Do you know how when you’re panicking about a situation, and your partner gets annoyed that you’ve been talking non-stop and pacing around the house and snaps at you, “Just calm down, already!” and then you do?
Right. It doesn’t happen. Because in the history of calming down, no one has ever calmed down by being told to calm down.
And yet, we use these strategies on ourselves every day in an attempt to quell our overwhelming feelings. Does it work any better when it’s the voice in our heads shouting the orders?
Let’s cover some of the most common phrases we tell ourselves to “feel better”and why they tend to actually make things worse.
- There is nothing to be upset about! Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you’re upset about something, there is a reason. It can feel frustrating to not understand why something has activated intense emotion in us, but we can rest assured that emotions don’t come from the ether. They are hard-wired in us and get triggered by anything from a scent that reminds us of a difficult memory to someone undermining us in a subtle but hurtful way. When we tell ourselves that our feelings aren’t valid, we cut off any chance of being able to explore and understand them. And when we do that, we miss out on really valuable data about ourselves and the world.
- At least I don’t have it as bad as him. We all seem to love to compete in the Pain Olympics, holding up our own circumstances to those of others. Some of us were taught to think this way: “Stop crying! You don’t even know how good you have it!” This can be a hard mental habit to break. The problem with downward comparison is that if we do still feel hard emotions about our situation, then we start feeling both the pain we were already feeling, plus guilt for not being grateful enough for our circumstances. It’s a vicious spiral, and one that often leads to more self-criticism.
- What’s really the point if I can’t do it well? If you have any perfectionistic traits, you are all too familiar with the self-talk that warns you not to try things that you can’t crush. It’s uncomfortable to be a beginner, or mediocre, or take a risk, but it’s also the only way to practice flexibility and discover new things. The cost of missed opportunities is usually so much higher than the cost of fumbling through a new start.
- Why am I surprised? Things never work out like I want them to. We sometimes try to protect our hearts by keeping our expectations as low as possible. We imagine that being caught off guard by disappointment or failure would be so much worse than just experiencing it directly, and so we create negative expectations for ourselves. When the glass is half empty, we imagine that it won’t feel so bad if someone drinks the rest of it. But, of course, we can’t steel ourselves from pain as humans, at least not very effectively. And when we do, we tend to block out joy as well.
- I didn’t really care about that anyway. Similarly, we might try to downplay our investment in the things we care about in order to save face (even with ourselves) and avoid grief. But grief is an important emotion. It helps us to process feelings through our bodies so that they don’t stay jammed up inside of us, manifesting through physical ailments or psychological stress.
If you find yourself engaging in self-talk that’s less than helpful, even after you start to recognize its ineffectiveness, take heart. It can take a long time and a lot of practice to alter these mental scripts, especially if they have been the chorus of your life.
Start by just noticing them and naming that it’s happening (i.e. “Oh, there’s me telling myself to calm down again.”). Once you’re a good detector of these thoughts, you can begin to use mindfulness strategies to help them move along and not get stuck in your brain.
It can also be helpful to practice other, more adaptive thoughts when things get tough. You might tell yourself, for example, that your feelings are valid, even if you don’t understand them, or that you are strong enough to face any challenge that comes your way.
Rewriting these mental scripts is hard and brave work, but it’s worth relearning more compassionate and effective ways to talk to yourself through struggle.
Dr. Ashley Solomon is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization that helps purpose-driven women elevate their impact and mental wellness through therapy, coaching, and content. She blends her scientific acumen, her warm style, and her real-life wisdom to help people during challenge points in their lives. She's committed to busting the stigma of mental health and helping people heal, grow, and lead.