Conversations With Yourself: Put-downs or Pats on the Back

What do you call yourself when you talk to yourself?  Some people don’t think they do talk to themselves but everybody does.  I call myself “Kiddo” although I haven’t been anything like a kid in far more than half a century.  Somehow it sounds somewhat affectionate to me, and encouraging, exactly the tone I would have liked to take if I had thought about it but I never did.  It has always been Kiddo. 

I asked one of my clients what she called herself when she talked to herself and she said “Fat Ass”.  I was horrified and could barely keep from gasping out “Well, right there’s all your problems rolled into one.”  I shudder to think what her upbringing or her marriagemight be like.

There are two classic ways of motivating oneself to do anything – the stick and the carrot.  Think of a donkey who can be extremely stubborn.  With a stick to beat his behind one can perhaps get him to move on.  Those people who use the stick form of motivation on themselves do figuratively the same thing.  “Fat Ass” certainly did:  “If you don’t close this sale/pass this test/make your sex partner moan and groan better than anyone else ever has you’re a loser.  You’ll be humiliated.  No one will ever love you” and on and on trying to scare yourself into accomplishing whatever the job is to be done.

Others keep that stubborn donkey moving by dangling a carrot on a stick in front of his nose.  “Keep going and you’ll be rewarded by getting to munch on this big juicy carrot!” So “close that sale/pass that test/ make your partner moan and groan and you’ll be a hero, a success. Everyone will love you.”

I have always favored the carrot form of motivation myself.  Could you tell?  I motivate myself, my family and friends, and my clients by reminding me or them of the rewards to be had by doing whatever it is. For instance, I have always known the unpleasantries ofsmoking because my mother never failed to tell me that I smelled like a dirty ashtray.  This was years before smoking was targeted as a health hazard and years after I was suspended from boarding school for smoking.  I smoked from the age of 14 until my mid-forties.  I couldn’t even imagine being a non-smoker.

In the 1980’s I had a radio show on KRQR in San Francisco.  I answered callers’ questions on sex and relationships and I also read the commercials.  One of which was for a non-smoking program.  Of course I smoked all during the two hours including the times I read the commercials.  “You too (puff) can stop smoking (puff).  It’s easy (puff).”

A listener wrote me a letter saying essentially that everyone could hear me smoking when I read the commercial copy.  How could my listeners believe anything I said if I was so two-faced? Wasn’t I embarrassed?  Reading that letter I was, and for the first time ever I seriously thought about quitting. Not because it was unhealthy, not because everything I wore including the hair on my head smelled unattractively of stale smoke, not because the habit was becoming increasingly expensive, although these were all good reasons, but because I thought of myself as a sex and relationships educator and I wanted to be a credible source of information.

Two weeks later I quit cold turkey and for good. Embarrassment is a damn good motivator too. But it was mostly that I had a great deal invested in my role as an educator and that was my motivation, my carrot, that I would be seen as someone who could be counted on to be honest.

When a counseling client tells me she is afraid of reaching out to new people or isn’t enjoying sex with his or her sweetheart I tell them how they’re internal dialogue must be going: “There’s an attractive person I could go over and talk to.  But what if s/he rejects me?  After all I have crooked teeth and I probably have a stain on my shirt and there are many more attractive people here so why would s/he talk to me.” In bed a person might say “I have to acquit myself admirably.  I must or my lover will lose interest, joke about me to friends, tell everyone what a dud I am, probably even leave  me!”

Clients invariably smile in recognition.  People who consistently scare themselves or berate themselves often accompanied by insulting nicknames are easy to spot.  A habit like this undoubtedly started as a kid and is deeply ingrained but like any habit, even smoking, you can change it.  Be kinder to yourself and speak to yourself as you would to a dear friend.  If you can’t be a friend to yourself who else will be?

Notice how your internal dialog goes when next you are faced with some task.  Is it “you can do it” or “you better not fail”?  Do you use your name, a private nickname, or an insult when you talk to yourself?

I strongly suggest you make some changes if you’re not satisfied with your internal conversations. Life will be a lot less stressful.  You can do it, Kiddo, Ace, Cutie Pie.  I know you can.