John Gottman is a relationship researcher who has compiled a massive amount of fascinating research into what keeps couples together and what results in happy relationships. When considering Gottman’s work, one of the things that struck me was how relevant his work is to the relationships that we have with ourselves. If there are certain ways that we treat our loved ones which can improve how well we get on with them, why not use those same ways to treat ourselves better too.
One way of thinking about how our minds work is that we have many voices inside our head. We continuously talk in a never-ending dialogue with ourselves. We argue with our different selves and try to make sense of the world through these conversations. I have spoken before about how depression is a liar and the voice that we hear is one type of vicious propaganda that tries to make us give up hope and feel helpless and worthless. The reality is that depression does not just consist of one dark voice. Instead, it is a multitude of negative voices that work in tandem when the darkness is there.
Since we have such conversations with ourselves, one could take this one step further and argue that we have a complicated relationship with ourselves. Like a team or a group that sometimes work well with each other and sometimes do not, we do not always work well as an internal team. Sometimes we are bullied by some of our inner voices. What if we were to learn to work on these relationships? What if we could create better team work by establishing ground rules for our thoughts?
To fully do this we would need far more than a blog post. However, let’s take one simple idea from Gottman’s work. Gottman argues that it is important to distinguish between criticism and complaining. The distinction is this. Complaining is when we comment on the problematic nature of a behaviour: ‘That behaviour was stupid.’ Criticising is when we comment on the problematic nature of the person: “You are stupid.” Although subtle, this is a hugely important distinction.
The research showed that criticism leads to big problems in relationships. Similarly, when examining our own mind, we can find plenty of examples of when we criticise ourselves after making a mistake. This is extremely unhelpful and traps us in this identity which is used to make us feel not good enough. The learning from this is to start monitoring our negative thoughts and practice changing from identity statements to behaviour statements when we make a mistake.
So, consider thinking of the way you think as being decided by the relationship you have with yourself and work on improving this relationship by ensuring that, regardless of which voice is communicating, you challenge the identity comments whenever they are negative. By doing this it will help you not only feel happier with who you are but it will also enable you to improve much quicker as you leave behind the excuses that might have stopped you in the past.