How to end destructive self talk

If our mind is a garden, the words we speak to ourselves can be rich life giving fertiliser or a toxic weed killer.

Something I’ve noticed in myself, and many ambitious people is that when things don’t go our way, the weed killer comes out. Vicious self talk and angry thoughts are applied in liberal doses. It seems to be a coping mechanism, and I believe we act this way because we don’t know of any other way.

I’m happy to share that there is another way.

For my survival l I needed another way. You see, earlier this year the garden of my mind had a little too much weed killer. I was looking back at a decade of business failures. Failure that meant my wife had to support the family over the years by working in environments that damaged her mental and physical health. The narrative of “I’m a failure” was crushing me.

I told myself that I had tried, and tried again and still was on level 0 while friends around me were killing it in their businesses and careers, buying properties and and enjoying the fruit of their labours. At the time I asked myself “What’s WRONG with me? How am I so stupid that I’m the only one that hasn’t figured out how to make things work?”

After thinking this way for a few months I reached the answer. Everything was wrong with me. I was a fuck up and I had to exit this world. Plain and simple.

One night I matter of factly told my wife my plans.

She burst into tears.

That was like a penetrating light in the darkness of my mind. I realised I had to change. The way I was showing up was not working. The way I was navigating the challenges of life were leading to more pain and frustration.

I instinctively knew that I needed different mental tools to help me. In my search I saw a psychologist. They put me onto several resources that really helped. I’ll share more about that another day. Today I want to share the game-changer. The tool that shifted things. My monolith.

Imagine life before the wheel. And life before the internet. Some tools are just so powerful that once they’re used life is never the same.

After using the tool for several months and immersing myself in the study of it I’m happy to say I don’t struggle with destructive self talk anymore. I have more love and compassion for myself and those around me. I (mostly) show up with the spirit of contribution and collaboration.

These things may sound trite, but they’ve been huge. Moving from a place of fear and anger to love and compassion has been like moving from the cold darkness of a cave to basking in the warmth of the sun.

The tool I discovered comes from Non Violent Communication (abbreviated to NVC). I’ve found it to be a game changer for my mental health. When someone is drowning they need something to grab onto. NVC was my lifesaver.

The tenets of NVC are empathy and honesty. Empathy for yourself and empathy for others. And speaking your truth in a way that’s respectful and considerate.

It has many uses and applications. I’ve used it to set boundaries at work. I’ve used it to express myself at home. I’ve used it when listening to hard to hear messages.

Today we’re going to look at how to use it and apply it when you’re triggered and enter the vortex of self deprecation that’s so damaging to your mental health.

Rather than being sucked down and crushed, we’re going to turn the trigger into a gift and use it as a power up that boosts us and brings us closer to what we really want.

Are you ready?

The life transforming tool

The tool is called ‘OFNR’ which is an abbreviation for ‘Observe, Feeling, Needs, Requests’ which are the steps you take when triggered and when destructive self talk kicks in.

See them as rungs on a ladder that you can use when you’ve fallen into a pit. Each rung you climb gets you closer to getting out of the pit.

We observe so we can effectively work with reality rather than against it. If we judge instead of observing, we trigger ourselves even more and make a bad situation worse.

We connect with our feelings because our feelings are like signs on a walking trail, pointing to what we deeply need and want.

We connect with our needs because our needs are like fuel tanks on a plane. When they’re full we can soar. When they’re empty we’re grounded and stuck.

We make requests so that we can get our needs met, our fuel tanks filled. If we don’t make requests our fuel tanks will stay empty and we’ll stay exactly where we are.

OFNR in action

Triggering incident.
You see a childhood friend doing exceptionally well in money and business. You’re not.

Then you start making judgements of yourself like “I suck, I’m going nowhere, everyone else has it together except me, nothing good ever happens for me.” Then you make judgements of them like “They’re a bit of an asshole, they’re a little weird, they have no chill, they think they’re better than me.”

This is the trigger, and judging ourselves and the other keeps us in the trigger. We’re not going to stay in this place. Instead, we’re going to observe.

Observe: See reality for what it is

An observation is factually true without any filters of interpretation. You know you have an observation when one thousand people would all agree on the same thing. “It is raining” is an observation. “Foul weather today” is a judgement.

So here are some observations we might make:

  • My friend has a financially profitable business.
  • My friend has paid off their primary residence.
  • My friend has five income streams.

To be a good observer of reality and give a fair and balanced view on things, you can also observe:

  • Your skills and strengths
  • All the intangible assets you do have
  • All the good things that you have in your life

Observing in and of itself can be very helpful in shifting our perspective and seeing things in a different light. But we’re not going to stop there. Now it’s time to connect with our feelings.

Feelings: Check in with yourself

Just being able to label our feelings and what’s going on inside can give us a sense of calm and help us become more grounded. As a society ‘feeling’ is generally looked down on, but the power of our feelings is that they point to what we need. They connect us with what’s truly important to us. When we feel alive, awake and joyful it’s a sign that our needs are being met. When we’re closed off, shut down, and generally feeling on the lower end of the emotional scale it’s a sign that our needs aren’t being met.

Let’s continue the example. Your bud’s doing financially great. You’re not. In reaction to this, you may be feeling:

  • Frightened – I’m afraid I’ll never have positive life outcomes or be able to create the life I want to achieve.
  • Frustrated – I’m so sick and fed up of trying and trying, and not achieving.
  • Envious – I wish I had what they had.
  • Lost – I honestly don’t know how to create positive financial outcomes for myself.
  • Tired – I’m really exhausted of trying and not getting anywhere.
  • Hurt – I’m really hurt that life hasn’t worked out how I’ve wanted it to.
  • Hope – I think I can do it. I’ve failed a lot in the past, but I think I can succeed regardless.

These are painful feelings to have. This pain is an an indication that our needs aren’t being met. Similar to how physical pain in the body signals that something is wrong and needs to be addressed, emotional pain is a signal that core needs aren’t being met.

Needs: ID what you’re lacking

Abraham Maslow popularised the concept of needs. Here’s a list of the five main needs he shared.

While this is a good start, there are plenty more. The list below adds more nuance and precision to the different needs we all share.

Connection

Affection, Appreciation, Acceptance, Belonging, Cooperation, Communication, Compassion, Consideration, Consistency, Inclusion, Intimacy, Love, Nurturing, Respect/ Self-respect, Partnership, Warmth, Support, To be heard, To know and be known, Trust, Safety, Security, Stability, To see/ Be seen.

Meaning

Awareness, Celebration of life, Challenge, Clarity, Completion, Contribution, Consciousness, Competence, Creativity, Discovery,  Efficacy, Effectiveness, Growth, Hope, Learning, Mourning, Participation, Purpose, Self-expression, Stimulation, To matter, Understanding.

Well Being

Air, Food, Flow, Health, Movement/ exercise, Rest/Sleep, Safety, Shelter, Sexual Expression, Touch, Water.

Honesty

Authenticity, Integrity, Presence

Play

Fun, Joy, Humour, Spontaneity.

Peace

Beauty, Communion, Ease, Equality, Harmony, Inspiration, Order.

Autonomy

Agency, Choice, Freedom, Independence, Space, Spontaneity.

NVC poses the idea that everything we do is a strategy to get our needs met.

For example:

  • Reading a novel on the couch – Strategy to achieve the needs of rest, fun and space.
  • Having a drink with coworkers at the end of the week – Strategy to achieve partnership, warmth, support, inclusion, belonging, participation, celebration of life, joy, fun and spontaneity.
  • Attending night school – Strategy to achieve respect/self-respect, competence, learning, challenge, growth, effectiveness, agency and choice.
  • Buying a gift for a loved one – Strategy to achieve warmth, love, belonging and appreciation.

When we look at life through the lenses of what needs we’re trying to meet, our behaviour and feelings start to make more sense.

When you’re feeling amazing it’s because your needs are being met, and if you find yourself doing things repeatedly its because they’re meeting needs that you have, even if you’re not conscious of it.

Conversely, when feeling you’re down it’s a sign that important needs aren’t being met.

Let’s go back to our example where you’re triggered by your friend’s success. You’re feeling pretty terrible on the inside as you’re not financially successful. Which needs of your’s aren’t being met?

This is very personal and unique to each individual, below are a few needs that might not be met.

  • Security and safety – to be physically ok and be able to be physically safe.
  • Recognition – to be recognised for your skills and strengths.
  • To contribute – to make a meaningful impact and help others.
  • Authenticity – to have a career that’s in alignment with my values.
  • Agency – to be able to control your life and achieve what you set out to achieve.

If the list above doesn’t resonate, go through the list of needs and identify the needs that you’d say aren’t being met.

It’s important and valuable to connect with our needs because it helps us release and relieve any judgements we might have of ourselves. You’re not sad or triggered because there’s something ‘wrong’ with you, you’re feeling sad and triggered because there’s something right with you and your emotions are a guide telling you to change things.

The great thing about identifying what needs aren’t being met is that you can now make a strategy to achieve those needs.

Requests: Ask for what you want

Requests are where we translate the internal process and internal journey we’ve been on into action in the real world.

You’ve observed. You’ve connected with your feelings. You’ve identified the needs that aren’t being met. Now what?

You make requests. You can make requests to others, to yourself or both. Because this article is mainly about transforming your self talk I’m going to focus this section on making requests to yourself.

Basically you’re asking yourself to do stuff. With an insight into the needs you’d like met you’re equipped to make requests that can meet your needs.

Let’s return to our example of where you’ve been triggered by your friend’s financial success.

You’ve identified that your needs that aren’t being met are:

  • Security and safety
  • Recognition
  • To contribute
  • Authenticity
  • Agency

Now we can make a strategy to achieve each of those needs and ask ourselves to do them. For example:

  • To achieve recognition, you might ask yourself “Am I willing to get certifications to prove my skills”
  • To contribute, you might asks yourself “Are there ways that I can volunteer my time?”
  • To achieve authenticity you might ask yourself “Am I willing to get some mentorship from others that’ve succeeded in achieving this?”
  • To achieve agency you might ask yourself “Am I willing to make a plan and run with it, and adjust it along the way?”

Now you have the beginnings of a plan.

Leaving destructive self talk behind

In the running example our initial judgements got us into a hole, hating on ourselves and our friend. Observing helped us see reality for what it is – the good and the bad. Connecting with our feelings lets us know what was going on the inside. When connecting with our needs, we discovered what’s really important to us and what we deeply want. When making requests, we began to envision and create a new reality. No longer a victim, we realised we have agency and can start moving life in the direction we want it go.

This is the power of using OFNR. It gives you a practical structure you can use to climb out of emotional holes you may find yourself in. When you fall into a pit you don’t need to stay there.

Practical tips to make OFNR work

There are four things I’ve noticed that are needed to make OFNR work:

1. Make observations rather than judgements
2. Be able to label your feelings and needs
3. Make specific requests
4. Practice!

Tip 1: Make observations rather than judgements

Observations are what you can see, hear and touch. They’re facts. Judgements are your evaluation on what you’ve observed. For example, your co-worker comes to work late. An observation is “I saw Doug come late to work for the past three days”. A judgement is “Doug doesn’t have his shit together”.

For this model to work, it’s really important to state observations. Staying in judgement leads to further triggering.  Observing without judgement isn’t a default, and requires a lot of practice. But imagine this – how much nicer would life be if you stopped judging and hating on yourself? How much more flow and happiness do you think you’d have? How much more ease and creativity do you think you’d have if you dropped the judgements and just observed?

Tip 2: Be able to label your feelings and needs

Being able to label your feelings and needs is 50% of the model, it’s a big piece and guess what? There are a lot of feelings and needs. The more precisely you can label your feelings and needs, the more you’ll get out of using OFNR.

To make life easy for you, I’ve made three print outs/downloads that you can easily refer to.

I’ve personally printed these out and stuck them to my monitor in my home office so that I can easily refer to them throughout the day.

Tip 3: Make specific requests

When making a request to yourself or to others, it really helps if you’re specific about what you want to happen. The more specific you are, the more likely you are to get what you want. Making vague and fuzzy requests leads to confusion and frustration.

Examples of vague requests

  • “Get your shit together”
  • “Get help”
  • “Be more productive”

These are all vague requests because it’s not clear what specific action is being requested. If you tell yourself “get your shit together”, what does that actually mean? Being vague with your requests is a good recipe for frustration and not getting what you want.

The comic below is an exaggerated example of this. The dog got help, but not the help the owner had in mind.

It pays to be specific, and take the extra time to think through what you actually want.

Let’s turn the vague requests into specific requests.

  • “Get your shit together” —> decide on a career path within the next three months.
  • “Get help” —> have an appointment with a career coach.
  • “Be more productive” –> set aside 1hr in your calendar, Monday to Friday to sit down and study material that will help you up-skill in your career.

Can you see the difference between vague requests and specific requests?

You could be making vague requests to yourself for years and have nothing to show for it, except anger, frustration and reduced confidence in yourself.

On the flip side specific requests are really tangible and can actually be implemented and get you the traction you’d like to have.

Tip 4: Practice

Like anything that’s new, practice until you get good. Then if you want to get better practice even more.

A simple way of practicing is when you’re doing mundane things like housework. Cast your mind back to an earlier time in the day or an earlier time in the week when you were bothered. Observe – what was actually happening? What were your feelings? In the moment, what were your needs? What requests could you have made?

Practicing while waiting or doing mundane things is a great way of building up reps of using the framework. When an actual triggering incident occurs you’re well equipped to use the framework in real time.

If you want to practice with other people you can also join a practice group. Google ‘Non Violent Communication Practice Group’, you’ll get lots of search results. I’m currently in a practice group and am finding it to be a great way to practice and get better at using the OFNR framework.

Conclusion

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl

OFNR is a practical tool you can use to create that space, today, tomorrow, or anytime you need it.

May your life be filled with growth and freedom.

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