Coaching: ‘Self-talk’ can help us improve relationships

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads; and as we pass through them they prove to be many colored lenses, which paint the world their own hue, and each shows us only what lies in its own focus.”

Those “many colored lenses” we call attitudes. Attitudes are established ways of responding to people and situations that we have learned. They are based on our beliefs, values and assumptions and they drive our behavior.

These colored lenses are not inherently good or bad — as long as the lights are on, as long as we’re fully aware of how they affect our verbal and even more, our nonverbal behavior. Remember, body language is a result of mental attitude and a language that everyone understands and trusts more than words. 

If we take some time to heighten awareness of our own attitudes, even asking people around us for feedback, we can spread those lenses out in front of us and decide which ones we want to keep. Some have been a part of us so long that we aren’t even conscious of them — that’s where feedback from people we trust can help.

Tuning into self-talk helps as well. The repetitive phrases we say in our brains – great clues to the attitudes we carry around. “Just my luck!” Something as innocuous as that will point to an attitude — in this case a gloomy one. (Dark lens) And…remember the attitudes you have will drive your behavior. Some attitudes we might have absorbed from childhood and like all habitual behaviors, they can be stubbornly lodged and resistant to change.

Why bother to ferret out our attitudes? Well, once we realize we can choose our attitudes, most of the time we can improve our relationships and our health if we keep the ones that drive us to react in a positive rather than a negative way. We can tease out the attitudes that constrict our life and decide to bury those under a tree in the backyard.

Teenagers get a lot of flack about attitude. Parents and teachers develop their own eye-rolling attitudes about teens, and there are lots of encounters where one attitude (something like “teenagers drive me crazy”) is crashing into another attitude (“parents are sooooo clueless”).

Attitudes are powerful influences in how we behave at work. Some people running companies carry around really toxic attitudes about employees. “No one around here knows anything. Why do I keep hiring idiots!” Or, on the other side, “You can’t trust management. They’re only out for themselves.” Stuff like that.

Perhaps these are extreme and rare examples. I hope that’s true, but fear it isn’t. Some managers apparently have the attitude that their job is to intimidate all of their reports. And way too many people have the attitude that they’re not good enough. That attitude lurks in a shadow and emerges under stress. It keeps legions of people from realizing their potential. They are trapped in small, distorted versions of the lives they might have. 

When attitude determines our behavior, which is much of the time, we’re reacting to a situation or a person instead of thoughtfully responding. If our attitude “palette” tends toward those doom and gloom colors, our moods will follow. A circular thing gets going then, that self-fulfilling prophecy stuff. We look through the “awful” lens and see a lot of “awful” which reinforces our toxic attitude.

Yuck! I can get into a depressed mood just thinking about this stuff. So onto the good news and the reason it is so worth the effort to hold your attitudes up to the light and check them out. Is there a preponderance of “dark” lenses in your collection? How would you reframe those into more upbeat – and realistic – attitudes? What is the nature of the self-talk you carry around in that amazing brain of yours? Gloomy, positive, encouraging, limiting? Does your self-talk fill you with confidence and loving-kindness or does it erode your self-esteem?

My “default” attitude is open, optimistic and resourceful. I did notice, however, during this harsh Midwestern winter that I was choosing to look through some icky-colored lens as far as the weather goes. (And in Wisconsin conversations, weather goes pretty far.) So I made a conscious decision to give up complaining – at least during Lent.

I’ve been surprised how many times I’ve had to check myself and change the words that dance in my head or come out of my mouth.

And here’s an interesting secondary benefit. I’ve noticed that when I’m grumbling about the ice and snow I tend to crumple into myself, take in shallow breaths and walk in these mincing little steps.

Egads! Just reframing my attitude alone has caused me to walk taller, lift my gaze, and catch a snowflake on my tongue occasionally…and smile!  I saw a cute dog galloping through the snow the other day and thought, “Oh yeah, I remember how that feels.” 

Attitude isn’t everything, but it sure packs a wallop when it comes to quality of life. It’s quite a good thing that we can choose those lenses.

 

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