A Powerful Therapeutic Tool for Defeating Negative Self-Talk By Jim Davis on 2/14/23 - 12:13 PM

A client of mine, let’s call her “Jill,” got nervous for business meetings no matter what they were about. She often worried, daydreamed, and lost sleep the night before meetings. Afterward, she typically acknowledged something to the extent of, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought.”

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This was an exhausting strategy. Jill was convinced that her stream of hyperactive self-talk was preparing her for what was to come, but the amount of bandwidth chewed up by worry undercut her ability to plan well, if at all. On the day of the meeting, Jill presented as anxious, at least at first, until she realized that all was well. Fear of the moment was worse than the moment itself.

Sound familiar? Many of our clients experience similar struggles with anxiety and negative self-talk.

Eventually, Jill enlisted a strategy called WBL. Instead of steering her away from negative thinking (which would have felt precipitously close to telling her ‘How to feel’), we tapped into her brain’s natural predisposition to predict and created some parameters around it. It proved to be a powerful tool in our work.

A Cognitive Behavioral Intervention: The WBL Strategy

I adapted the WBL model from core CBT principles and have found it useful while working with clients like Jill. At the beginning of our work together, Jill and I defined the specifics of situations that aroused her anxiety. Often when anxious a set of varied concerns coalesced and appeared as one item. We combatted this generalized anxiety through a process called “unbraiding,” wherein we specified one particular concern from among the many. When her concerns appeared tangled, we pulled at only one thread.

Despite her competence and high level of achievement, Jill had grappled with imposter syndrome in the past, and at each new meeting, was inclined to “prove” her professional value.

After identifying the concern, we began the WBL process. The W stands for Worst. Jill was asked to imagine the worst possible scenario, with two limits: 1) take notes; and 2) keep time. We did this with pen and paper handy. The task was to write the ideas down and, importantly, to be honest. This was an important phase for multiple reasons.

First, we honored the inclination of her mind at that moment. In a recent incident, Jill was afraid of being shouted at. She said she did not want to feel powerless. She recounted her journey to achieve her position in the company and was terrified of losing that status. Once this worst-case scenario had been named, we were able to create space for it and distance from it. By talking through the W, we determined that it was not the business meeting that was bothering her, but the fear of feeling inadequate.

Together we agreed not to focus on the W for too long. We set a timer for five minutes and stuck to it. Importantly, Jill was the one who physically set the timer on her phone. She owned the duration; she set a barrier around the time we were allowed to spend considering the W. Before we started this process, Jill spent too much time contemplating the worst possible outcome.

The longer she sat in that hypothetical, negative situation, the more she colored her mind with negativity. Prior to beginning the WBL process, she would enter business meetings in that hyper-negative state, and as soon as she sensed that the meeting felt “off,” she would interpret it as a confirmation.

Therefore, the immediate next step, B, asked her to consider the Best possible outcome of the situation. Entertain the idea that the meeting will be full of praise, ending in a big promotion. What would that look like? Would it come with more free time? More money? More travel? It took considerable effort for Jill to allow herself to consider such a positive outcome. This phase of our work was not about considering what was “pretty good,” but instead, what the best could look like.

Jill had trouble getting to this place. She was hesitant to think big. She had no trouble going to the W but believed that the wonderful reaches of the B were not likely, so she talked herself out of them. Over time, we worked together to understand that the best was, by definition, just as likely as the worst — they were two ends of a hypothetical spectrum that she created.

Once we identified those two poles, we found a spot in between (it can be helpful to draw out the continuum on a piece of paper). In the L phase, which stands for Likeliest, we took a moment to be truly sensible. The outcome of Jill’s upcoming meeting was not likely to be at the worst pole, and, unfortunately, not likely to be at the best pole.

So where was it most likely to be? At this point, she tended to lean back toward the W side of the spectrum. It was important that she catch herself leaning into that negative default and do the work to stay centered. I encouraged her to, if anything, lean toward the B and let her mind be colored by positive thoughts, as they would have an impact on her interactions.

Once we did the work of naming the concern, then working through the WBL model, we put it all together. She had the power to influence the direction of the meeting through the energy she would bring to it.

Cognitive Strategies Lead to Successful Outcomes

Cognitive strategies like CBT did not rid Jill’s professional life of challenge but improved her approach to challenges. Jill was successful and driven. She was accomplished and continued to move in a positive direction. She credited taking control of her self-talk as an important step in the future she imagined for herself.

Deliberately cultivating Jill’s mindset was not a soft, feel-good skill (though it did feel good). It positively impacted outcomes. We call those positive outcomes feedback. The more positive feedback she received, the more confidence was built, and the less likely she would default the next time around toward a worst-case scenario. The more we repeated this process, the more we shifted the default positions away from the worst and toward the best.

The brain is, first and foremost, a prediction machine. The WBL tool helped us get behind the wheel of that machine and steer it. The difficult journey for Jill turned out to be well worth the effort.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy