Thinking Out Loud

What Are You Saying to Yourself?

We all talk to ourselves quite a lot, sometimes out loud but mostly internally. In fact we spend more time talking internally than externally. This is a complicated matter in the relationship we have with ourselves, and it’s worth paying careful attention to the way we do this. Here’s an example of someone we’ll call Will trying to understand his reactions, thoughts, and feelings about jealousy as it involves his girlfriend, June.

Will was struggling with feelings of jealousy. The word jealousy generally has negative connotations, so it’s hard to admit to jealousy. It can seem small minded and implies a lack of trust. Will was especially troubled by his thoughts and feelings because his girlfriend, June, hadn’t done anything that would warrant not trusting her. So, Will was talking to himself about how foolish he is and how his feelings are all messed up. He was trying to be logical.

June is naturally friendly with both men and women, genuinely interested in people and socializing. She is pleasant and funny, and others like meeting and talking with her. When Will and June are together at gatherings, Will appreciates her engaging manner and likes how others respond so warmly and positively to her.

When they weren’t together, however, and Will was alone, it was different. Then, he visualized other men being drawn to June, flirting and trying to win her over. He pictured these scenes in detail, allowing them to be embellished in his mind’s eye. And that was the real problem: because he has a strong visual-spatial world, these images of June were in great detail, like a moving picture, energized by Will’s emotions.

After exploring his history in relationships, attachments in childhood, and general feelings of security in relationships with other partners, it seemed clear Will was dealing with very ordinary feelings of jealousy—he was not possessive or obsessive, and his self-esteem was solid. So, we focused on how he communicated with himself. While he pictured these disturbing scenes, he used negative words toward himself (“Why are you doing this? You’re being stupid!”), which caused his mind to move at a frenetic pace. No kidding it was counterproductive and making him very unhappy. How could it not? In fact, his imagination was running away from him. The pictures were controlling his feelings and thoughts.

Once Will acknowledged that he was producing these negative communications (both images and words), he understood that replacing them positively made sense. At the first sign of the negative, he began telling himself that he really loves and enjoys being with June, which is why he was afraid of losing her. He also pictured a positive scene of the two of them having a pleasant time together.

The third thing Will did was to recognize how physically agitated he would get with the negative thoughts and feelings, moving around frenetically and really working himself up, with both images and words. By slowing down the pace of his activity, however, he was able to manage his reactions better, clarify his thoughts, and more easily focus (picture) on the reality of his relationship with June.

Will initiated these three steps regularly, at the first sign of negative jealous rumblings. He wasn’t trying to convince himself of something that wasn’t true, ignoring signs and signals of boundary problems or infidelity. He knew what he was saying to himself was the “real” truth, which is why the practice was ultimately effective: his jealous thoughts dissipated and he could relax in the security of the strong mutual feelings he and June had for each other.

It is common for all of us to get into trouble around our strengths. Will’s strong visualization ability became a liability as he pictured things that really weren’t true but felt so real in his imagination. This is common for those with a strong visual-spatial component to their communication style. Will was talking to himself in pictures that were hurting him. By paying attention to this process, he was better able to find a more accurate way to communicate the truth in his internal world.

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