Virginia Bola

Article Summary:

How to jettison the negative self-talk that has plagued you for years and cultivate self-appreciation.

Positive Self-Image: Dump Those Old Tapes

Every time something doesn't go quite right (rather frequently for some of us), we start berating ourselves. We can be the soul of courtesy and forgiveness to those we care about and then turn and savage ourselves in the most brutal fashion. How many times have you told yourself: "I'm an absolute idiot!" What was I thinking?" And that is just the start.

From those immediate negative self-assessments, we dive deeper, reinforced by old admonitions playing in our brain. We may be adults, our parents and teachers perhaps long deceased, but their deprecating, wounding, critical, even, at times, cruel or abusive, remarks play over and over as if we were still children, being scolded for "our own good."

With the help of those judgmental tapes playing repetitively in the back of our minds, we easily move from annoyance at a simple mistake anyone could have made to a global view of our own ineptitude: "I always blow it . . . I can't do anything right .. . Why am I such a failure?" Why is it so much harder to forgive ourselves than to forgive those we love? Is it because we don't love ourselves as much? Is it because we expect more of ourselves? Or is it that we know ourselves too well, painfully aware of our dark secret places and our internal shortcomings? We are hard on ourselves because we have a deep, subconscious, lifelong belief that we don't quite measure up.

The maggot gnawing away at our core is made up of a long string of events starting when we first became aware of the world and began to hear the word "No!" It continued through a childhood of making mistake after mistake, as we all do when learning new skills, and through adulthood as we are judged by our bosses, our spouses, and our customers. We may face, intermittently, the the heavy emotional jolt of being laid off, the ultimate rejection of our self-worth.

Psychologists have studied authority-child interactions in both the home and in school. Remarkably, feedback to the child, in both environments, is more than 70% negative with the remainder either neutral or positive. Is it any wonder that we grow up to view ourselves as not quite good enough, mess-ups, or even total failures? We have internalized all of that destructive feedback and face the world with a pride and self-composure that we know is only a defensive façade, constantly in peril of crumbling away.

How can we jettison this baggage of years?

One strategy is to become aware of your own internal chatter. When something happens and you screw up, it is an independent event: you made a mistake as humans do. Try to separate that one event from anything that has happened in the past. One error can be quickly dealt with and resolved. Watch as your mind starts to link that event with every other mistake you have ever made, attempting to form a lifelong pattern of questionable judgments and poor decisions. Analyze what you are telling yourself and watch for the give-away absolutes: "I always . . . I never . . ." Absolutes are irrational and illogical; they reflect our thinking, not reality. Being aware of them bubbling in your mind gives you the opportunity to negate them: if you have ever, just once, been successful at something, no matter how small, then you cannot be, by definition, a "total" failure. Just one contrary event completely wipes out an "always" or a "never."

Increase your consciousness of your mental processes by writing down your actions and your thoughts. Cognitive therapy uses similar (more structured) techniques to explore your mental processing so that you can understand what your own mind is doing in shaping your vision of the world and yourself. The realization that it is your mind, right now, which is defining your mood and your emotional distress, creates a wonderful opportunity. If your psychological discomfort arises out of your thinking, not out of some long-standing immutable neurosis nor warped brain cells, then you know you have the power to change!

This new perspective on the world is freeing and empowering. The old recurrent critical tapes can be pushed into the dead file where they belong. Your present, your future, your sense of self is yours to control because your thoughts can be consciously directed. It took years to get you to where you are now. Vow to spend the rest of your life nurturing those sprouting positive thoughts until they blossom and fill your entire brain. The old tapes will have no place left to lurk.

Virginia Bola, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist who operated a vocational rehabilitation firm for more than 20 years. She studies the emotional effects of unemployment, aging, overweight, and social issues on the individual.  Her first book, The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual addressed the emotional aspects of unemployment, provided psychological support for the rigors of the job search, and incorporated proven techniques for obtaining successful work. Her new (2005) book, Diet With An Attitude: A Weight Loss Workbook, approaches weight control through psychological strategies to permanently modify the body-food relationship. Visit her sites at and

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