By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.

As discussed in previous articles, changing unwanted automatic behaviors, thoughts or feelings, is a process of recognizing the behavior, identifying it when it occurs and, then over time and situations, choosing to repeatedly emit an alternate and more desirable behavior, thought, or feeling. The key here is "inserting" a behavior that is incompatible with the unwanted conditioned behavior, and one that will be more productive in life. As with most important things in life, major behavioral change is not without cost. It is, plain and simple, hard work.

Permanent behavior change requires constant monitoring of the unwanted behavior. While this demands considerable discipline, the effort can result in dramatic life change. When working with people in my psychotherapy office, one of the helpful tools I employ is a cognitive restructuring approach that fulfills the objective of such permanent personal change. This change approach requires that you: 1) identify the problem behavior, 2)commit to remaining focused on it over time, 3) develop an awareness of the unwanted behavior using it as a cue over situations and life events, 4) spend the necessary time considering the unwanted behavior thought or feeling when cued by it, and 5) repetitively engaging in a new and different response following the consideration phase.

Let's imagine that you discover that you regularly engage in negative self talk such as the phrase "Oh, that was stupid". It might just come to you one day that you say it repeatedly, every time something goes wrong or every time you do something that doesn't turn out right. On the surface this may appear to be a rather innocuous bit of self degradation. But, if we look at it more closely we recognize the major destructive element present. This statement implies that the behavior being talked about was "stupid" or unintelligent, and in its essence, the statement implies that you are "stupid", or more generally stated unacceptable. Making this statement repetitively will likely result in feelings about yourself that conform to the implications of the statement.

In our example, the problem behavior has been identified, you have committed to remaining focused on changing it, and have begun using the behavior as a cue to initiate change. In the next step, when the behavior presents itself you say the words, "There it is again", to yourself. This helps you stop the behavior and proceed into an active process of change. At this point you consider the origin and the meaning of the problem behavior. This requires a look back over your life to the origin of the negative self talk (and this may require the help of a professional). Many people find that the source of such habitual and repetitive statements come from childhood experience. For example, you might find that this statement was made repeatedly during your childhood by your mother or father. That is, it was a statement that was employed by one of them and you simply began imitating it. Having the knowledge about where the negative self talk comes from reduces the resistance to changing it. Once such thought has been explored and the conclusions regarding origins and productiveness of the behavior has been reached, it becomes easier to initiate a change that is healthy and productive. Repeating this scenario leads to permanent and powerful life change.