By Kerry Acheson

If we were to closely pay attention to the stream of thoughts we have on a daily basis, we may well be surprised about how much of this includes negative evaluations of ourselves. If we were to speak them out loud, we might catch how many of our internal dialogues include harsh, punitive, unfair self-statements that knock the wind out of our sails. If we were more in the habit of speaking our thoughts out loud, we may be surprised to notice how extremely common unforgiving thought streams are. We do not simply create these internal self-dialogues in our imaginations, but rather, they are brought about by internalizing the messages, rules and norms that exist in our dominant socio-cultural discourses. We may notice that our negative internal dialogues about the self focus on scrutinizing whether or not we are rich enough, attractive enough, accomplished enough, popular enough…on and on it goes. This article is based on Stephen Madigan’s paper, Counterviewing injurious speech acts: Destabilising eight conversational habits of highly effective problems. Madigan identified eight powerful ways that problems get us to talk to – and injure – ourselves. These are:

  1. Self-surveillance/audience
  2. Illegitimacy
  3. Escalating fear
  4. Negative imagination/ invidious comparison
  5. Internalized bickering
  6. Hopelessness
  7. Perfection
  8. Paralyzing guilt

If we can learn to identify when these problematic internal dialogues are at play, we can start challenging them, and move towards preferred possibilities. I will describe the first internalized problematic habit below. You can follow the web address to a reading of the remaining 7 online.

Self-surveillance/ audience:

This first problematic habit that Madigan describes relates to the way that we practice self-surveillance in relation to a perceived audience. We tend to be frequently looking at ourselves, wondering how we are appearing to others, and attaching hefty evaluations about how we think we are coming across to others. The problems in our lives tend to latch onto this process, using it against us. We are subjected to imagined conversations about our inadequacies, with judgmental others who may not even be in our present day to day lives (Madigan, 2003). The effects can be crippling, and problems such as anxiety and depression can be strongly reinforced in this way.

As a renowned narrative therapist, Madigan’s work is situated in poststructural theory. As such, Madigan emphasizes that these internal harmful dialogues can be traced back to their socio-cultural contexts. Historical, institutional, economic and political factors all contribute to shaping and maintaining these problematic conversational habits, and require exploration. Once an awareness of these factors is developed, it is possible to engage in a critique of this, examining possibilities and re-claiming appreciation for the individual’s skills and strengths (Madigan, 2003).

Engaging with critical questions can help to deconstruct these problematic discourses and counteract their painful effects on our lives. Firstly, questions serve to help us to identify and understand how this internalized habit operated. We can ask ourselves, who is the audience in this internalized dialogue? Who is the ‘spokesperson’ and what are they saying? What is the effect of this dialogue on how I feel, see myself, relate and act? What supports this argument, what gives it it’s power? (Madigan, 2003).

The habit of self-surveillance/ audience has us convinced that we are mind-readers, able to accurately perceive someone’s negative judgments towards us. Madigan proposes that this belief can be deconstructed by asking questions such as: ‘how is it that the habit has somehow made you believe you are psychic within a practice of negative prediction’? and ‘how is it that you are never able to read a person’s positive perceptions of you?’ (2003, p. 48).

‘Counterviewing questions’ (Madigan, 2003) can help to develop resistance to this habit, and strengthen our resources in relation to it. For example, we might ask questions such as: ‘If you were alone to speak up for yourself, what might you say on behalf of yourself?’ (p. 48) What and who make up the ‘you-supporting alternative audience?’ (p. 47) ‘What would your supporters say in defense and why? When is this message strongest?’ (p. 47)

I encourage you to read about the other 7 internalised dialogue habits – they are often not present in isolation, but instead they join forces with each other. These problematic conversational habits exist across the board, and while therapy can be a space to explore these habits helpfully, therapists themselves are not exempt from these problems. These internal dialogues serve to isolate us, and isolation gives problems all the more scope to run rampant in our minds and lives. Nurturing our positive connections to supportive others is key (Madigan, 2003).

Madigan, S. (2003). Counterviewing injurious speech acts: Destabilising eight conversational habits of highly effective problems. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, No. 1

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