For many of us, being hard on ourselves is a pattern of behavior we’ve developed over the course of time. We are self-critical, we are judgmental and we find ourselves “failing” in many different directions. It may not be words we say aloud but these are the words, I think of them as “the tapes,” that play in our heads.
We find ourselves wanting on every level. We shouldn’t have eaten that second cookie. We should have exercised more. We had a project at work go badly and we feel at fault. We beat ourselves up for an interaction with a loved one that didn’t go well. The list goes on. I don’t know about you but I have an encyclopedic memory for negative moments and I can bring them quickly and fully to mind, especially in the middle of the night.
Our elders can do the same and often do. They may be angry or frustrated by their inability to do things that were once easy. They often blame themselves for things in their past—relationships, decisions, interactions they wish they had handled differently. They see changes in themselves that are hard to accept and changes in others that they cannot fix. And often, so often, the emotions come out in either spoken or unspoken negative ways.
As individuals who care for elders, whether personally, professionally or both, we need to remind ourselves that what we see on the surface may not be the cause of the behavior and that our efforts to “make it okay” cannot succeed without understanding the “why”—and the “why” may not be something the elder can articulate or define or share.
One of the tools that we can use, with our elders and ourselves, is to ask the question “If your best friend (child/spouse etc.) were in this situation; if they were saying the negative things about themselves that you say about yourself; what would you tell them?” Not an easy thing to do, to try and take a new perspective. But when we can do it, the results can be significant.
None of us would talk to the people we care about in the way that we talk to ourselves. We wouldn’t say the nasty things to them that we repeat in our own minds. We wouldn’t criticize the big things and the small and we wouldn’t use words like “idiot, failure, stupid” and all the rest to describe those who matter to us.
Yes, our elders—and many of us—have had a lifetime of practice at negative self-talk. It is, however, a pattern that we can change if we not only make our own effort but make the effort with others. When we reframe the situation and ask what we would say to a friend, we can open not just a door into a different outcome but also an opportunity to change our thinking, incorporating something we all need, kindness and grace.