All of us have one: An inner critic. Your thoughts. That nagging voice in your head that is very opinionated and seems sometimes to grow even more so the older we get. What thoughts run through your head? “I look terrible. I am so fat.” “I’m getting useless. I never do anything right.” “I wasn’t very happy in my younger years. Will I ever find happiness? I feel like a terrible drag on those who have to take care of me.” Think about it: How many times have you criticized yourself or thought negatively about your life in the last few days?
Where do these negative thought patterns come from? Mostly, they’re the collective, cruel voices of our past — parents, siblings, spouses, high school bullies – and now, as seniors, these ugly thoughts are deeply internalized. By now they come so naturally you might not even realize you’re tearing yourself down. First step is, you must become aware of what that voice is saying. It helps to write down your negative thoughts and begin thinking up re-vamped, positive responses. If you tally the self talk you might be surprised how much is negative. Two or three times a day, take a few minutes to write down what you’ve been thinking – all of it… your thoughts about what your spouse did or didn’t do that morning… what your adult son or daughter said to you… how you felt about your problems. Don’t edit — write down the exact words. After about two or three weeks you will begin to see the true nature of your “thought chatter” and better understand your personality by uncovering the patterns.
Once you’ve identified your thought patterns, it’s time to start talking back to yourself. As you notice yourself saying something negative in your mind, you can stop your thought immediately by stopping yourself and replacing that thought with something more positive.
Modifying Your Thoughts
Here are six basic types of negative thought patterns common among seniors. Following each unhelpful thought pattern is an example of a more positive – and realistic – response that you can use as self-defense against that voice.
In this whole line of thinking, everything is black and white. If your performance isn’t perfect according to your standards, then you see yourself as a failure. You take one negative situation or characteristic and multiply it. You see a single, unpleasant event as a continual pattern of defeat. All-or-nothing thinking often includes use of words like: “always,” “every” or “never.” Sure, you make mistakes as you bumble along in your old age, but don’t overgeneralize. Life is still good.
Negative thought: You are preparing to go to a doctor’s appointment. You’re running late because you had an accident due to your incontinence and you had to change clothes. Your inner voice scolds, “You can’t even control bodily functions anymore. Something always goes wrong. You should be ashamed.”
Positive response: “I’m not always late. There are plenty of times when I am on time. There are humiliating aspects of old age that I just have to accept.”
Discounting the positive
Instead of looking at your positive accomplishments, you magnify your perceived weaknesses. You overlook the good things about you and your circumstances and focus on the bad.
Negative thought: “I can’t do housework anymore. I can’t even handle a game of bowling like I used to.”
Positive response: “At least I can read to my granddaughter. I can still enjoy great books and great music.”
In this line of thinking, you predict negative outcomes in the future. You always think the other shoe is going to drop. You refuse to do much with the family because you’re afraid you’ll run out of energy halfway through and you’ll put a damper on an outing for everyone else.
Negative thought: “I’m not even going to try to go to that amusement park because I may get too tired. I might collapse just walking from one ride to the next.”
Positive response: “I made it through half a day at Disney two years ago. Surely I can enjoy the fun with the grandkids for a few hours. Then I’ll go back to the hotel room.”
Everyone has their own list of rules and expectations about how we – as well as others — should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we even feel guilt when we violate these rules. Telling yourself that you “should” or “shouldn’t” do something may seem like a helpful motivator, but it often has the opposite effect: It’s a de-motivator. What you think you “should” do is in conflict with what you want to do. You end up feeling guilty, depressed or frustrated. When you constantly berate yourself about “shoulds” the result is frustration, guilt and a dislike of yourself.
Negative thought: “I should exercise for an hour. If I don’t work out, I’m going to keep getting fatter and my heart condition will do me in.”
Positive response: “I’m working on losing weight to improve my health but I can accept my body at my current weight. I’m going to write out a list of activities that I enjoy that can help me get in shape.”
You identify yourself or other people with one characteristic or action. You call yourself names. “You are a stupid person.” “Nobody likes to be around you anymore.” Most of us wouldn’t dream of speaking to another person like that. But we have no problem routinely addressing ourselves in a disrespectful, even demeaning, way.
Negative response: “I should have done the laundry today and vacuumed the carpets. I feel like I’m getting lazier every day.”
Positive response: “I am not lazy. Sometimes I don’t do as much as I wish I could, but that doesn’t mean I’m lazy. At my age I should be thankful I get as much housework done as I do.”
You take responsibility for negative circumstances that are beyond your control. Everything is your fault. You assume responsibility even when there is no true reason for doing so. You arbitrarily conclude that what happened was your problem or reflects your inadequacy.
Negative thought: “I’m such a terrible burden my daughter’s talking about finding an assisted living home for me.”
Positive response: “My daughter has lovingly taken care of me for five years. I’m growing more and more weak and helpless. I’m so lucky to have a daughter who, not only cared for me, but also wants me in the best facility possible.”
Knowing that negative self-talk can be destructive is one thing. Stopping it is another. The first step is to draw attention to the voice in your head. What is it saying? Then, to live a happier, more positive life, re-frame your thoughts by using the examples above. Don’t listen to that voice! Instead, talk back to it and tell it you are the authority around here. Take charge of your mind now.