The Highway and the Deer Track

Negative self-talk is one of those things that can be hard to uproot, somewhat like a habit. In fact, we may not even realize we’re doing it, or that it’s not a completely accurate reflection of reality. Society and media often reinforce this kind of thinking: “I’m not good enough,” “I don’t deserve good things,” “no one likes me," I should be cooler.” These are painful, destructive thoughts, and when we’re convinced they’re true, we’re likely to suffer and even sometimes to act in ways that tend to confirm them. For example, thinking no one likes me may lead me to avoid being around people, leaving me without much to contradict my belief.

The first step, of course, is to challenge these thoughts. Judgmental thoughts are hardly ever purely objective; there’s usually some element that’s subjective if not outright false. Taking an objective look at the evidence usually shows that these kinds of thoughts are unfounded, or at least not nearly as compelling as they seemed at first. Great, right? Feel better? You might, and that’s great. But often an “A-ha” moment like this is short-lived. The moment we find ourselves back in the situations that make us feel insecure or scared, the judgments come right back up and refuse to budge. Then we have to go through the whole process all over again, talking ourselves down, reviewing the evidence, refuting the thought, and reaffirming our more balanced conclusion. We may even add on a judgment about ourselves and this process: "I'm so bad at this, what's wrong with me?" Whew. Well, what’s going on here? Why didn’t the rethinking stick?

The reason is embedded in our neurobiology. When we do something often, like driving a car or brushing our teeth, our brains get used to it and learn to do it quickly, even automatically. We get used to doing these things without thinking much or at all. So it goes with self-judgments. The circuitry to the conclusion that “I’m a garbage person” or “something’s going to go wrong” is like a highway: fast and direct, with no stoplights. In fact, it can be so fast, we may not even realize that it's happening. In contrast, challenging these thoughts and coming up with more accurate, nonjudgmental thoughts is practically uncharted territory. Maybe you’ve found a deer track, bushwhacking your way through the scrub as you gather evidence, consider possible interpretations, and check your thinking. Compared to your judgmental highway, it’s very slow going. And unfortunately, your brain is lazy. Ha, judgment! Okay, your brain naturally prefers to use quick, familiar pathways over new, difficult ones. Usually this is adaptive and efficient, but when the old pathways have problematic destinations, it doesn't matter how smooth and fast they are.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a quick fix for this. The good news is, these pathways can change. By intentionally taking that new pathway, you can make it more established and easier to use. Eventually it can become more automatic than judging yourself. It’s a matter of recognizing that there is a fork in the road, looking for times when your brain jumps onto the highway, and making the choice to step off of it and onto the path towards kinder, more realistic thinking, then repeating this whenever the choice comes up. It’s more effort, but also worthwhile. No one benefits from constantly judging themselves harshly. If you slow down and take the time to get more familiar with these new pathways, you may find that it works more quickly than you expect, and the payoffs in stabilizing your mood and confidence highly rewarding. Happy bushwhacking!