roommate, Susie, last weekend and we gave her back deck a makeover. This space went from a plastic, dog-chewed wasteland to a very pretty place to spend time. Both of us were giddy from the experience: me, because I love making things beautiful and Susie, because she had never seen her deck or yard in this light and she never would have done it on her own. We had both been through times of acute suffering, and the deck quickly became  a metaphor for newness and fresh beauty in our lives.

My spiritual director once told me during one of my darkest moments that I would look back on that time of suffering and be able to see the beauty in it. Since her assurance, I would often look back and check… Can I see it? Hmmmm…… Now I think I can, in a makeover sort of way. I can see that my time of desolation opened me up to reconfiguring my thought processes, something I had no idea I needed to change. Just like Susie hadn’t really thought that her plastic, dog-chewed chairs that scraped her arms could do with some replacing, I hadn’t ever considered that the way I worked through times of suffering could be better. Even though it invariably dragged my mood to an even lower level than the current crisis merited!

One of the fundamental problems with Susie’s original “design concept” on her deck was that she really didn’t like her yard, so her chairs faced the back of the house. We really needed to shift the entire orientation of the seating to give her new eyes to see her yard, which is a beautiful green space with lovely trees! In life, I have come to believe that sometimes only suffering will compel us to look at something differently. Only sitting in the darkness made me willing to consider my “mental make-over.” I can see that through suffering and reconfiguring/redecorating, I have now found the gift of equanimity (evenness/steadiness) in a way I never had it before. This doesn’t mean I don’t struggle and suffer, but I add to my struggle less by doing different things with my focus and attention throughout.

For both my personal shift and for the deck project, there was a catalyst for considering the makeover. Personally, it was seeing that the way I processed suffering didn’t work. For the deck project, it was when I looked at Susie over a glass of wine and asked, “what do you think of a deck makeover?” What is happening in your life right now that might actually be an invitation to a complete reorientation, reconfiguring or makeover? Are you open to turning those chairs around and checking out the view you thought you hated? God’s movements in our lives can be sometimes very obvious and blunt. It’s such a loss when we miss the signs.

Rescue from Rumination

I’ve been getting angry about how much rumination sucks the life out of people. It goes something like this; a thought or question pops into your mind: “Does my boss think I’m worthless?”, “Am I a good father?”, “Have I done anything with my life?” You start weighing the evidence, remembering comments and reviewing the cues. You aren’t sure if you remember correctly, so you go over it again….and again and again. Much of this process may be semi-conscious. Rumination easily becomes the depressing, anxiety-inducing subtext that pulls your mood into a dark and gloomy place.

Rumination can be tricky because we can get duped into thinking that we are engaging in a critically important thought process that will help us in some way. But with rumination, nothing could be farther from the truth. Rumination is not helpful evaluation. Evaluation is a process that has a beginning, middle, and end. Rumination repeats and spins without concluding anything. Evaluation leads to a conclusion, greater wisdom, or discovery of a need or deficit. Rumination never lands, so there isn’t the same constructive quality to it. Normally, rumination does absolutely nothing helpful. In fact, the only thing that rumination does is impact your mood.

Evaluation, on the other hand, may begin exactly the same, but goes in a much different direction.  The thought or question pops into your mind: “Does my boss think I’m worthless?”, “Am I a good father?”, or “Have I done anything with my life?” You review the interaction that prompted the question and realize that you have an unsettled feeling. You decide to take some time at the end of the day to think about it and resolve to pull your attention away from weighing the evidence whenever it comes up throughout the day. One the drive home, you consider your hunch and realize that you have made some mistakes and you resolve to email your boss, apologize to your kids, or pursue a spiritual director to press into the question of your life in a deeper way.

I often tell my clients that at the heart of whatever they are ruminating about, there is sometimes an important question that does merit your time and attention. But it merits your focused, creative, full attention for perhaps about an hour or for many hours, but in a structured way. What that question does not merit is 10 hours of subconscious swirling that tortures you. It takes a willingness to apply some boundaries to one’s thought processes to resist ruminative spins. But please, do whatever it takes to learn those skills. Rumination is crushing the souls of far, far too many dear people under the guise of evaluation and they are not the same! One leads to depression and spiritual hopelessness, the other to maturity, efficacy, and spiritual/emotional health.

Growing Up ‘Not Smart’: the Power of the Story

I remember the first time I really considered that I might be smart.  I was sitting in a small discussion section of my literature class, my senior year in college. Another student that I considered to be very intelligent was responding to something I had said as if it were a very thoughtful and interesting comment. “Wow”, I thought, “maybe I’m smart.”

Somewhere in life I had put myself outside the category of “smart”. There were a lot of things that shaped my thinking about my intellect growing up. First and most formatively, my sister was and is very, very smart…PhD in cell and molecular pharmacology smart. I knew enough to see the difference between us, and ideas about myself started to take shape. Add that to the searing memory of being tested for the gifted and talented program in my grade school. I was asked to define the word ‘compare’. I stumbled and tried and knew I was not doing well. It was horrible. The fact that I was not placed in the GT program just confirmed what the testing experience felt like. I wasn’t smart enough. Later, in High School, I moved from Alabama to Northern Virginia and had academic whiplash that left me humiliated and stunned. I was behind in every subject. When I went to one of my teachers to ask how to improve a grade on a paper he looked at me and said, not unkindly, “Janice, beauty is its own reward”, and dismissed me. My senior year, after being unable to answer even one question on a scholarship exam, a dear friend (who wound up getting the scholarship) breezed through the exam. The comparison confirmed the message I held inside–I’m not smart—and I vowed not to try for any more academic scholarships.

This is the story that I learned to tell myself—I’m not smart.  I’ll never know the full range of implications this story has had in my life.  I took myself out of AP English after my junior year to quiet the screaming inferiority that I felt daily in that class. In college, I never even remember considering careers that required graduate school. Both are sad evidence of a story that I told myself that was stronger than my ability to refute it. I am both amazed and grateful that the belief eventually loosened. What allows that loosening to happen?

Some of it has to do with overall resiliency, spiritual resources, or with the experiences that life offers. But what part of the shift can we intentionally impact? As simple as it sounds, I cannot say strongly enough how critical recognizing the story in your mind is to the loosening process. If we recognize the story, we can begin the difficult process of discrimination. What should I do with this story I tell myself? Should I live according to it? Should I challenge it? Should I let it be and live according to something else? These simple questions require deep and tenacious work. But the work has to begin somewhere. Recognizing the story allows any of us to move from unconscious bending to the story and towards leaning into the possibility of a new story and new identity.

The loosening of my ‘not smart’ story has awakened a whole new set of ideas about myself. I have realized that I absolutely love learning; my classmates in grad school called me “the quintessential student”! I still feel the pull of the old story—I remember referring to an astronomer as an astrologist and wanting to crawl in a hole afterwards. But the difference now is that I hang on through the shame attack, pray, ride it out, and wait for equilibrium to return. I don’t want to live by the old story.

How about you? How do you loosen the grip of the old stories in your life?


Things You’ll Regret When You’re Old

Did anyone else see this list of regrets on BuzzFeed? I liked it. It made me think about myself and my work. I’m not sure what the percentage is, but some substantial amount of the work I do is helping people choose some of the things on this list or processing with them their regret that they didn’t. There are so many reasons we wind up with regrets like these. For me, it is almost always about values; the values I had in my twenties are different than the ones I had later. But I’m so, so grateful for the influences in my life that helped me see and choose a value before my age and perspective were really there.

I took a liberty to categorize some the regrets. I’m curious which regrets speak to you; either to your past actions or your current struggles. The gift of a list like this is that it helps us clarify that it is really never too late for us to do most things listed here. What is one regret mentioned below that you carry? Is there a way that you could address it today? If so, what is stopping you from making the first move?

The regrets that come up a lot in therapy (as regrets or current problems)

  • Staying in a bad relationship
  • Spending your youth self-absorbed
  • Caring too much about what other people think
  • Supporting others’ dreams over your own
  • Not moving on fast enough
  • Holding grudges, especially with those you love
  • Not standing up for yourself
  • Worrying too much
  • Getting caught up in needless drama
  • Being scared to do things
  • Not stopping enough to appreciate the moment
  • Not being grateful sooner

The regrets that made me ache for friends and loved ones

  • Not quitting a terrible job
  • Not realizing how beautiful you were
  • Letting yourself be defined by cultural expectations
  • Refusing to let friendships run their course

The regrets that made me grateful I’d been so well influenced

  • Not traveling when you had the chance
  • Letting yourself be defined by gender roles
  • Not trying harder in school
  • Not learning how to cook one awesome meal
  • Being afraid to say “I love you”
  • Not listening to your parents’ advice
  • Failing to make physical fitness a priority
  • Neglecting your teeth

The regrets that made me think

  • Not taking the time to develop contacts and network
  • Not spending enough time with loved ones
  • Never performing in front of others
  • Failing to finish what you start
  • Never mastering one awesome party trick

For the complete list, click here

Stone Soup in the Modern Age

            I have a group of friends who meet together every other week to engage in spiritual learning and to listen deeply to each other’s life challenges. This week we celebrated finishing a big study together by having a stone soup party. The idea of stone soup comes from an old folk story of strangers who come into a village with nothing but a pot and find themselves by the end of the story with their pot full of soup made from ingredients provided by the whole community.  I was too chicken to have the group show up with ingredients with no ability to conceive of how to put it together. So, I collected everyone’s ingredient choices ahead of time, did a little research, and wound up with a delicious Thai-inspired crab soup.

While we enjoyed the soup, our conversation meandered around like you would expect.  But most special was the time the group took to ask about the last hours my husband spent with his mother before her death, just the previous week. I reflected on what a gift it was, talking like this…having his story heard by people who care for him.  His grief needed the ears of the community to breathe and to be given validity.  I was overcome with gratitude for these people, for the space we have created to have these gatherings, and for the gift of community.

I don’t know how people do without it. I remember all of the problems trying to find a rhythm of gatherings; what to do about childcare, how frequently to meet, whom to meet with, how to keep people coming… our Stone Soup party, it was clear to me that it was worth it. One friend said that night after finishing his soup, “you know I noticed every ingredient that each person contributed and every ingredient mattered.” This reflection helped me see how we can care for each other for that very reason; every person matters. Every grief needs to be heard. Every joy needs sharing. Whether you make soup or not, community is our Stone Soup. Every person matters and what they bring makes a difference.

Do you have a Stone Soup Community? What would it take to have one? What Stone Soup stories do you have to add?


Want the recipe?

Thai Style Stone Soup

Here are the ingredients the individuals from the group provided: Lentils, broccoli, onion, potatoes, corn, hominy, mushrooms, cilantro, and crab.

Here are the ingredients I used after borrowing from 2-3 different recipes for inspiration for the base: 8 cups broth, 2 cans of coconut milk, paprika, coriander, garlic, lemon grass, and lime juice.

Garnish: lime wedges and cilantro


I grew up in Alabama and moved to a DC suburb in Northern Virginia the summer before my sophomore year. I got ready for school the first day like I always did in Alabama. After a month-long process of weighing current fashion trends, I put on my pleated jeans, a pink plaid shirt, pink tennis shoes and—forget a real belt—I tied a pink bow around my waist. I rolled my hair (remember hot rollers?) and loaded on my eye-make-up like always. I looked awesome in the way that any 15-year-old trying to look like a sorority girl does.

I was the only one on my route doomed to actually need bus transportation, so when we pulled up to my school I was a little nervous about exiting the bus solo. As the driver slowed in the circular drive my nervousness shifted to shock.  I saw kids with ripped tank tops, spiked collars around their necks, cut-off jeans with frayed edges, and people spinning on skateboards and trick bikes. No one was in long pants or a shirt with a collar, both of which were standard issue, if not dress code, at my public school in the south. Somehow, these kids hadn’t gotten the same fashion memo I had. It dawned on me that I was going to step off the bus and look like a fool.

There was nothing else to look at but me. And in this context, I looked…ridiculous, as if I were trying for the cover of Teen Magazine (which I had been) at grunge punk concert.  And so, all activity stopped. All the conversations, the bouncing bikes, the spinning skate boards, everything but the music.  I was relieved when the principle walked out to greet me (also wearing shorts) until I became painfully aware that everyone’s attention was riveted on my phrases punctuated with “sir” and flourished by my southern accent that trumped Daisy Duke’s by about 20 times.

Besides my teachers, no one spoke to me that day and I didn’t speak to anyone. But I noticed everything. I noticed mostly myself, feeling acutely displaced. My clothing and make-up, which had seemed my greatest asset, were my biggest barrier. My southern accent, which I never noticed in Alabama, was a bullhorn that blurred any content I might speak. At the time, I couldn’t quite grasp the arbitrariness of image management or see that all of those other students might have been just as invested in their “look” as I was. All I could see was that I had moved somewhere as different as the moon and the rules were all different.

I can see now that I’ve managed to displace myself more than a few times since then. I’ve migrated coast to coast twice, joining already established ministry teams both times. I got my theology degree at Howard University, a historically black university. What prepared me for these things? Might have had something to do with one pinked teenager walking off a school bus one day? You never know what uncomfortable experiences will empower you to do later. I will posit that those of us in the majority culture actually need experiences of displacement to help us understand that our perceived norms can be out and out arbitrary. I’m grateful now that I had this and other displacement experiences to show me that the world was bigger and much more diverse than I’d been led to believe by Teen Magazine.

How has displacement helped you grow? Or tempted you to shrink?

This blog is reposted from 2/16/12

New Year, Same You

There’s always talk of resolutions and self-improvement this time of year. I’ve got my own list in the making. But I made the mistake of looking at the list I made last year and the 50% accomplishment rate I achieved was partially a fluke (I purged every room of my house but only because we had our floors redone). Do we get kind of unrealistic at the start of a new year? Do we forget that we have to bring our same ‘ole selves into 2014? The same old resistances, habits, fears, and inner voices will be with us in 2014 even if we intend to make big changes in our lives.

In a couple of weeks I will be speaking to a group who invited me to speak on the topic, “A Fresh Start”. It has made me wonder what a fresh start really looks like when we bring our old selves into the fresh start. You can write down a weight loss goal, but you will still be as addicted to Doritos tomorrow as you are today. You can write down that you’re going to improve your relationship with your spouse, but tomorrow you will be as selfish and defensive as you are today. We often have no idea how to get to our goals because we have no patience for the day-to-day process required for any change to ever happen in our lives.

With that in mind, I think it makes sense to think in terms of intentions along with our traditional resolutions to lose weight and exercise more. Merriam-Webster defines intention as “a determination to act in a certain way”.   I like that the word, “determination” is in there. After all, what change has really ever taken place in your life without determination? It also allows for the reality that whatever we intend to do will need to be something we are choosing over and over and over again. It isn’t a one-and-done-type of thing. To live according to an intention requires that we return to that intention with determination whenever we drift astray. And we will drift! Our habits and patterns are the same old self that we bring to the picture. A healthy dose of both realism and self-compassion will be necessary for the long-term outcome you seek.

What could be empowering intentions for you in 2014? Some examples:

  • I intend to take risks.
  • I intend to be prayerful.
  • I intend to be mindful.
  • I intend to be playful.
  • I intend to be a learner.
  • I intend to be less passive and more assertive.
  • I intend to be less guarded and more authentic.
  • I intend to be less defensive and more open.
  • I intend to choose health above instant gratification.

Holding an intention can help us keep focus, make tough decisions, or even redirect us when we get off track. Why not choose an intention for the year and let it help you bring your old self into a new place?

Negative Self-Talk

All of us have some type of inner chatter that we’ve learned to listen to and usually we take it very seriously. A fortunate few of us have an inner cheerleader, who tells us all sorts of lovely and encouraging things about ourselves. But most of us have a stream of dialogue going on in our minds that is continually evaluating our behaviors, reactions, and interactions. Often, this inner evaluation comes up short of an unspoken standard and the results can impact our moods horribly.  Dr. Edmund Bourne categorizes negative self-talk into four categories and explains what can result from such talk.

  • The Worrier promotes anxiety

“What if…”

  • The Critic promotes low self-esteem

“That was stupid! How could you….”

  • The Victim promotes depression

“I could never do that. How could this happen?”

  • The Perfectionist promotes chronic stress and burnout

“I should. I ought to….” (pp. 164-66)


How does negative self-talk impact you? What does it promote in you? We can make the mistake of thinking that we are stuck swimming in these thought streams forever. But this isn’t the case. Interestingly, “negative self-talk is a series of bad habits. You aren’t born with a predisposition to fearful  (or negative) self-talk; you learn to think that way.” (p.164) The reasons we have negative self-talk are complicated. Family messages, traumatic events and personal hurts can all contribute. Over time, the habit of these thought processes becomes so ingrained that they take on a life of their own. In other words, our brains become used to taking these trains of thought very seriously and we live more and more of our lives in the resulting states that Bourne describes; anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, chronic stress, and burnout. In other words, our brains teach us to live in misery.

The power of recognizing our own negative self talk is that when we understand the process of our thinking and its impact, we can decide whether to offer our inner worrier, critic, victim, or perfectionist our attention or whether we would benefit from shifting our attention away from their negative thought streams. Learning to do this takes intentional effort and consistent practice, just like undoing any other deeply engrained habit. Creating a new neural pathway in the brain is no small task!  Learning to notice the negative self-talk is the first step in living a transformed life.


Quotes from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 4th Edition by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD.               Photo credit, click here