The Little Engine That Could

Many years ago, when I adopted my then teenaged foster daughters it was important to me that there be no hypocrisy in my parenting. In other words, if I taught them to behave in a certain way, then I needed to, as well. In 12-step groups they call this “walking your talk.” This turned out to be a goal one strives for; I did so imperfectly.

As I set out to teach them to be gentler in their self-appraisals I began to listen to my own inner dialogue. I quickly realized that, for most of us, if we talked to our children the way we talk to ourselves, we would be arrested for child abuse.

I was disheartened by many of the things I said to myself:
You’ll never be able to do that—you’ve tried before and failed.
You lost your keys again? What’s the matter with you?
Who do you think you are?
You are so lazy, it’s a wonder you’ve accomplished anything in life!

We all do some version of this—so what?

Brain researchers tell us that the way we talk to ourselves is a critical component of how we act in and process the world around us. Our brain accepts whatever we say to it without question and so, however we are damning ourselves, this information is processed as a fact rather than an opinion.

According to Steven Campbell, M.S.I.S. in his book Making Your Mind Magnificent, “The brain records everything you say to it about yourself as readily as it records what it sees when it looks at a picture.”

Campbell goes on to tell us, “So when you say, “No way! I can’t do that!” the mind simply says, “OK…you can’t” and then blocks out the ways for you to do it. If, however, you say: “Absolutely…of course I can do that!” the brain also accepts this as truth without question. No arguments. Not only that, your brain then endeavors to help you find a way to do it, and then gives you the energy to do so.”

Usually this harsh consideration was learned in early childhood—a critical parent, a disapproving teacher, even an older sibling can all impact our self-image. The good news is that others are no longer in charge—you are.

The reason it’s difficult to change these habits of negative self-talk is that your brain’s job is to keep you from changing. Campbell outlines this when he writes about the brain’s resistance to change: “Your brain does not like being out of its comfort zone. It will resist any changes you want as much as it can, and will find all sorts of ways of doing so, including lying to you and telling you things about yourself that are simply not true.”

It’s important to understand that your thoughts are not necessarily true. When I was a child, I was convinced there was a bogeyman living in my closet. My brain told me it was true and even convinced me that I was hearing him make threatening sounds. We all have bogeymen living inside our minds and they talk to us very convincingly. Our job is to say to them, “Thank you for sharing but I disagree with what you are telling me.” (By the way, I don’t recommend talking to your bogeymen out loud unless you are alone—society prefers self-talk be done silently.)

The Law of Attraction dictates that you get more of what you focus on. The messages you give yourself are even more critical than the messages others are giving you because they comprise your ongoing focus. We would all do well to remember the lesson we learned as children when we read the classic tale of The Little Engine that Could. His self-talk was:

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.
I know I can, I know I can, I know I can.
And (after succeeding) I knew I could, I knew I could, I knew I could.

If you are not familiar with this story, you can easily find it online and it is well worth reading (repeatedly).

If, like me, you have often wished that your parents were better skilled at their jobs there is a simple, albeit challenging solution: become the loving parent you always dreamed of and say to yourself what you wish had been said to you. As a brilliant philosopher once said, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” (I know you can, I know you can, I know you can.)

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