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.
"And so what you do in a situation like that," he says as steadily as a general mapping out a battle plan, "is first, you treat that as if it was said by a rival for your job, someone who wanted to demoralize you and accuse you of things that were unfounded. And then you start to marshal evidence, like, 'Well, what I said in the first question to my interviewee drew a blank, but then when I fleshed it out, he started to come out of himself. And consider my last interview, in which I did this, that, and the other thing.' So you've basically marshaled evidence against the catastrophic thought."

I hear only the first part of that, because I'm too distracted with worry to understand that he's meeting me halfway. I'm like a fish that continues to thrash even though the fisherman has withdrawn the hook. I'm so busy accusing myself of flubbing the interview, I don't hear that it's actually going fine.

"If somebody were saying bad things about me or trying to get my job," I find myself arguing, "I don't know that I would confront the person, because I'd assume it wasn't going to work."

"How about if they're accusing you of something grossly false?" Seligman counters. "Then you'd probably stand up for yourself. Most people do. That's a skill," he adds, "that can be learned and built."

But, I persist, suppose you have an involuntary physical reaction—like blushing, or getting nauseous when you have to speak in front of people? Even if you "dispute" the voice that's filling you with fear and embarrassment, your body will give you away.

"Well, if you're describing a deathly fear of speaking," Seligman answers slowly, "then you're probably dealing with someone who needs face-to-face behavior or cognitive therapy for speech anxiety."

"He thinks I'm crazy!" I imagine myself in a Marx Brothers movie, with Groucho as the Viennese psychoanalyst: Me: "Doc, I'm so scared I'm afraid I'm going to throw up." Groucho: "What are you, some kind of nut?"

I summon up my calmest, most professional manner. Inwardly, of course, I'm 6 years old. "Sometimes I can successfully talk to myself," I assure the doctor, "and make myself feel better after some anxiety-provoking event. But then the bad thoughts will rush back in."

Yes, Seligman agrees, that's what tends to happen. "You're not going to still the provoking thoughts..."

"I knew it!"

"...you're just going to get better and better at neutralizing them."

"Well," I venture as his words finally begin to make sense to me, "that would be good enough."

"Better if you could eliminate them," Seligman says darkly. I can almost see the pessimist in him scratching to get out. "I don't think anyone's found a way of eliminating thoughts of danger and loss," he says. "It's rather that, when they're unrealistic, you become an acrobat at marshaling evidence against them."


The interview is over. As soon as I hang up the phone, the full frontal assault begins. First, the accusation ("I made an ass of myself"). Next, the kicker ("serves me right for assuming I knew what I was doing"). Then the dread ("I'm going to have to listen to the tape!") and the despair ("I'll never get a story out of this"). And then, as I clench my teeth and turn on the transcription machine, a revelation: "This is not the conversation I remember!"

Seligman wasn't going after me. He was listening very, very closely and working with what he heard—that's what psychologists do, after all. The interview wasn't going badly, and most of the time I sounded reasonable and assured. But I wasn't hearing everything he said. I was responding automatically; the voice in my head kept drowning him out. I was on the defensive, so I kept coming up with ways to challenge him, when what I really wanted to do was duck for cover. "Pessimists have a particularly pernicious way of construing their setbacks and frustrations," Seligman writes. While optimists expect their problems to be temporary, and would never dream of blaming themselves, "[pessimists] automatically think that the cause is permanent, pervasive, and personal: 'It's going to last forever, it's going to undermine everything, and it's my fault.'"

My sentiments exactly. So how do I plan on getting over my pessimism? I'll try Seligman's technique, with a slight twist suggested by a Buddhist friend who practices "lovingkindness," a way of relating more humanely to yourself and others: Instead of pretending my inner voice is an enemy, I might start thinking of her as a dear but deluded friend. Maybe I'll be able to listen to what she tells me without taking it so much to heart. Maybe, after getting a little distance, I'll begin to be able to laugh at her a little, and gently dispute what she says. I might even try throwing in a word or two of self-approval. But that's another conversation.

Cathleen Medwick is the author of Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul (Doubleday).

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