What Creates Negative Self-Talk

In some sense ego analysis is a cognitive approach. We even refer to it as a way of thinking. That can seem to be denying that our problems are deep-seated, as if all we need is to do is to think differently. But the way we think is more “deepseated” than is generally recognized. It can also seem to be denying that our problems and our thinking itself are determined by our psychodynamics. The egoanalytic answer is that there is a psychodynamics of how everyone thinks that shapes our individual psychodynamics. The cognitive therapists’ term, “negative self-talk” has given us an inspired way to identify this area of study.

Negative self-talk is self-blame. Obviously, what we blame ourselves about, or even that we are self-blaming can be traced to our early experiences. But all of us think in blaming ways automatically. In effect, it is built into our software.

My first example of how we think in blaming ways is based on another inspired locution, the distinction between “you” language and “I” language. These pronouns, used as signifiers, give us a way, for the first time, to identify the dimension of blame in our exchanges. “You” language is about whose fault it is. It means it’s your fault. “You make me feel this way.” The logic is, “If only you didn’t treat me the way you do, I wouldn’t feel the way I feel, or treat you the way I do.” It’s a logic we all feel—that our behavior is caused by our partner. It is obvious that if they treated us differently, we would be different.

“I” language is shorthand for not blaming, for reporting an experience you are having, leaving open whether it could arise from your own sensitivities or from your partner’s treatment, or both. It is a non-adversarial way to approach experience.

In several of our workshops I asked the participants—all 300+ of them were therapists—to estimate what percentage of the time people use “I” language; the most common answer was ten; it was rare for anyone to push it past twenty. It is not natural for us to approach experience in non-blaming ways. This includes self-blame; if the other person is not to blame, you are.

The value of this categorization has been much-maligned and underappreciated, partly because it has been much too easy to get stuck on the pronouns themselves. Applied literally, the distinction falls apart. “You” language is supposedly accusatory, but what about “You are terrific?” “I” language is supposed to be non-accusatory, but what about “I feel you are a jerk?”

All the ways “you” and “I” are literally used is not the point. It is just a great boon that we have this handy way to apply—and to remind us to apply—the blame template, as long as we are not too literal about the two pronouns. We then can see how often we solve problems by deciding who is to blame.

It was a big discovery to draw this distinction and it should have stimulated a lot of thinking about what it means and what it reveals about how we treat ourselves and one another. The experts should have been saying, “This is great news! We just figured something out. Look at this, we automatically blame one another without realizing it.” This should have made everybody think about why we automatically use punitive, blaming “you” language instead of automatically using more open ended, respectful, and friendly “I” language.

But no one has even raised the question why we don’t spontaneously use “I” language, much less answered it.

What happened was that as soon as this discovery about blaming language appeared therapists and communication trainers just told us to stop doing it, that it was bad. In other words, they blamed us for it. We are all going around beating each other up (say, about 90 percent of the time) and the experts are beating us up for doing that.

In fact, that is my second example of the prevalence of blame in our thinking: how we react to the recognition that we automatically use blaming language. We react to that with blame. Since we think in blaming ways, it shouldn’t be surprising that we react in blaming ways to seeing that. (People have seemed almost eager to dismiss this discovery by thinking of the ways we can use the two pronouns that don’t fit— as if it is just one more thing to have to worry about.)

So here we have this amazing fact that we don’t automatically use “I” language, and we can’t even formulate the question of why that is, because blaming logic sees the world in good-bad, should-shouldn’t terms, and that stifles curiosity. It blocks thinking.

It feels like it settles things. In a classic New Yorker cartoon a middle-aged couple is sitting in their armchairs. The husband is speaking: “And whose fault is it that the romance has gone out of our marriage?” The husband just thinks that is the next logical question. He also thinks he knows who is to blame—it certainly isn’t him; he is quite willing to be romantic—so that solves (disposes of) the problem.

The absurdity of this problem-solving style is not always so obvious. Consider the lamentable presidential election of 2000. Ralph Nader, attempting to refute the charge that his candidacy siphoned crucial votes away from Gore, thereby throwing the election to Bush, is quoted as saying that he didn’t cause Al Gore to lose the election, Al Gore caused Al Gore to lose the election. This answers the question “Whose fault is it that Al Gore lost the election?” That is just as funny as the New Yorker cartoon, maybe funnier, or at least blacker, and Nader and his followers are just as serious as the husband in the cartoon.

My third everyday example of our blaming reflex is cross-complaining. One person says, “You never listen to me.” The other person responds, “You never listen to me.” Logically, the conversation makes no sense, since if the mind operated logically, and one person said, “You never listen to me,” and the other person replied, “You never listen to me,” the first person would say, “OK, why don’t you bring that up some time and we can talk about it, but right now I’d like to stick to the subject I brought up.” Cross-complaining is so natural to us that no one notices that to cross complain is to change the subject. In other words, if the mind operated logically, it would be obvious that the second person changed the subject to their complaint.

But there is a logic to cross-complaining. The second person feels blamed and responds by blaming back—but that’s not the point. In blaming back, they believe they are being entirely logical. It is the logic of the courtroom: you have no right to make a complaint if you are guilty of the same thing—even, “How dare you make this complaint when you do the same thing to me!” Your complaint is erased.

You are supposed to shut up, but you don’t actually shut up because you can still argue that they are worse than you are. So in this example, the first person could say, first of all, “That’s not true. I do listen to you, and you never listen to me.” That rarely shuts the other person up, but the argument now becomes who is most entitled to this complaint—maybe who does it more or who did it first.

The first person makes this complaint. The second person, quick as a wink, thinks of how they can defend themselves, and what better way than to turn the tables and accuse the other of the very same thing? We don’t even take a second to think up that logic. Before we can even think, we find ourselves in the courtroom, making the cross complaint, and believing that it is a relevant and appropriate answer.

So the blaming level is built right into our software. One keystroke and out it comes. We are so accustomed to it that it doesn’t occur to us that cross-complaining doesn’t erase a complaint; it enhances it. If our minds ran on non-blaming software, when the second person said, “You never listen to me,” the first person would respond, “That’s good—I’m glad you have the same experience. Since you right away thought of how you have a similar complaint, that should make it easier for you to see how mine affects me.” In the instance of someone making the complaint of not feeling listened to, it would be seen as an opportunity to both talk about what it’s like to not feel listened to.

In other words, on the non-blaming level, cross-complaining means a complaint can be shared, rather than, say, coming across as a totally foreign experience to one’s partner, one that they have had no experience of. The fact that we rarely see it that way shows how removed from the non-blaming, non-abusive level we all are.

We automatically move into the adversarial, courtroom mode. Or, better put, we are already in it, or are always in it. It is how we respond to ourselves. In fact, there is one more point to make about cross-complaining, which is that it feels natural to people. Cross-complaining does not make people indignant or saddened in itself.

We don’t go around saying, “Why does everyone have to counter a complaint by saying the same complaint back?” People just rise to the bait. They come out swinging and the person who initiates the complaint gets right into the argument about entitlement just as heatedly.

So, responding adversarially, blamingly, abusively is automatic and is not noticed as such. It’s hard to see blame and abuse because it is the air we breathe and is woven into the way our minds work.

My fourth example is familiar although it doesn’t yet have a label. It could be called “countering.” The other person doesn’t counter with a complaint, but instead responds on the basis of the formula that “It’s your fault that I act the way you are suffering from.” A common example is that one person brings up feeling nagged. The other person says, “But I wouldn’t nag you if only you would do what I ask sooner.” Which, translated, means, “You are not entitled to suffer because it’s your fault in the first place.”

Now no one actually says that—but they don’t need to. We are all conversant with the logic of entitlement; we all speak blaming language. So that rejoinder can actually shut people up. Although other people will say, “Well, if you didn’t nag I would do things sooner.” The answer to that answer is “I’ve tried that. It doesn’t work. Then you don’t do (whatever) at all.”

The person who brought up feeling nagged never does get to talk about the experience of suffering from it. But the complainant actually doesn’t expect to get to talk about the experience of feeling nagged, since we expect to have our experience met with a counter complaint. We expect to have to justify an experience and so we don’t imagine the possibility of just talking about it, or being drawn out about it. And since we expect to be countered, we begin with our defense. Which is to say that we automatically begin with “you” language.

That is one reason we speak in “you” language—because everyone else does.

We automatically formulate in our minds what we have to say as a complaint, or we don’t say it if we can’t defend it, because in the courtroom it doesn’t matter how you feel; it’s whether you can keep up your end on the witness stand.

In other words, we think in “you” language. We have the same kinds of conversations in our heads that we have with each other. This is the essence of negative self-talk. We fault-find with ourselves. So we can’t think about how we suffer because whose fault is it that we’re suffering? It’s our own fault.

That is my fifth example, how according to the logic of blame, if you are suffering but it is your own fault, you forfeit the right to suffer. That’s what the slogan means, “You have no one to blame but yourself.” The slogan means that if you can blame someone else, or if no one is to blame, then you have a right to suffer. Then you are entitled to it. But if your suffering is your own fault, then you forfeit your right to suffer—even though your suffering is just as real.

At bottom, behind cross-complaining and counter-complaining is the issue of who has the right to suffer.

Like the ant and the grasshopper. The ant constantly works, all summer long, storing up food for the winter. Now the grasshopper, he just sings all summer long. He makes no provision for winter. So winter comes and the ant does fine, but the grasshopper starves to death. Do we feel sorry for him? Is that the point of the fable? That the poor grasshopper has this slow agonizing death from starvation? Of course not. It’s his own fault! We don’t waste sympathy [note: sympathy can be wasted] on him; he has forfeited his right to it. No one says. “Pity the poor grasshopper.” Because he asked for it.

That’s blame logic. Outside of blame logic we should be able to see that if you are responsible for your own suffering, you are even more in need of sympathy. If you have only yourself to blame that’s a much worse punishment than if you can blame someone else. And the reason for that is that we relate to ourselves according to the logic of blame.

The poor grasshopper not only has to starve to death in the snow, he has to blame himself for it. He has to beat himself up for not being practical and responsible like the ant. “Why, Oh why did I have to be such a jerk? What is the matter with me? What is such a big deal about singing that I couldn’t at least take a little time to put aside a little food?”

In other words, negative self-talk is the same as negative other-talk.

Not only does the grasshopper have to starve to death, he has the added misery of having to blame himself. It could even be that he was pretty depressed all summer so he had to keep singing to keep up his spirits. And every day he thought he would put aside some food, but he just never got around to it, and before he knew it, it was winter. It just got away from him.

But he wouldn’t be able to spare himself with that explanation. He’d be just as self-condemning, telling himself: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that after summer comes winter, for Chrissake!” How stupid can you be?” That’s negative self-talk. There are no extenuating circumstances. Just like negative other-talk.

So we don’t even have any way of knowing how much we are suffering from living in this world of blame, and forfeiting our right to suffer—no way of knowing how stressed out we are, living in the courtroom, and how much our thinking is limited by having to work up a case for ourselves.

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