You’ve heard many times how much damage you do to your self-esteem when you bash yourself with criticism: I’m such an idiot…klutz…wimp. But did you know that when you mentally bash other people, even in the privacy of your own mind, you’re actually hurting yourself physically as well as psychologically?
It’s true. So consider whether you recognize yourself in scenarios such as these…
A man driving a sports car cuts you off, and your inner voice screams, Hey, #)@%! Do you think you own the road?
A cashier gives you the wrong change, and you think to yourself, What a dope. She should lose her job.
When a coworker points out a mistake you made, you inwardly snarl, Does she really need to make a big deal of this? She’s the one who blew the presentation last month. I’ll get her!
If those kinds of silent diatribes seem familiar, you are filling your mind with toxic thoughts—which is, as the saying goes, kind of like drinking poison yourself and hoping that it kills the other person. Don’t drink the poison. Here’s why it hurts you…and how to stop doing it.
OUCH, IT HURTS
When you wallow in negativity toward someone else, the person you are silently deriding goes merrily along his/her way with no clue as to what you are thinking. But inside your own body, those seething thoughts are triggering a cascade of physiological responses that, over time, take a toll on your physical health, according to Friedemann Schaub, MD, PhD, author of The Fear & Anxiety Solution.
“The nervous system reacts to negative emotions by releasing stress hormones, which affect the body in many different ways,” said Dr. Schaub, a physician specializing in cardiology and a molecular biologist. The immediate effects include increased blood pressure, faster heartbeat and tightened muscles. Over the long term, your cholesterol rises and your immune system weakens. These changes make you more vulnerable to a host of ills, including heart disease, cancer and autoimmune disorders.
You suffer psychologically, too. “What most people don’t realize is that the subconscious mind takes everything personally. So when you’re cursing a clueless driver or incompetent coworker, your subconscious registers only feelings of anger and disdain. It is unable to determine whether you’re upset with somebody else or yourself,” Dr. Schaub said.
MENTAL JUNK FOOD
Sometimes an angry inner dialogue is an important signal that you need to take action to change the situation—for instance, by having a conversation with your teen about respect or by telling your spouse that something he/she did was hurtful. But if you often find yourself ruminating furiously about minor slights, it’s a sign that your inner dialogue habits need a makeover.
Recognizing the problem is the first step toward change. The second step: Get yourself a small notebook, Dr. Schaub suggested. Carry it with you, and write down the circumstances whenever you catch yourself indulging in inner bashing of others. After you’ve done this for a week or two, read over your entries and look for patterns, keeping an eye out for these four particularly damaging mental habits…
- Passing judgment. You’re irritated because someone has done something that you believe is wrong, such as bringing too many items into the express line at the supermarket.
- Making comparisons. You put others down as a way to pull up your self-esteem. For instance, you think uncharitable thoughts about how fat your cousin has gotten and congratulate yourself on staying slim.
- Deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune. The Germans have a specific word for this—schadenfreude. Something bad happens to someone else and you secretly take pleasure from it. He deserves it, you tell yourself with a grin when the coworker who got the promotion you wanted ends up being laid off.
- Gossiping. You enjoy talking about others, especially when they’re in trouble. Example: You learn that your neighbors are divorcing because one spouse discovered the other’s huge gambling debts…and you can’t wait to spread the news.
“Indulging in such unwholesome thinking is like allowing yourself to eat a giant bag of potato chips for lunch just because you’re hungry—even though you know that you could find healthier and more satisfying food to fill your stomach,” Dr. Schaub said. “You can imagine the detrimental impact such a mental diet can have.”
REFORMING YOUR INNER DIALOGUE
You can do much better for yourself. You can choose to fill your mind with more productive and positive thoughts. To start, take your notebook again. When you catch yourself judging, comparing, taking pleasure in another’s pain or gossiping, consider how you are feeling about yourself at the same moment, Dr. Schaub suggested. You are likely to discover that you’re feeling one of three ways…
- Insecure about your own abilities.
- Powerless to control the situation.
- Isolated, as though you don’t really fit in and/or people don’t like you.
Again, look for patterns. Where do those feelings come from? Perhaps during your childhood, your parents made you feel insecure by comparing you unfavorably with a sibling. Perhaps your sense of powerlessness or isolation comes from having been bullied or ostracized as a teen. Perhaps you are just jealous of people with really nice cars.
Developing greater self-awareness about your own state of mind provides an opportunity to address those underlying issues. “Your goal is to shift away from internally commenting on what others are doing and instead focus on understanding yourself,” said Dr. Schaub. “Such self-awareness doesn’t have to be intense or painful. It’s actually a way to expand your point of view and make life more enjoyable and fulfilling.”
To accomplish that, try practicing these three steps whenever your inner bombs start exploding on someone else’s unsuspecting head…
- Acceptance. If you know the other individual personally, consider him in the fuller context of his whole life. For instance, maybe that overweight cousin you disparage spends every day caring for his elderly mother, so he has no time for the gym. If your ire is directed toward a stranger, Dr. Schaub’s suggestion is to spin your own story. That guy in the sports car who cut you off? Maybe he’s rushing to the hospital because his child was injured. You can make the story simple, complicated or even funny—and it doesn’t matter whether any of it is true. Its only purpose is to remind you that other people’s lives are complicated in ways you can’t always understand.
- Appreciation. Next, think positive thoughts about your situation. For example, if you are irritated because your neighbor doesn’t clean up after her dog (and you are scrupulous about doing so when you walk your own dog), remind yourself to feel grateful that you live in a nice neighborhood where people want to walk their pets…and give yourself a little commendation for doing the right thing yourself.
- Action. This is empowering. That coworker who pointed out your mistake? Instead of plotting how to reveal her own errors to the entire department, privately thank her for alerting you to a potential problem with your project…then fix the mistake. Dr. Schaub said, “This final step brings inner resolution because it directs your thoughts away from the person you are bashing—whose actions, after all, you cannot control—and back toward solutions that you can implement yourself.”