May 15, 2008

Trash Talking & John Stuart Mill

[By Merry]

Those bloggers are at it again.

Workout Mommy posted different categories of people who adopt a non-supportive role towards your fitness goals. (I love it that this post was inspired itself by Charlotte's post about Sabotage and how catty some people can get when they want to bring you down to their level.)

Damn both of them -- they got me thinking. (I hate it when people do that to me.) What do you do when other people try to drag you down? And what do you do when it's not other people who are bringing you down, but yourself?

Great Theories from D.W.M.s
John Stuart Mill, and a bunch of other 18th and 19th century dead white males philosophers, held the belief that the child at birth is a blank slate. Only, being philosophers, they had to fancy it up by phrasing it in Latin, tabula rasa. According to Mill, your personality and behavior are determined by sensory experience, by sights and sounds from the outside world.

Great Theories from DVDs
I have a mini-theory that when you go to sleep, when your conscious mind clocks out for the day and your subconscious takes control of the night shift, you create a relatively blank slate.

Unlike Mill and the philosophers, I'm not basing this on years spent pondering deep issues in dusty libraries. Rather, I'm basing this on my years spent watching television. Ever fall asleep with the TV on? I don't do that so much now, but for years I'd wake up, after a dream of hair care products or great real estate investments, to find that while I slept a late-night TV show was pouring an informercial into my subconscious. Next time I fall asleep with the TV on, I’m going to make sure there’s an educational DVD in the machine. (Maybe one about great philosophers.)

In either case, I think these Great Theories have some validity. The subconscious mind often acts as a sponge, soaking up all the things that it hears over and over again and then repeating them back to you.

Trash talking to yourself?

Hypnosis, which is used to help people stop smoking or change other behaviors, tries to get past your conscious defenses and directly influence your subconscious. Methinks it works the same with things people tell you repeatedly in everyday life. Subtle insinuations that you’re Not Quite Good Enough will bring you down. Even if these insinuations are coming from that little voice in the back of your head.

An example: a few months ago I had to spend a week with a relative who's steadily grown more negative and nasty the older she gets. One day we went out to lunch. When we walked out to the car together, I pressed the Unlock button on the car's remote device, and nothing happened. The relative snatched the remote from my hand, said "what country are you from?" and tried it herself. When nothing still happened, she didn't apologize, she merely used the key to unlock the car.

After a week of incidents like that, all about how stupid I was, I found myself starting to say it first, just to stop her from saying it. A form of self-protection, as it were, but it was a hard habit to shake off when the week was over and I went back to my regular life. Hearing something repeated over and over was enough for my mind to make it into a recording that the little voice would then play back. I was stuck in a negative groove of trash talk.

Doggone it, people like me!

Next time I’m in a situation where someone’s trying to tell me how stupid (worthless/lazy/inept/insert adjective here) I am, I’m going to fight back. No, not physically. Not even out loud. Arguing with someone that negative is like riding a rocking horse – you never get anywhere.

Whatever the source, even if it’s a negative thought that comes from within, I’m going to counteract it by telling myself positive things. Something along the lines of Stuart Smalley saying ‘… and doggone it, people like me!’ Except meant seriously.

I don’t care if that’s simply a case of countering pointless negativity with pointless positivity. Positive assertions have at least as much validity as the negative ones, plus they’re a lot nicer company to have rattling around in your head.

Don’t try to reason with your subconscious; you can’t counteract negativity with logic. The negative thoughts bring too much emotional baggage with them. It’s like trying to reason with a very young, very tired child. Wah. Don’ wanna hear about dead white males talking dead Romance languages. Wanna lollipop.

Believe it or not, a positive fact about the phone company

There is a twist on this method that some people use to avoid thinking about something. Your brain can only hold so much information at one time. Supposedly, the reason that phone numbers in America were designed to be seven digits is most people can only hold on to seven thoughts at one time. If you think of an eighth thought, one of the others drops out of your immediate consciousness. (And then you usually going around thinking ‘now what was it that I forgot?’)

You can make use of this tendency to get rid of self-trash talk. To distract yourself from an unwanted thought, think of seven different things instead, as fast as you can. Try counteracting the negative thought with seven positive ones, no matter what they are. It works!

Don’t worry. Be perky happy.

Don’t worry about becoming too annoyingly perky using this approach. If inertia doesn’t restrain you, other people will. With straitjackets, if necessary. Excessively cheerful people are as annoying as excessively negative ones. And negativity has its uses. When the cavemen encountered a saber tooth tiger, the positive one probably stood there and said “Oh, what pretty fur. I bet that’s just a play growl. Isn’t it cute the way it lashes its tail like that?” while the negative caveman ran away. It’s not always a bad thing to be negative, but it’s entirely too damn easy to let it become automatic. What I’m trying to fight is meaningless negativity.

How do you respond to trash talk? Does it ever hold you back from doing something you wanted to do?

I'm curious to hear what you think. I started to write this post a few days ago, but I stopped because the little voice in the back of my head said it sounded too stupid. Sometimes the little voice in the back of your head is talking negatively for a reason, but sometimes it isn't. (I don’t know why the l.v. is so concerned with me making a fool of myself. If I write up a post of incredibly silly fluff, as I have in the past, it just sits back in satisfaction and says “yep, I knew you were going to do that.”) And then I remembered this quote:

When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap. -Cynthia Heimel

Screw you, little-voice-in-the-back-of-my-head. I'm going to push the button marked Publish.

Quick, somebody! What are the names of the Seven Dwarfs?

[Etching of John Stuart Mill courtesy of flickr, as indeed was the cartoon.]


  1. As someone who has gone out or her way to defend negativity (in certain contexts), it may surprise you to hear I totally agree with you.

    Our subconscious isn't always logical, and mindless repetition can indeed put things in there there whether we want them or not. Why else do many of us remember that Oscar Mayer has a way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A?

    I'm all for positive self-talk as a defense against negative, critical people. You can be as goofy as you want because you don't actually have to say the stuff out loud.

    And I gotta say your relative sounds like a real pill--hope you can limit your exposure to her as much as possible!

  2. (speaking of hypnosis and turning a skeptic into a believer (maybe :)) anyone see the recent dr. oz/oprah show?!)

    I am all for the positive self talk and use it ALL THE TIME.
    and Im with you as well, crabby, in that many therapists suggest one utilize an OUT LOUD word or phrase (STOP! or I CAN!)which wouldnt work for me.

    Im more the mantraMizFit.
    I tend to use positive chants in my head.

  3. thanks Crabby, now I'll be singing b-o-l-o-g-n-a all day.

    I use positive self-talk all day long to ward off the Debbie Downers. I've even severed some friendships that just got to be too much. I would always dread talking to them because I knew the negativity that was coming...very draining.

    But i do still have that little-voice-in-my-head as well and that one is not always easy to shut-up unfortunately.

  4. I have a hard time being positive - I was brought up being told that I was stupid, dumb, and ugly. There were times when I'd glance in the mirror in the entrance way and my mother would tell me not to because I'd break it.

    she denies any of that, but a child remembers these things.

    now, when my kids or my husband criticize me, I get very defensive because it brings up all the inadequate feelings that I had before. So, I'm really, really not good at people being negative. I either buy in to it too easily, or I lash out. neither is a good response. :-(

  5. I think everybody finds themselves saying something 'witty' that actually turns out to be a bit more cutting than had been intended. What I don't get is why a remark that seems mildly sarcastic when it leaves the sender turns into a vicious biting remark by the time it reaches the listener.

    And now I've got the bologna song running in my head :)

  6. Most negative people may think they know the "glass half full/empty" thing, but it never gets beyond the words for them. I really am amazed by all the negative statements I hear daily. It's too bad. I've learned to just say nothing rather than engage in it. On another topic

    ...."Oh I wish I was an Oscar Mayer...."


    Dr. J

  7. Good post Merry! Got the Bag Lady thinking of how many negative people she has lived with over the years. And how negative and abusive she is to herself in her head...**shut-up, stupid, don't type that...**

  8. Oh, I trash talk myself all the time. It's terrible. I'm really trying to get rid of negative self-talk, but it's quite the battle for me. It definitely fills me with self-doubt and makes me less willing to take risks and put myself out there. Sad but true...

  9. I have had to cut loose a couple of very negative people. I call them emotional vampires, they just suck the soul right out of you...nothing is EVER good enough, the glass is always half empty. Who needs it?

  10. I have a lot of personal experience with negative people - my mother is one of them. I had a lot of self esteem issues as a teenager, and while some of that just comes with the territory, some of it was because of cutting remarks. Then I went to college, gained confidence, and when I came back it was much harder to deal with the negativity, the implications that what I was saying was silly, that I was immature, that she knew best (she does this to my stepfather also). But given that she's 60 years old, I don't see this changing anytime soon. One interesting thing she said once - "everyone is snide in private." Hah. Way to rationalize.

    I had a friend at one point who was very negative. Everything (job, friends, everything) was presented through a negative filter. Seeing how sensitive I am to negativity, I grew to dread seeing her, so she's not one of my friends anymore.

    I try to stay really positive, though not to that really annoying extent some people go to (at least, I sure hope not...), and if I find myself being negative, I have to give myself a little smack and bring it back around to the positive side. So now that I've vented and been really negative about the negative people in my life, I'm going to go and email something positive to some of my friends :)

  11. It's true, sometimes you have to cut people loose if they're too negative. That's harder when they're family, but sometimes it's necessary for your own sanity.

    And yeah, I'm going to go send a positive email to a friend now. Good idea :)

  12. It's odd...a while back before I actually started to lose weight and keep it off I decided to keep track of the things I'd say to myself about myself...I was horrified at the things I'd say to myself and how negative I would be when I made a mistake. I was working hard at being assertive and standing up for myself but hadn't noticed how negative and perfectionstic I was being to me-I'd never let anyone else speak to me that way!
    Turning things positive makes an incredible difference. And it's infectious.
    Your talk made me think of an old Kids in the Hall skit where, one by one, the characters passed their bad moods off onto someone else and felt great's not the way to do things, but I've found the happier and nicer I am to others the nicer *they* are to others and it just mushrooms.
    Secret ninja happy attacks are a lot of fun.

  13. Positive self talk is the way to go! I used to be really hard on myself, but as I've matured I've taken a different attitude. It takes some work to step back and readjust your thinking but it is completely worth it.

    Like Fitarella, I've had to let some friendships go because of over negativity. I know it seems a bit harsh, but my mental well being is far more important to me than a toxic friend.

  14. If only I could combine running and ninja happy attacks...the world would be mine!

  15. Just like everyone else, I have had people in my life who are so negative, I feel like throwing myself in a ditch after a couple of hours with them. I think Merry I will try your idea of counteracting a negative comment with a positive thoughts. Sometimes, you just can't tell people to stop... The drama that might follow might be more harmful than the cutting little remark

    That being said, I also try not to be the one focusing on negative things and if I feel my mood going sour, I usually try to keep to myself.

  16. Oooh, a plan for World Domination! Go Geosomin!

  17. Alice, I remember reading in a Douglas Adams' novel about that trick of thinking of 7 things to distract your thoughts. It really can work, for me at least. Sometimes it's useful to have a short attention span!

  18. Secret ninja happy attacks, that's priceless, Geosomin! I'll remember that!

  19. Great posts and great comments.

    If someone consistently puts me down, I tell them I don't like it, if it continues, I tune it out for a while and if it still continues, I toss the person from my life.

    The older I get, the more likely I am to skip step two and go from step one to step three. Life is too short to listen to hurtful nonsense.


  20. oh no, not the oscar mayer weiner song!! Thanks a lot!

    although that is a much better thing to have in my head than all the negative thoughts that get caught in there.

    i have found that being around negative people makes me more aware of my own negative thoughts---and just how draining they really can be.

    thanks for the mention and the reminder to be happy!

  21. Dagnabbit!
    No one else answered your question at the very end, which means of course I HAVE TO!! xD

    Seven dwarfs
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    (Redirected from Seven Dwarves)

    Seven dwarfs or Seven dwarves may refer to:

    * Snow White (as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in the Disney production, named Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy, Bashful, Sleepy, and Dopey)

    Now for 4 other tidbits of info to include with 2 more random ones, making the list go up to that wonderful # of 7!
    (Yes, my math is just fine today thanks)

    # Seven Dwarfs (Australian public servants), seven influential Australian politicians.
    # Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (Mountains), a mountain range in New Brunswick.
    # The Seven dwarfs of Big Tobacco, comprised of Donald S. Johnston of American Tobacco Company, Thomas Sandefur, chairman of Brown & Williamson, Ed Horrigan of Liggett Group, Andrew Tisch of Lorillard, James Johnston of R.J. Reynolds, Joseph Taddeo of U.S. Tobacco, and William Campbell of Philip Morris[1]. All seven are winners of the 1996 Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine.
    # The Seven dwarfs of the mainframe-era computer industry: Burroughs, Control Data Corporation, General Electric, Honeywell, RCA, NCR and UNIVAC; the role of Snow White in this metaphor is filled by IBM.

  22. I wholeheartedly agree that sometimes you have to cut people out of your life. There are some folks who, unfortunately, and for whatever reason, are only happy when they have something to complain about. (Like that bi#*h yesterday who yelled at me for letting my dog pee on the grass. In a public area. Channeling my inner surly adolescent, I said "Whatever!" and walked away.)

    And I do believe that positive self-talk works at least as well as negative self-talk. It's just a new habit that we have to learn, so it seems harder and less effective at first.

  23. I think you need to write one of those huge volumes discussing your philosophies and you can become this awesome philosopher. It'll be great!

    I'm all about the positive thinking. But sometimes the occasional negative thought can be just the thing to motivate me. I've really learned to just stay away from people who impose too much negativity.

  24. I tend to learn the hard way, which means I should be uber smart by now! We can have anxiety over things or turn it into angst (hopefully waiting for a cure or answer).
    I had an extremely negative dad and have an overperky twin sister. I also have a friend who makes me laugh with her constant stream of Daria attitude.
    I found myself avoiding my dad and sister yet enjoying my friend's cynical outlook, most of the time. Up to a point she seems funny, then it gets kinda old and it's time to change the channel!

  25. Thanks for the shout out! I love how I just point out the problems but you guys actually try solving them. It's a good deal, I think - I'll leave the heavy lifting up to you two:)

    Love your suggestions! Yay Stuart!! Seriously tho Cognitive Behavioral Therapy worked wonders on my neg. self talk.

  26. When I used to be a trainer for a gym, I always had to walk away from those that started talking negatively. You'd be surprised how many employed trainers bash the gyms they work for; so many just complain about being broke instead of doing something to fix it. Just like others have been saying, you have to walk away from the negative talk and surround yourself with positive-minded people; they'll help bring you to the top.

  27. I have a friend who starts every fifth sentence with "Oh GREAT...." but it's in a really negative tone. Kinda like Eyeore knocked up Rosanne Barr and out comes this chubby donkey who says "Oh GREAT, it's too sunny. Now my flowers are going to wilt...." blah blah! It's so annoying how negative some people are ALL OF THE TIME!

    In totally unrelated comments... does anyone know where to buy a hamburger press?

  28. dopey, sneezy, sleepy, grumpy, doc, happy, and.......... bashful! i did it!

    anyway, i have not had anyone be negative towards me in quite a while, luckily. and i can't really remember how i react when i am in a situation like that. i guess it's a good thing that i only hang out with positive, supportive people at this time in my life!

  29. good question: It's funny for me..while I spring to action when it comes to asserting myself in situations like stores, at the doctor's office, various bill companies, I turn into a quite mouse if someone on the street says something to me (aka catcalling.) Let me rephrase that - I do one of two things - I lose my voice OR I respond with a loud "Eff off!" or somesuch, which really does nothing except cause more trouble. But street scenes like this always stick with me and I can't shake them off. Wonder why I'm so sensitive?

    PS re breathing/self talk, Biofeedback is currently saving my life and I mean this is in an absolutely literal way.

  30. Negativity is very hard to break out of, it is why there are so many battered women and children out there. It is a vicious cycle that is repeated generation after generation in the worst cases.

    I have been negative about myself, about others, to others and to myself in the past. Since my cancer, I have been trying to change that. It is hardest to stop being negative about & to myself though.

    Good post Merry, I will now sing the Oscar Meyer song or recite the seven dwarves as the situation calls for them.

  31. lori hacking - Tupperware still makes a hamburger press, as far as I know.

    As for the rest of it... hmm... my DH is a terribly negative person (but he doesn't think he is). It's beginning to take a health toll on me. Gotta get more positive talk in my head!

  32. This post is so good for me to hear. Thanks! I tend to be rather hard on myself, too hard at times. I should try more positive self talk and see how that affects my confidence and behavior, huh? Afterall, it starts in the mind/heart. So, I'm gonna focus on the positive! I need to think more like Snow White! ;)

  33. That was a good post Merry - I want to be able to say something more, but I'm tired an my brain is mush. But glad you posted it, rather than giving in to the negative little voice.

  34. LOVE Cynthia Heimel! Don't you wish she was still writing (if she is, I haven't seen a new book in a while)?

    Here's what I've found to be a helpful test for whether you're just messing with yourself (because sometimes one does need to take a "critical" look at oneself/behavior)....would you let someone say whatever the little voice is saying to your daughter, sister, best friend, mother? No? Then perhaps you're being overly critical or unreasonable/unfair/unkind toward yourself.

    Two things I read that also help me in dealing with myself and others:

    1) everyone is doing the best they currently can given their particular situation

    2) when I'm feeling REALLY evolved, I can try to apply these questions to what I want to say before I say it
    is it true?
    is it kind?
    is it necessary?
    If not, I try not to say it (and to figure out why I wanted to say it).

  35. Sometimes it's a double edged sword. The negative people can make the inner critic louder and vice versa the inner sabateur is looking for proof so voila it attracts the negative people to you. Sometimes if you just sit still, the negative voices will pass if you stop judging them or try to control them. It's like letting the storm pass and being calm because you know it will pass. It's just temporary and an illusion. Took me years to learn that, but it does work. This is one reason I so want to visit the monks in Tibet to learn how they keep inner calm despite turmoil around them.

  36. "Kinda like Eyeore knocked up Rosanne Barr"

    Couldn't ... get ... past ... this ...

    Mmmfff ...

  37. I know... the thought of Eeyore and Rosanne... I think that's an image I'll try to conjure up next time the negative thoughts try to gang up on me. It's so bizarre it'll be a surefire distraction.

    And Brenda, thanks -- I didn't know there have been so many 7 dwarf sets out there. I'll have to start a collection :)

    MJ, I'll have to look for more of Cynthia Heimel's works.

    Steph, can I join you on that road trip to Tibet?

    All the comments have been really good to read. I have to go do useful (i.e. dull) chores now when what I really want to do is reply to everyone -- thank you all for the good thoughts!


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