An Exercise In Good Thought
I’m not sure how many of you remember the Saturday Night Live skits with Stuart Smalley. His tag line was “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.” A somewhat insipid character in a blue cardigan and bad toupee routinely talking to himself in a mirror. Somehow in retrospect it doesn’t sound very funny, but it became part of our social lexicon for a while.
When I was in grad school learning the ins and outs of various therapeutic interventions, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. David Burns – one of the pre-eminent practitioners of cognitive therapy. Although his lecture listed towards the yawning, he was a delightful person to speak with one-on-one. I was nervous; he was not. My tendency in these situations is to be as self-deprecating as possible – far better that I expose my multiple flaws before anyone else does. And as I was tripping over my tongue with phenomenally irrelevant bits of personal data, I stopped and said, “I guess you’d suggest I change the tape in my head, huh?” At which point he laughed and nodded and moved on to less neurotic company.
Our ability to self-criticize is legendary. People have written about it for years. Woody Allen made his fortune exposing various elements of his imperfect self-perceptions to his audiences. We can repeat certain tapes in our heads throughout our lives – never considering their veracity, shelf life or relevance. I can hear certain voices in my head (relax, I’m not talking delusional here) that have asserted themselves on my self-image ever since I was a kid. They still carry weight and define how I perceive myself. I know on some level that it’s fiction. I know it isn’t healthy. And on some level I know I have to change the tape. It hasn’t done me any good since I hit the ‘play’ button. I mean come on, tapes are obsolete – what the hell am I doing with a cassette recorder in my head!!
There’s an element of ‘fake-it-til-you-make-it’ to cognitive therapy. Changing the message that you have reacted to for years, replacing it with one that is more accurate, timely and of your own design sounds relatively benign. The hard work comes into play as you exercise your mind (that sounded a little like Timothy Leary, didn’t it?) – recognizing what thoughts promote feelings of insecurity and negative self-worth – and having the wherewithal to change them. The theory is that we react emotionally to what we think, not vice versa. You have to get into the habit of telling yourself the truth – and see how your heart responds to that reality.
This isn’t a paean to cognitive therapy, Dr. David Burns or Stuart Smalley. It is a paean to you – for chances are good that some of what you react to through the course of a typical day has little to do with the moment itself and everything to do with some antiquated message that is integrated into your thought patterns. You are smart enough and good enough and I’m pretty damn confident that people like you. What are you going to do to like yourself?