When you narrate your life, how do you write yourself? Personally, I have a long history of narrating myself as a loser, failure, or unfortunate person. If this is your struggle I found a helpful tool for you.
The reason that your self-narration is so important is that it affects your emotions, decisions, and ultimately your character. If your inner monolog is the voice of an inner jerk then you sacrifice your virtue as well as your personal power on the altar of self-pity or dramatizing about how awful you are to an imaginary audience of very important people whose number is literally zero.
On my blog for miscellaneous thoughts, I wrote about how to use the common topics of Aristotle to argue with your self-doubts. I found a more comprehensive way to approach this in Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism. He outlines five steps for arguing with your self-doubts and while simple is usually better, simple is not always complete. His five aspects of self-talk are excellent. Here are my explanations of them below:
- Adversity – Whatever comes your way that leads you to either positive or negative explanations of yourself.
- Beliefs/Behaviour – The belief(s) that you base your self-talk on and the behaviours they lead to.
You also reinforce those beliefs with your self-talk. You also reinforce those beliefs with destructive and unhelpful behaviours.
- Consequences – The consequences of your belief/self-talk/behaviours.
For instance, saying, “I’m a loser,” won’t help fix your life. Saying, “I’m acting like a loser, but if I do [x] differently I can improve,” is more likely to give you a positive attitude. Also it’s important to ask, “What are the results of my behaviour when this adversity comes? Do they lead me to a place of strength, confidence, happiness, and virtue?”
- Dispute – This is where you argue with what you said or what you believe about yourself. Seligman recommends four possibilities for disputing:
- Evidence – This is important. Most hyper pessimistic thoughts are simply false and if you can distance yourself from them you can refute them by finding evidence to the contrary. You can also find evidence that things will get better. The forms of evidence can be found in the section called, “The Expanded Common Topics of Aristotle” below.
- Alternatives – Look for alternative explanations. Instead of “I’m a loser” say, “I messed up, I’ll fix it tomorrow.” Instead of “I always fail,” “This is hard, I’ll have to study longer.”
- Implications – If your negative belief is true, look for its implications. See what it means and how it connects to other truths. In a real way, this is just using the common topic of “cause and effect” or “antecedent and consequence.”
- Usefulness – Ask yourself, “Is this belief useful for attaining my goals?” If the answer is that the belief is hurting you, then reject it. I’m not a big fan of this approach, but it’s better than being stuck. Also, just because a belief is true does not mean you need to keep repeating it. “I messed up” said a million times in a row does not solve the problems created by the mistake.
- Alternatives – There are alternatives to disputing false beliefs and bad behaviours. You can distance yourself from them. This means realizing that beliefs are just beliefs. They may be the result of poor thinking, habit, or accidentally believing a lie. You can act based on what you wish to be true or hope to be true about yourself. Similarly, you can distract yourself. Do something that has nothing to do with the belief. Paint, exercise, cook, go to a coffee shop, anything but wallow. I highly recommend singing a song that is happier than you currently feel.
- Energize – Focus on the positive steps that you can and did take after disputing with your false/negative belief. This obviously corresponds with distracting yourself, but this step also includes energizing true beliefs by acting on behalf of them even when your feelings don’t measure up.
To practice write these out. And think of specific times where your ABC had a negative belief and a bad consequence.
Then write out how you could have defeated that bad belief and acted (energized) in a more positive direction.
Do this five times. I recommend doing it several times. This is a thought-kata. And katas must be practiced over and over again. But with practice you’ll find yourself having a much more positive approach to your self-defeating ideas.
I highly recommend using the common topics mentioned below for the evidence against your negative self-beliefs.
The Expanded Common Topics of Aristotle:
The common topics are tools for building arguments. The idea is that there are certain types of evidence to be used in any speech. It is important to categorize them so that you can research the various avenues of evidence and form an argument using the topics most convincing to your audience. Obviously, these can also be used to critique the arguments of others.
I recommend using the common topics not only as tools for rhetoric and argument, which I’ll write about in the future. For this post recommend using them to argue against a crappy mindset because they are forms of evidence and argument which will help you know yourself better and convince yourself to move on.
- Cause and effect
- Antecedent and Consequent
- Possible and Impossible
- Past Fact and Future Fact
When some adversity comes your way and bad/negative beliefs come up and you want to argue against them here are examples using the different common topics:
- Definition – Using definitions to frame an argument.
Negative Definition of Adversity: “Why do bad things always happen to me?”
Positive Definition of Adversity: “How will I overcome this time?”
- Testimonial – Using a personal example from yourself or somebody else.
Negative Belief – I have a bone disorder, I’m just a loser.
Testimonial – Remember a story of somebody with a medical problem who succeeded.
- Authority – Appealing to an expert or an accepted body of knowledge.
Negative Belief – I totally failed everybody, I’m the worst. I’ll never change.
Appeal to Authority – The Bible says that people can change.
- Similarity – The comparison of similar things to yield new knowledge (argument by analogy)
Negative Belief – I’m just a regular person, I can’t figure this stuff out.
Similarity – This or that regular person is happy and takes ownership of like, I can too.
Don’t let your inner jerk argue you into depression or helplessness. Use the best tools available, ancient and modern to destroy that jerk.
- Write the thought kata and practice it five times and see what you think.
- Use the common topics to perfect the art of refuting your inner-jerk.
 Martin E. P Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 210-223
 Edward P.J Corbett and Robert J Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 84-140