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Can you detox your thoughts?
Why do so many of us tell ourselves we're useless, boring or fat? A new book reveals how just changing the words we use to describe our lives can have profound positive effects
By Annie Cap
Last updated at 9:07 AM on 15th November 2010
Lydia sat in front of me with tears in her eyes. To outsiders, it looked as if she had it all — a loving husband, two children and a successful job.
But she felt her life was not evolving how she wanted it to, that she wanted more from her relationship and her job.
‘It’s hopeless, just hopeless,’ she said. It was a word that, during that conversation, Lydia used again and again.
She didn’t want to ask for a promotion because it would be ‘hopeless’ and she’d never get it. She even described how ‘hopeless’ the garage had been when her car broke down and how ‘hopeless’ it was trying to get her husband to help in the house.
She was blissfully unaware of her constant use of the word ‘hopeless’, but as a therapist it told me all I needed to know.
We live in an age in which everyone is concerned or even slightly obsessed with what they put into their bodies in the form of food or drink.
We’ve all heard ‘You are what you eat’ — and many of us probably have the book — but shouldn’t we be just as concerned about what comes out of our mouths as what goes into them?
The words you use show where your mind is focused. Your language points to the reasons why you perform as you do. It shows you what you believe, what you think is possible and, ultimately, what experiences you are likely to encounter.
I saw a similar thing with a lady called Catherine, who came to see me suffering depression. In her late 30s, she seemed intelligent and bright, and she was adamant she wanted to recover. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t able to.
Yet when I drilled down into what she thought about herself and told everyone else about herself, it transpired she thought she was worthless or, in her own language, cr**.
It was her first thought when she looked in the mirror in the morning and it ran through her mind throughout the day. In a jolly and almost charming way, she constantly told other people that her ideas were cr** and her cooking was cr**.
To me, it didn’t seem surprising that, in the face of what amounts to mental self-mutilation, she was unable to find the confidence she needed to recover.
The two women I have talked about are far from alone. Over the past ten years as a coach and therapist, I’ve listened to thousands of hours of people telling me about themselves. And I have discovered an amazing thing. Their words match their beliefs, their deepest fears, their most regretful or harrowing moments and even sometimes their physical symptoms.
I believe that across British society we are suffering from an epidemic of self-attacking thoughts. Many people spend their entire lives silently telling themselves that they’re stupid, fat, rubbish or boring.
Hour after hour, they inform themselves that they’re too old, no good and not clever enough. They repeat phrases such as ‘You can’t have everything’, ‘No pain, no gain’, and even ‘Let’s not get our hopes up’.
Even at a wonderful moment of success, there are many who will be smiling, but inwardly thinking: ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ I call these your ‘iceberg words’ — they represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of what’s going on inside your mind.
With these constant mantras going in, we manage to hypnotise ourselves into believing the worst about ourselves. This is perpetuated by our culture. Across society, we have a tendency to have low expectations, an issue that’s been made worse by the recession and the fact we’re being told we’re right to have low expectations as we are in for a difficult few years.
And what makes things more difficult is that our society doesn’t specially reward positivity. Just think what the reaction would be if you announced ‘I’m a brilliant cook’ or ‘I’m fantastic at my job and am certain to get a promotion’. You’d be considered arrogant.
Negative thoughts normally originate from a childhood experience, often one that is long forgotten. But, for many, while they can highlight unresolved issues, they are also just a habit and with a little discipline they can be changed.
Once you become aware of what you’re saying and what this means, you can do something about it. And it is important to become aware of what you are thinking and saying, as thoughts and language can be more damaging to our health than any fat saturated hamburger — and more curative than any new super-food.
Thoughts and words have the ability to keep you in a rut or feeling low. In fact, weight issues and self-loathing language are often intimately linked.
Bad-mouthing yourself ends up driving you to comfort eat and gain even more weight. Negative thoughts can even make you seriously unwell.
If you think negative, stressful thoughts, you’ll feel tense and release harmful stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can lead to high blood pressure.
Think a happy thought and you can quickly change what is going on inside your body. Happy thoughts release serotonin, endorphins and other stress-relieving hormones. Even better, while maintaining an organic lifestyle in terms of food, can be expensive and time-consuming, it doesn’t cost anything to detox language and the benefits are immediate.
I’ve had huge success helping people with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as pre-interview nerves and insecurity — all through detoxing language.
But you don’t necessarily need to see a therapist. Everyone can benefit — and boost their happiness — by looking at their language, listening to their thoughts and considering what the words they use automatically say about their inner chatter and what they are telling themselves.
The key is learning to make your words reflect your dreams and not past or future worries. Then life can improve. It’s possible to do this on your own.
It involves listening to what you’re saying, stopping and taking a moment to rephrase. Think of it as a diet. Like any diet, the Detox Your Language diet means you’ll want to avoid or eliminate certain things (words, thoughts and beliefs that appear to be negative or limiting) and add in healthy, positive statements and behaviour.
Listen to yourself and gain an understanding of what you are really thinking. Listen for any repetitive words or statements and replace those that are negative, fearful or critical with positive supportive words.
Do you apologise for yourself? If someone offers you the chance to do something is your first response: ‘I won’t be able to?’ Do you describe yourself as being ‘always late’ or ‘hopeless at reading maps’?
When you phone someone, do you say ‘It’s only me’, thus devaluing the importance of your call? All these are indicators of the negative self-chat you have going on in your mind.
Be careful, too, of limiting or even abusive nicknames, either thought or said out loud.
My clients admit to calling themselves — in their own heads — everything from ‘fatso’ and ‘thunder thighs’ to ‘loser’ and ‘monster’.
Remember the sticks and stones phrase? Well, names do harm and if you call yourself names you’ll keep yourself pigeonholed and stuck where you are today.
If what you hear is in any way a put-down or tainted with fear, change it. Reverse it to be positive. For example, if you hear yourself saying out-loud or in your head ‘You’re so stupid’, ‘You’ll never be able to do that’ or ‘I’m afraid’ replace these with ‘I’m OK, I’m capable’, ‘It’s OK, I can do it’ or ‘I’m safe’.
If you criticise yourself, saying things such as ‘I knew you’d fail’, ‘You’re a worthless so and so’, hold back and realise you are inflicting damage on yourself as well as limiting your potential.
Replace these destructive comments with more supportive statements that represent what you’d like to see in yourself, such as ‘At least I tried my best’, ‘I’m proud of my effort’ or ‘I can do it’.
As a major part of Lydia’s therapy, we focused on raising her awareness of the way she used the word ‘hopeless’ and replacing every use of ‘It’s hopeless’ with ‘It’s OK’. Even by repeating such sentences after me, she was able to feel happier in herself and reduce the amount of negative self talk.
After a few weeks, we replaced the ‘It’s OK’ with ‘It’s fantastic’. By changing her words, I changed her thoughts, her outlook and ultimately her life.
Of course, it takes persistence to break a habit, but there are modern techniques, such as tapping, you can use. This is a psychological treatment that heals mental and physical ailments through specialised ‘tapping’ with the fingers at points on the upper body and hands.
Also try deep breathing, exercises to ease anxiety, such as visualising of happy memories or favourite places. When you become aware your mind is racing with hateful comments, think back to a favourite holiday and hold the image in your mind or put on some happy music.
Once you’re relaxed, you can replace the negative comments with positive ones. It’s only when people’s thoughts and language reflect what they want, instead of their limitations, that they can achieve their dreams.
It’s Your Choice: Uncover Your Brilliance Using The Iceberg Process (Paragon Publishing, £15.99).
As told to Natasha Courtenay Smith