Woman and Mirror
Photo: Hugh Kretschmer
You know the routine. You're in a room with your boss. Or the man you secretly love. Or the girl who tormented you in high school. Though you plan on being silent and serene, you open your mouth to answer a simple question, and out of it come words so ghoulishly inane that you immediately turn purple. You try to cover, but the more you talk the stupider you get. You can barely hear what the other person is saying, because the voice in your head is screaming, "Oh, my God, I sound like an idiot! What's the matter with me?" After you've slithered out of the room, the inner harangue continues as your eyes well up. You can't stop replaying the conversation in your head. Days later you're still rehearsing the things you should have said.

I have spent most of my life listening to the voice in my head that tells me what's wrong with me, what I can't do even if I try hard, and why things will never be any different. I'm in awe of people who seem to be full of confidence, taking every setback in stride, never losing their composure. What's their secret?

I decide to ask an expert, Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor noted for his theories on "learned optimism." Seligman recently published a book called Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (Free Press). As I read about his techniques for combating negative thoughts, I think I recognize a kindred spirit. "I am a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist," Seligman writes, "and the techniques that I wrote about in Learned Optimism I use every day." His theories evolved from his continuing efforts to transform himself into a more positive person, even after "I had spent 50 years enduring mostly wet weather in my soul and the last ten years as a walking nimbus cloud in a household radiant with sunshine." If this man can't help me disperse my own dark clouds, nobody can.

I dial Seligman's number, and he answers. His voice is deep, distant, and a little scary. Well, more than a little. He sounds like the Grim Reaper. I hear my own voice beginning to waffle, the way it does when I'm speaking to someone whose judgment I fear. I try to explain that I'm calling him to find out how to talk myself down, to quiet the fearful, self-critical voice in my head—but I can't find the words. I am not just vague; I am unintelligible. When I finish my baroque explanation, I ask Seligman, "Does that make any sense?"

"Not to me," he answers.

"Oh, that's great", the voice in my head begins chattering, "you've managed to confuse him with the first question—typical. It's all downhill from here." I try to be a little clearer, telling him about irrational anxieties that I've developed since 9/11 (like my fear of being in the tunnel beneath Grand Central Terminal when a bomb goes off) and how they increase my feelings of helplessness. Seligman hears me out, and then he says, "I see what you mean."

"You do?" Unfortunately, I'm so insecure by this time that I keep right on explaining. "Another example," I burble, "would be if you ask for more money in your job and you're told no. Your immediate thought is, 'Of course not. How could I even have asked?'"

That, Seligman explains, is another "catastrophic thought," and he has a three-step technique to counteract it. "First you recognize that the thought is there," he tells me. "Then you learn to treat that thought as if it were said by some third person whose job in life was to make your life miserable. And then you learn to dispute it, to marshal evidence against it."

I'm starting to rally. Maybe this interview isn't a disaster after all.

"Let's say we're doing this interview," Seligman continues, "and you say to yourself, 'Gee, this interview is going really badly, I'm just not getting anywhere with this interviewee. Maybe I've lost my touch.'"

"He knows I've lost it!" The voice in my head is ratcheting up to a shriek.