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Building yourself up with positive self-talk

April 4, 2017

As a psychologist, I have been witness to emotional and physical abuse within families and relationships and the toll those take. In this post, I would like to address something more subtle: our abusive relationships with ourselves and the ways we can actively undermine our self-esteem and ultimately our success.

Oh, yes, therapists refer to “negative self-talk” and “self-blaming” and the negative thought patterns that accompany depression and many forms of emotional distress. The money managers I work with in financial markets describe their “frustration” and “irritation” over losing money. Those are such sanitized terms. They don’t capture the emotional reality that I witness: how our negativity and frustration all too often turns into actual emotional self-abuse.

Consider the trader who loses money on a series of trades. Perhaps the idea underlying the trades was wrong; perhaps the idea was correct, but the market responded to a different set of drivers. Upon taking the losses, the trader becomes increasingly frustrated and angry. He–very often in the trading world it’s a he, and we’ll see why that’s significant–first reacts out of the frustration by putting on even more trades, this time less well thought-out. As those go into the red as well, his attitude becomes “F*** it” and he adds to his positions. Finally the whole lot goes against him and he is forced to take a devastating loss. Anger and frustration boiling over, he now turns against himself, telling himself how “stupid” he is, how he is such a “loser”, and how he will never succeed.

Notice how quickly the natural, understandable frustration over an initial set of losses mounts into self-destructive behavior and then self-destructive thoughts and feelings. The actions of our trader are not so psychologically different from those of the bulimic young woman who eats a little more than planned, throws caution to the wind and consumes much more, and then attempts to purge the calories with self-destructive thoughts and behavior. We have no problem identifying self-abuse when it takes the form of bingeing and purging or cutting oneself after an emotional upset. Those are behaviors more typically seen among women than men. When men engage in parallel actions, as in the case of the trader, they are simply seen as impulsive, lacking discipline, and emotionally competitive. We don’t recognize the emotional violence, the self-abuse. That lack of awareness perpetuates the self-destructive dynamic.

The four cats we have in our home were rescued from situations of either abuse or neglect. When they are hurt or sick, we respond with particular compassion. We know they have had hard lives, and we empathize with their pain. All four have picked up on that compassion and bonded with us in ways they never bonded with others. It is that compassion that is missing among perpetrators of abuse toward animals, women, and children. But it is equally missing in ourselves when we respond to frustration with self-destructive acts and demeaning self-talk.

The first step toward changing our self-abuse is to clearly identify it as such. This is not simply “revenge trading”, impulsive activity, frustration, or even anger. This is emotional, psychological abuse. When we allow frustration to sabotage us, we actively hurt ourselves. On those occasions, we become abusers.

That is not a pleasant acknowledgement, but it’s the first step toward equally recognizing that we are suffering from our self-abuse. That allows us a degree of compassion. It’s OK to be frustrated over losses, but those are the times we need to treat ourselves well, learn from mistakes, and make ourselves better. If we equally face the horror of being an abuser and suffering from abuse, we can find the motivation to be a different kind of person and forge a different relationship with ourselves.

It starts with awareness and it results in compassion. Once we clearly see our self-talk and behavior for what they are–abuse–we can ditch the psychological, self-help mumbo-jumbo and find the inspiration and determination to never again become a victim.

That is what drives us to change: inspiration and determination. Emilia Lahti refers to these traits as part of the Finnish concept of sisu: the persistence that comes from accessing a second wind of consciousness. Lahti, herself a survivor of abuse, has taken on a gargantuan task for a non-athlete: to run 1500 miles across the length of New Zealand, the equivalent of 50 marathons in 50 days. Tackling such an endeavor, she demonstrates that we can emerge from any form of violence through focused attention and intent; a courageous, action mindset; a recognition that obstacles pose opportunities; and an awareness that our actions truly matter. Lahti’s training is driven not just by motivation, but by compassion. She is running to support others, and that has kept alive in her the capacity to be compassionate toward herself and her past.

In a far smaller way, our rescuing the cats is our way of bringing compassion into our daily lives. When we consistently act on empathy and compassion, it is difficult to be abusive toward ourselves and others. We access that second wind of consciousness when we take extraordinary steps to be the person we wish to become. Too many people, including the traders I encounter, seek success by doubling down on driven behavior and demands they place on themselves. How ironic it would be if our greatest success were to be obtained by channeling that drive in compassionate ways that free us to become powerful advocates for self and others!

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