Do you talk to yourself? First sign of madness, right? ;-)
But really, the thing that is likely to lead to madness is not the fact that we talk to ourselves, but how we talk to ourselves.
Now, anyone who knows me will know I'm not about to tell anyone that everything will be OK if they just think positively enough.
But the opposite may well be true: if you think really negatively about yourself, things are almost guaranteed not to be OK.
When people come to me wanting to change their lifestyle, many will be quick to tell me that they have failed in various ways, and how upset and frustrated they are with themselves about this.
"I have no self-control"
"I probably haven't tried hard enough"
I hear these things all the time.
At this point, you may be thinking "Yes, but it really is my fault! I've eaten poorly and I don't do enough exercise and I never stick to diets, I'm just telling the truth".
Like everything, it's a balance. Taking responsibility is important. Introspection and self-reflection can be powerful tools to improving habits and behaviours. If you can't look at what you've done and identify what you've gotten wrong, it's pretty hard to make a positive change.
However, the point of the exercise is not to identify your shortcomings and then beat yourself up about them.
Let's imagine for a minute that you want to start exercising more. You think about the great healthy habits you want to have, and set your alarm for 5am to get up and go walking or running. 5am rolls around, the alarm goes off and you wake up. It's still dark, it's a bit cold and you're tired. You decide to go tomorrow, and catch a bit more sleep. Now, let's say you've done this a few times. What are you saying to yourself about this? On the one hand, you could be saying "I'm lazy and no good, I keep not going out and exercising. If I was a better person I'd be getting up early and exercising". On the other hand, you could think "This plan to exercise early in the morning has not worked out. I wonder if there's another way to approach this that might work better?" You're still acknowledging the shortcoming: you made a plan to get up early and exercise, and you haven't followed through. But instead of beating yourself up, try owning the mistake and then thinking about how to change it.
Sometimes, if you really think about a problem, you can see that some elements of it are not even in your control. For example, if you start work early in the morning, so that exercising before work would mean getting up super early, that may just not be realistic for you. Your work hours are out of your control, so you can't change that. So, you think about what else you do with your day that is in your control. Maybe, you could get to bed earlier, so getting up early is not so hard. Or, maybe you need to schedule exercise for after work instead?
Sometimes, it's our own expectations which are the problem. If you're expecting yourself to start running every day when you have done little exercise in years, you're likely to be disappointed with the results. The key piece of thinking to do in this case is to really consider your plan, work out which bits are genuinely not realistic and which bits are do-able with a little effort. Be honest! Then maybe you're left with the conclusion that going out walking every day is realistic and achievable, whereas running is something you'll have to work up to.
This sort of problem solving starts with changing the guilt-trip into a positive thought. Rather than "I failed, I'm hopeless, I'll never be able to do it", you think "I've failed, I need to change my approach, this is a problem I can solve".
If you're telling yourself that you can't improve, you are more likely to give up easily, and continue to feel bad about it - after all, it just reinforces your idea that you're not good enough.
You'll notice that I've used the word "fail" a few times here. Often, in self-help literature and inspirational positive memes we are encouraged to believe that this is a dirty word. Sentiments like "If you try hard enough you cannot fail" or "Failure is not an option" are often seen in gyms and Facebook feeds.
I'm going to say something a little different about that. This sort of relentless positivity is just as unproductive as being totally negative towards yourself, because it's completely unrealistic. Of course it's possible that you'll fail despite your best efforts! It's possible that all sorts of things might get in your way, because that's life.
Failure is normal.
Failure is a part of life.
Failure is not the end.
It's actually OK to fail at something, and to honestly acknowledge that you have. The important thing is what happens next: do you analyse the failure for reasons to feel bad, or for lessons learned?
So, back to talking to ourselves, this time without going mad.
Take out a notebook and a pen. Or, just have a talk with yourself in a mirror, or contemplate things quietly over a cup of coffee. Ask yourself, what could I realistically have done differently? What went wrong? Was it something in my control? Was my plan realistic? Did something else interfere (like an illness)?
Then, talk kindly to yourself. Imagine you're talking to your very best friend who had encountered the same setback. Would you tell them they were just useless and no good? Or would you talk to them about how to get back up and try again, using the lessons learned. You'd probably offer them some support or help to get past their obstacles. So try offering that to yourself. "OK, self, we're going to get past this. That last attempt did not go well. We probably didn't plan it out terribly well, and we've learned a few things. So, here's the new plan. Ready?"
I was reminded this week very strongly about why I do this work.
I was talking to a young person who was struggling with a few things in life. One of her frustrations was that she had been repeatedly told she was not doing enough to help herself. But having tried the things others told her worked for them, and found they did not work for her, she felt at a loss. Well meaning friends and family responding "of course that works, it worked for me, maybe you should just try harder" were only adding to the sense of failure.
There is no one right way to look after your health. If there was, everyone would be doing it. Instead, there is an almost infinite array of diets, exercises, different types of meditation, supplements and other products all marketed at us as being the Great Way Forward in our journey. Each person responds a little differently to each one. The thing, or combination of things, that works best for each person will be just a little different to the next person.
For myself, it was always my weight. I struggled for years with trying to diet. I tried fad diets. I tried "miracle" supplements. I tried teas, I tried herbs. I spent hours in the gym, doing exercises I hated, and feeling like a failure as my results were very limited. Occasionally, I'd try something that worked for a short period, only to slip back again.
Eventually I found a form of exercise I loved - karate. I built up over a few years to a point where I was training 6 days a week, as well as running regularly. And while I was getting fitter and stronger, my weight still would not budge. Still I kept on trying.
Finally, after many years, I found something that worked for me. Hallelujah! This must be the one perfect way to eat, right? With the zeal of the converted, I told everyone who stood still long enough about how wonderful my new diet was. How I felt happy, and fulfilled, never hungry, full of energy, had stopped taking medication and worn clothing I had previously only dreamed about.
Then a couple of things happened. Firstly, I recommended my newly discovered perfect diet to everyone and a few people tried it... and some of them found it didn't work. And second, I started doing more study in the area of nutrition and lifestyle management, and came across studies and case reports of completely different things working for people - things that I had tried which never worked for me.
And as this went on, a pattern emerged. Everyone who experienced great success with changing their lifestyle, either for their weight or energy levels or overall health, had "tried everything" and then found a thing that worked amazingly well for them. Once someone found their thing, the results that they had been looking for happened quickly and easily and they wondered why they had never done it this way before.
Like my young friend being told to "just meditate, it worked for me", people who are struggling to find a healthy lifestyle for themselves don't need to be told to eat this one way and do this particular exercise... they need to be helped to find what will work for them.
The people who find this easy, aren't looking for help. The people who are looking for help have generally tried a lot of different things. What is needed is not "just eat less, move more". It's not "just go keto, that fixes everything" (or paleo, or vegan, or low GI, or whatever). If you're anxious and you've tried meditation, and that doesn't work, the answer isn't to meditate harder! Try Tai Chi, or yoga, or hypnosis, or swimming, or running.... you get the picture.
There is no one right way that suits everyone. But there is a way that will work for you. Let's find it.