How To Turn Around Negative Self-Talk When Grieving Death

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How To Turn Around Negative Self-Talk When Grieving Death

Do you often find yourself trapped in negative self-talk?

Self-talk is always going on. It’s that voice in your head that provides personal performance evaluations as you cope with the challenges of life.

"You’re doing great!"

"What a jerk!"

"You blew that big time!

Self-talk is the unfiltered dialogue we have with ourselves — not heard by others — where we express, loud and clear, exactly how we evaluate our own behavior.

It's generated by someone whose judgment we trust (our own) and is always hovering nearby.

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Self-talk is an important factor in our self-esteem and, therefore, a big factor in success or failure.

Negative self-talk is rooted in our childhood experiences. 

Unfortunately, negative self-talk is far from beneficial. It has its foundation from what we heard said about us as children.

My grade-school teachers told me I was smart, whereas my parents harped on their perception that I was lazy and late for important occasions.

And because I grew up on an island, being late — and missing the boat that took us to the mainland or back home to the island — was a big deal in our lives.

I conquered the "lazy" and "late" criticisms by becoming super conscientious and by almost never being late for anything. But because my parents were critical evaluators of my performance, I learned to be highly self-critical when I fall short of the expectations I have for myself.

I can be harsh in my self-talk. When I faced the stresses of new widowhood, I noticed a lot of negative self-talk going on.

Notice how you talk to yourself when you are grieving. 

While some early challenges of widowhood were simply accomplishing the daily tasks of living alone — eating, sleeping, dressing, and paying bills — there were also more difficult tasks to face.

Therein, lay the potential for self-criticism via blameful self-talk.

Negative self-talk can take several forms:

  • Personalizing: This consists of blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong.
  • Magnifying: Focusing on the negative aspects of a situation, while ignoring the positive ones.
  • Catastrophizing: Expecting the worst and convincing yourself it’s going to happen.
  • Polarizing: Seeing the world in black-and-white terms with nothing in-between allowing for a middle-ground perspective.

Engaging in any of these four forms of negative self-talk can damage your capacity to cope successfully as well as your self-esteem.

As a new widow, the last thing I needed was this.

Yet, I experienced the early months of widowhood as fertile ground for negative self-talk. I’d just been kicked in the gut, the central relationship of my life was gone, and I was dealing with a great deal of pain and sadness.

For many widows and widowers, this pain is accompanied by side effects, such as insomnia or excessive sleeping, inability to eat or overeating, lack of energy, depression, lack of motivation, and reduced immune capacity.

All of these add fuel to the potential for negative self-talk.

You are dealing with the loss of your spouse. Then, add to the difficult set of widowhood challenges the extra-spicy ingredient of negative self-talk. This is not what any down-and-out widow or widower needs at that time!

Fortunately, negative self-talk is a learned behavior and can be changed.

When you spot negative self-talk in action, you can make concerted decisions to change what you are saying to yourself.

This doesn’t mean that you should be so "positive" that you say untrue things to yourself to make yourself feel better. Your goal is to stay grounded in reality, so positive self-talk needs to be true.

This will keep you from going off the deep end and enable you to benefit from positive self-talk without feeling foolish in doing so.

Some examples of negative self-talk I caught myself engaging in:

  • "Patty, you’re crying sooooo much! I know you loved Ralph, but why do you have to cry so much about it?"
  • "Patty, you’re really making progress on this grieving. Maybe you’re pulling out of it too fast."
  • "Patty, he’s been dead for over a month. Why haven’t you been to the bank yet to change the names on the account?"

When Ralph was alive, an especially insidious area for negative self-talk concerned perceptions of my past failures in the relationship, including:

  • "Patty, you were very self-focused a lot of the time you were with Ralph. You shouldn’t have been that way."
  • "Patty, when Ralph wanted to talk about getting older and dying, you shouldn’t have shut down those conversations."

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Self-criticism during grief can be contradictory and confusing. 

What I especially love about some of these self-talk scenarios is their contradictory quality — such as criticizing myself for grieving too much, as well as criticizing myself for starting to pull out of it too quickly.

What a ridiculous time to be putting myself in a double-bind!

Grieving requires supportive and accepting relationships — even with yourself. 

If there were a time to create a supportive and accepting relationship with myself, recent widowhood was when I needed it most.

Counter negative self-talk with positive true statements. 

The trick is to counter negative self-talk statements with positive yet valid self-talk. It’s not enough just to say something positive to yourself, instead.

It’s important when addressing a personal shortfall to have your positive self-talk include awareness and acknowledgment of the shortfall.

Here are some ways I could've countered my negative self-talk above:

  • "It seems clear that I have a lot of crying I need to do about this tremendous loss in my life. I’m probably crying exactly the amount that I need to."
  • "I’m giving this my all, utilizing all my training in psychology, my years of therapy and personal growth workshops, and doing all the things I think will help me get through this painful period successfully. So, it’s no wonder I’m making real progress."
  • "I sure can see that I’m not carrying out tasks these days as easily as usual, and that’s no surprise. I’ll make a list of things that need to get done and peck away at them a bit at a time, and pat myself on the back whenever I get one of them done."
  • "Yes, I was pretty self-focused sometimes. I’m not proud of that, but that’s the way it was."
  • "Yes, that was a really difficult topic for me, and I wish I had been much better at it and really regret that I wasn’t. I did the best I could, but I fell short on that several times."

Refuse to be in an adversarial relationship with yourself. 

A basic premise of good mental health is to refuse to be in an adversarial relationship with yourself. This doesn’t mean that you should pretend that everything you do is good, or that every effort you make achieves its target.

It’s important to recognize shortfalls — we all have some.

When you’re grieving, you’re in a down-and-out situation. It’s easy to be overly self-critical, both of how you were in the marriage that is now over — with no opportunity for improvements — and in the grieving process, where you’re clearly not at your best.

Acceptance is key.

The research from Person-Centered Psychology identifies three conditions that are necessary and sufficient for people to grow in their capacity to solve their own problems. One of these is acceptance.

I worked to create an accepting space for myself as I deal with the challenges of widowhood. As I realized shortfalls in my self-talk, it was heartening to get off my own back and include acceptance in the message I was telling myself.

Just as you would want your dear friend not to put themselves down as they attempted to navigate the difficult terrain of losing a beloved spouse, I worked during this time to clean up my self-talk so that I could be accepting of Patty as she did her best to cope with this painful and challenging situation.

RELATED: How To Deal With Grief & Overwhelming Heartache After A Loss

Patty Howell, Ed.M., A.G.C., is President of Healthy Relationships California, a non-profit that has taught relationship skills programs to more than 200,000 participants. A prolific author and developer of psychosocial education programs, she co-authored World Class Marriage: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted with the Partner You Already Have with her late husband, Ralph Jones. Together they have trained in 15 countries around the world. His death in October 2017 brought tremendous grief as well as opportunities to learn valuable life lessons that she shares with her readers.