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Much of the work I do as a counsellor is based on one of the core premises of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy [CBT], that how we “talk” to ourselves has a significant impact on how we feel and how we behave. My experience, and the experience of many of the people I work with, is that while this concept “makes sense”, it can be challenging to actually apply it in the moment. This is a reflection about how running has provided me with the perfect platform to develop my ability to engage in adaptive or positive self-talk. It has also provided me with a good metaphor for understanding some of the subtleties of engaging in more adaptive self-talk which I hope will help you the reader better understand these subtleties as well.
BUT I AM ACTUALLY TIRED ?
At several points during any run, I am aware that I feel “tired” and feel a little tug to just stop. Of course, this makes total sense, given that I am demanding more energy from my body than I do during my other day-to-day activities. I am also likely feeling the tug to stop because I am depleting more energy and doing so rapidly. So, the feeling or sensation of fatigue is real. If I focus on only the ‘Truth’ of the statement, “I feel tired”, I may conclude that “Yes I am tired and therefore I should stop”. However, if I take a “True, but…” approach, I may be able to make an adaptive choice that allows me to meet “higher goals” like being healthier, rather than making a reactive choice that feels better in the moment but one that limits my growth, potentially leading to feelings of regret or shame. A few examples of the type of ‘True, but….’ statements I usually make include:
“Yes, I’m tired, but I always manage to break through that wall.
Maybe I’ll adjust my pace myself a bit and focus on the music in my headphones instead of my energy level right now.
I’m out here now so I might as well stick with it”.
When I engage in this type of self-talk, I am not only much more likely to follow through on my higher goals and finish the run, but I also ‘feel’ better because I have shifted my mental focus. This use of “True, but…” statements is an example of the type of adaptive self-talk that running has allowed me to develop.
MORE THAN ‘TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE DOWN’
I think this small example addresses one of the common misconceptions about Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, which is that it simply requires us to “think positive!!!”, using self-talk equivalent to “turn that frown upside down”. However, the CBT approach to challenging and changing self-talk is much more subtle than this. Rather than requiring people to ignore the event in their life which is causing them discomfort, CBT challenges us to talk to ourselves about that event in a way that acknowledges that we are uncomfortable, but places that discomfort in a context which makes us less likely to emotionally respond to it in a reactive way. Coming back to the example of running, I can acknowledge that I am a little tired in my self-talk – and indeed it may be important to do so in order to make a subtle adjustment like slowing my pace slightly. Trying to “turn that frown upside down” by ignoring the fact that I am tired might prevent me from making an important adjustment. More importantly, in focusing on how I don’t want to feel (“I’m not tired…I’m not tired…I’m not tired”), I am ironically keeping my attention on my “tiredness”, rather than shifting my focus to something else – my music in this example. Thus, I try to engage in self-talk that briefly acknowledges my discomfort, but also reminds me of reasons and strategies for not reacting to that discomfort.
Photo credit: TheTaiChiClub from morguefile.com
An example of how to apply this in day to day life may be helpful at this point. Since CBT is commonly used for addressing anxiety, depression or anger – I will choose an example which could potentially trigger feelings of anxiety, depression or anger in many people. Imagine you apply for a job within your place of work and you do not get that job. How you talk to yourself about his event will have a significant effect on how you feel and then behave. For instance, if you say to yourself the following statements;
“It figures – I’m not really that smart or talented. I didn’t get that job and I probably won’t get any job I apply for…..”, you are of course likely to feel depressed/sad – and possibly even anxious about your future. If you say to yourself, “I can’t believe they hired ____ instead of me! I totally deserved that job and it is so unfair that ______ got it!”,
These types of self-talk, from a cognitive-behavioural perspective, are ‘maladaptive’ because they fuel negative emotions and they really limit strategies for moving forward.
So, a self-talk along the lines of, “I’m really disappointed that I didn’t get the job. Whether I like it or not, I didn’t get it and I can’t change that, but I might be able to learn something from it I wonder if I can contact somebody to see if there’s anything I could have done differently to get the job? ”. This, ‘True, but…” approach acknowledges the discomfort of not getting the job, yet does not get “stuck” in the discomfort and instead moves on to strategies for moving forward. This thinking style can greatly improve employment opportunities.
To summarize, it is important to acknowledge that changing our self-talk is just one strategy among many which we can use to change how we feel and behave. Certainly, CBT is about more than self-talk and CBT is not the magic cure to all of our problems. Coming back to running, engaging in adaptive self-talk will not make up for lack of training, poor diet and health choices nor will it allow me to suddenly run a marathon tomorrow when I have never run further than 10 kilometers. However, learning how to engage in adaptive self-talk can be a very powerful tool to combine with other strategies in the worthwhile pursuit of feeling and behaving healthier.
To further explore CBT strategies for feeling and behaving better, contact one of our registered therapists for your confidential consultation today.