In this third edition of the Well on the Way series, I want to focus on a third principle of healthy self-talk that will undergird emotional health.
The first two articles explored how (i) our thinking shapes our feelings, and (ii) that we are active agents in our own mental health. This article will build on these ideas to explore a third idea:
Core idea 3: Be your own coach!
I was reading Psalm 77 yesterday, following Tim Keller’s daily devotions in the Psalms. This psalm captures two core issues in our mental health: (i) the way we ask ourselves questions (v6), and (ii) how we answer those questions (the psalmist argues with himself – appealing (v10), remembering (v11), considering (v12)). The psalmist calls out to God in distress and weakness, groaning in his sleeplessness and anguish; voicing his fears: has God abandoned us? Failed us? Forgotten us?
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The Bible invites this kind of raw honesty, modelling in the Psalms an emotional vulnerability with our Father that is almost embarrassing. It invites us to express to God things I’m unlikely to express to anyone else – my silent fears, my hidden doubts, my grumbling insecurity, my anger.
But the psalmist does more than dig a self-pity hole. He talks back to himself, appealing, reminding and redirecting. Coaching.
The psalmist directs his thinking to who God is and what he has done in history.
This is a model for us. We, too, have to direct our thinking, not passively letting it meander into all manner of dead ends and dangerous pot-holes.
The psalmist directs his thinking to who God is (v13) and what he has done in history (v 10-20). Hopefully, we are given these same reminders in almost every sermon we hear. As a Christian clinical psychologist, I think we need to be doing one more thing. Yes, reminding ourselves of who God is and what he has done; but also, coaching ourselves towards a healthier attitude towards ourselves.
Let me set the contrast before you:
|Healthy attitude to self||Unhealthy attitude to self|
|Respectful (permission to be human)||Disrespectful (harsh and critical)|
|Encouraging (have a go)||Negative (you can’t do that)|
|Affirming (you can do it)||Shaming|
|Forgiving myself and forgiven by God||Remembering failures|
|Grateful||Envious of others|
|Honest (I have a sinful heart and I have gifts)||Deluded|
|Loved (look what Jesus did for me)||Dismissing (worthless)|
|Assertive and proactive||Passive and self-pitying|
|(preaching to/coaching myself)||(feeding on negativity and fear)|
I think there is a difference in posture between our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationships with each other and indeed ourselves. The Scriptures tell us that God desires humble, grateful, dependent, obedient and loving humans, with soft hearts towards him (2 Chronicles 7:14; Micah 6:8; Mark 12:30; John 14:15). Towards each other, we can be less passive and more assertive – by asking for what we want (Matthew 7:7), saying no to what we don’t want, and expressing our voices and opinions.
By answering the myriad of little questions that we ask ourselves with good, sensible answers, we are able to coach ourselves into healthier territory.
Practical tip 3: Give yourself good answers to your questions
We need to be coaching ourselves away from the right-hand list and towards the left-hand list. We need to be quite firmly saying to ourselves: “What am I doing to myself with this attitude? This is the better way.”
By answering the myriad of little questions that we ask ourselves with good, sensible answers, we are able to coach ourselves into healthier territory and can shut down a lot of unhelpful turmoil.
Let’s start with an easy example: “What will I wear today?” Instead of brooding over indecision or feeding negativity about my wardrobe or my sense of style, I can find an answer: “It is a work day and it is winter, so either of these would be fine.”
And going a bit deeper: “What happens if I make a mistake?” This is classic confidence-shrinking self-talk, that can quickly have us finding excuses to avoid the scary thing, imagining all the humiliating possibilities that lie before us. A good, simple answer will build our confidence: “I have prepared well, and mistakes are how you learn. Let’s do it!”
Here’s a few more example questions you can use to practise coaching yourself: “What if no one speaks to me at the party?” I have been preparing some good conversation starters (or I can), and I have been practicing them on the cat, so I will pray and look for someone who I can open a conversation with.
“Do I pray enough?” I know this is a tricky question and that I could always pray more. I know that God is delighted whenever I tune into him. I think I have a half-reasonable routine happening that I know I need to be disciplined about.
“Am I really a Christian?” What does the Bible tell me? Romans 10:9 tells me that if I declare with my mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead, then I will be saved. If I am struggling to believe that, maybe I could talk to my pastor.
“Will my partner be faithful to me?” This is another complex question, that benefits from proactive investment now in the health of my relationship, i.e. what can we be doing to strengthen and enrich our relationship now?
Do you get the idea? There is no point tormenting yourself with inadequacy, inferiority, self-doubt and fear; that really is the Devil’s playground. The big focus has to be “what can I do to help myself now?”, and that is what effective self-coaching can achieve.