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Mission: Family: Negative ‘self-talk' is source of misery; focus on the positive

Aug. 30, 2012 - 06:04PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 30, 2012 - 06:04PM  |  
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Are you unintentionally sabotaging yourself with "self-talk" that's constantly playing in your head? If you become aware of it, you may be able to make simple changes that could boost your happiness and improve your relationships.

Most of us don't even realize we have this going on in our heads, said Don Steckdaub, a marriage and family therapist in California who has worked full time with military families for the last eight years of his 40-year career.

With the stress of wartime deployments and reintegration, "it's tough to achieve any sense of normalcy," he said.

But negative self-talk can make life even more difficult.

"All of us have self-talk going on in our heads every waking second," he said. "What we allow to remain on that self-talk tape in our head creates the feelings."

Then those feelings start creating behaviors. And those behaviors just reinforce those thoughts. Steckdaub contends that everyone can benefit from becoming aware of this self-talk, and he has written a book about it: "Your Thoughts Create Your World," from Balboa Press.

Negative thoughts may take the form of doubt about a partner's fidelity during deployment. Or you may be telling yourself you can't do something — anything from a lifestyle change to a job search.

Troublesome self-talk also includes loading up with "shoulds," Steckdaub said, like "the Army should" or "my wife should." Sometimes these develop into "musts" and become such a big deal that you become angry when expectations aren't met. It's also a problem when you start labeling people as a result.

Stewing about things, people or institutions we have no control over can only weigh us down. But if there's something you can do about a problem, do it.

Steckdaub said a senior officer came to him for help because his marriage was falling apart. He was angry and said his wife should be taking better care of the house and spending money more wisely. Her self-esteem was suffering as she was losing her own positive self-talk.

But they loved each other and wanted to save their marriage. When Steckdaub explained the concept of changing their self-talk, they immediately grasped it.

"They made the commitment to listen to their own self-talk ‘tape‘ and to stop the tape and start in positive ways," he said. For example: "This is difficult, but it's the person I love and she's the mother of my children."

By the next session, they were talking to each other in new, positive ways. At their last session, he said, they had come back together as a loving family.

Steckdaub advises actively listening to the "tape" you play. Clear out thoughts that weigh you down — some of which may have been there since childhood. Stop yourself when you become agitated and think about what you were just telling yourself.

You'll quickly become aware of what you're creating in your mind — and in your world.

kjowers@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Karen Jowers is the wife of a military retiree.

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