There’s A New Sheriff Between Your Ears

Deputy Dawg Days!

I recently had a client that wanted to change her ‘self-esteem’. Since I have never seen a ‘self-esteem’ I had to figure out exactly what she was talking about before I could determine whether or not we could change ‘it’. Self-esteem falls into the category of metaphysical beasties that are actually a collection of actions that we try to abbreviate into a thing in order to make ‘it’ easier to talk about. My test of true ‘thingness’ is whether or not the alleged ‘thing’ can be sliced into my weekly pot of gumbo. I suspected her ‘self-esteem’ failed my gumbo test. After very few minutes of conversation I found that was indeed the case. Her ‘self-esteem’ was a conversational convenience, but therapeutically a major inconvenience. She had a bucket full of habitual thoughts that she would think about herself, most of which seemed uncomplimentary. By linguistically freezing that bucket of thinking (actions) into a frozen ice sculpture thing called ‘self-esteem’ she made a delightful table decoration that was very good at resisting change. Actions are almost always easier to change than things. In NLP lingo this process of de-animating a verb into a noun is called ‘nominalization’.

Once I convinced her to disregard the big scary ‘self-esteem’ monster, and start examining the specific thinking that contributed to how she felt about herself, she discovered a recurring pattern. She habitually talked herself into feeling bad about herself. Many of these internal voices that she heard weren’t even hers. Some were the voices (as well as content and tone) of her parents. Some of the voices she heard were past acquaintances. Even her children got to speak their piece on the soundstage between her ears. The result was an ongoing narrative attack of her relative worth. Her internal voices rarely, if ever, made her feel good.

There are a few basic points about these voices. First, she is not unique; we all seem to have them. Secondly, while we may recall the first time we heard the voice, we keep playing the voice over and over, whether in our own voice, or the original, like the proverbial, and now archaic, broken record. We do this, even though the historic incident prompting the initial iteration of the voice has long since passed. It’s like we’ve been deputized to continue making ourselves feel bad while the original speaker is off to do other things, lost interest, or even passed on. For all we know, the original speaker may even have changed their mind, and would not be caught dead saying the things we are still replaying.

Complicating matters somewhat is the often-observed fact that we rarely, if ever, question the accuracy of these internal voices and the thinking that they express. If they say it, we believe it, and allow ourselves to entertain feelings accordingly. This phenomenon can be problematic until we change the content and nature of that thinking, then it is cause for celebration. If the voices started singing your praises, reminding you of the great things you have done and will do, and you accepted those voiced thoughts as readily as you accepted the less flattering thinking, then the mythical ‘self-esteem’ wouldn’t be an issue.

The process we used to change the nature of the thoughts this client was busy thinking was to first change the tone of the voice talking. It is a little difficult to feel too bad when the internal voice berating you is in a squirrelly falsetto, like Alvin the Chipmunk. Then, to impact the significance of the voices even more, I asked her to add calliope circus music to the background. If you have a visual image that accompanies the critical voice, go ahead and paint clown faces on the speakers to go along with the whimsical tunes. While stopping the voices completely is difficult, changing their quality is relatively easy. Making these simple alterations in the voices helped free her from the unpleasant impact of the old voices. She was smiling.

We could have stopped there, and I suspect her bucket of thoughts would have been easier to entertain. Of course we didn’t stop. Since she already had this wonderful ready-made piece of internal audio equipment playing, we decided why not use it to play some great thoughts!

I had her recall some good things people had said to her in the past. I also had her make up some things that folks would have said had they known how incredible she really was. I did have to coach her a bit on this, but it’s amazing how your brain can start thinking these pleasant thoughts once the distraction of the belittling thoughts is reduced. The resulting good feelings are often sufficient motivation to keep those great thoughts coming. Of course, she may backslide from time to time, but now she knows she has editorial privileges, and can change the content, and the quality of those internally voiced thoughts any time she is ‘of a mind to’.

I re-deputized her as the sheriff in charge of making sure she felt good.

This is another helpful mind management tip from Richard Lefever and the brain weavers at Quit! Check out our web-site at