I've been listening to a very funny podcast lately called By the Book by two very funny women, Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer. For each episode they read a self help book, live by it for two weeks, share their experiences and then declare whether or not they recommend it. They're very, very funny, in part because they are so different from each other and they often offer divergent opinions on the books they read. What works for Jolenta does NOT necessarily work for Kristin. This is pretty obvious to therapists because we see inside so many people's heads. "Normal" is definitely a moving target.
For Kristin and Jolenta, there was only one book that they both recommended without reservation. Just one! Granted, they read books like The Secret and The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up which are bound to push even like-minded people hard to one side of the recommendation fence or the other. But they both loved and recommended one book: What To Say When You Talk To Yourself by Shad Helmstetter.
I was intrigued by this book for two reasons. 1) I remember hearing about it when it first came out in 1986 and thinking it sounded pretty funny ... before I was a therapist. 2) It's so obvious now that I'm a therapist that what we say when we talk to ourselves is actually really important. So, of course, I bought it and read it.
There's something really great about this book. Helmstetter outlines very clearly the long term impact of both positive and negative self-talk. While reading it I was of so much other good research out there that's rooted in self talk, though it's not necessarily called out as such, like Kristin Neff's work on self compassion and Carol Dweck's work on mindset. What do we say to ourselves when we face a challenge or a loss? Or when we do well? And are we deliberate about it or do we just passively let our minds ramble on and on about how bad we are? Helmstetter makes a convincing argument that we have much more control over what we say in our heads than we think and that mindfulness and repetition are key.
I have had many clients report feeling shocked at how unkind and critical they are of and to themselves once they start paying attention to what they say to themselves. It's kind of amazing how self-talk can slip right under the radar, unnoticed until it's annihilated its target, which happens to be your positive self-regard, integrity, motivation and general attitude toward life.
There is an upside to negative self-talk, however. Listening to what we say to and about ourselves is a perfect first step towards mental health because it tells us where to look for the source of our problems. If you're always telling yourself you're a loser and no one will ever want to marry you, then relationships are where you need to heal. If you tell yourself you're incompetent, then maybe you have a history of being unsupported as a learner, scared out of making mistakes. Our self talk can teach us a lot about ourselves and what we need to work on.
The best thing about this book is that it reminds us that we have a choice about what we say to ourselves. We can repeatedly talk back. It may not be a magic bullet (though according to Shad if you do it often enough and follow his guidelines, it is!) but it's something to keep in the forefront of the mental health tool box. It reminds me of that bumper sticker I used to see all the time: Don't Believe Everything You Think. Sometimes, it's worth sayin "NO" to your brain. And it's definitely worth listening to Kristen and Jolenta if you need a laugh. :)
I started thinking about this topic after reading an excellent article by my friend and colleague Kate Murphy. In Self Care: Hard to Make the Time, So Worth the Effort, she discusses how important it is to take care of yourself, and the many ways we push ourselves when we shouldn't. As she and I discussed this, we both realized that this subject is pretty common conversation fodder for women and we are very mindful of how hard it is to avoid feeling overstretched. In fact, I was just talking with a friend this morning about her attempts to juggle the many demands she feels from her church, her kids, her home. It's hard to do it all because everything requires actual time, and time is finite.
However, I think we should also acknowledge that as hard it is for women to avoid the pressure to be superwoman, it's just as hard for men. When was the last time you heard a guy say, "I'm really low energy today. I think I need to take it easy." Or, "I really need to talk to my boss about my long hours." There are very few role models for men seeking work-life balance.
Those commercials showing people taking a moment out of their hectic day to drink a cup of tea while looking out the window at birds flying over a sun drenched field of flowers - those tea-drinkers aren't men.
I'm not going to go into the long list of ways that our culture puts (pits?) men and women into opposing camps because that's such a huge topic, I would have to write a book. But I can say for sure that they definitely don't share the self-care camp. A lot of men feel so much pressure to work, provide and succeed that self-care rarely enters their minds. At least women have cultural permission to step back and slow down, whether it's with a cup of tea, some smelly bubble bath or the cliched mani-pedi. Men have examples of very few outlets that are actually healthy (the gym, the pool table - with beer, sports events - with beer, TV - with beer).
The friend I mentioned in the first paragraph said her high stress is partly because her husband is working 15 hour days. I suspect there are a lot more channels open for her to find solutions to her stress than there are for him. This is a large scale, systemic social imbalance. I don't have a solution for it. But I do have some words of advice. Men, take care of yourselves. Get some exercise, eat well, and take some time to pause and reflect on what's important to you. And women, if you have men in your life headed to burnout, in addition to modeling good self care, help make space for them to do this work, too. It helps everyone.