This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.
Sometimes the difference between healthy and unhealthy thinking is simply a matter of tone. The difference may be subtle. For example, the statement, “I want to lose some weight” expresses a healthy desire, but the statement, “I’m so fat” damages the self-esteem.
You may think the difference between the two statement to be inconsequential, because you know what you mean, but it’s not. The human brain processes self-talk literally. Much like a computer, it processes exactly what you put into it.
Research has clearly demonstrated the importance of the actual words used in our thinking. You may rationally know better when you say, “I can’t do anything right.” You may know that you can do some things right. After all, you got dressed this morning, and you did that right. But your self-esteem hears the actual words, and you feel as if you can’t do anything right. The damage is done.
So now, let’s consider a situation where you want to make some change or take some future action. It could be anything. You want to spend more time with your children or with your aging parents. You want to clean your house, or get more involved in a worthwhile organization. The motivation may be admirable.
You might think, “I want to …” do some action. You’re expressing a healthy desire, and hopefully, you will follow-up with actions to make it happen. It’s all good. Or you might think, “I should …” do the action. In this case, you’re still expressing the desire, but you add a little jab. The “should” statement suggests guilt, shame or inadequacy, and provides a bit of chastisement.
The “I want to…” statement leaves the self-esteem intact. It may even engender a little excitement as you visualize accomplishing the action. The “I should…” statement tends to lower your mood, leaving you feeling inadequate. The damage of each statement may be minor, but the repetition of such statements can be devastating.
“Should” statements remind me of a little known religious group of the 14th century called the Flagellants. They believed they should punish themselves because of their sins, so they marched through the streets whipping themselves on the back with leather whips. Frequently using “should” statements is little like whipping yourself throughout your day. Like the whip, each “should” creates a little more damage.
Pay attention to the words you use in your self-talk. They really are important. Try substituting “I want to…” or “I would like to….” for the more negative, “I should…” See how it works.