Self-Talk Matters:

A Case Study About Tim

In 1976, I used to be able to sneeze 30 times in a row. It was quite entertaining for my new friends in the doctoral program at the University of Minnesota, where I had just moved from Massachusetts. Besides the program, Minnesota apparently also offered ragweed in profusion, unlike my former home back East.

Fortunately, the university hospital and student health service also had a terrific allergy clinic, and I went through the skin scratch tests to learn about the garden variety of things to which I was allergic -- and there were several, the biggest offender being ragweed.

Treatment involved the preparation of a concoction very specific to me, and designed to help me withstand the adverse allergic effects of the stuff I was allergic to. And the treatment plan called for me to receive subcutaneous injections -- big ones -- of the serum every two weeks from early in the spring until first frost late in the fall. Over the winter I would receive a maintenance dose of half the usual amount until the spring build-up to help be withstand the pollen that was sure to follow when the weather got warmer (which some people in the nation assume never happens in Minnesota, but actually does).

The large injections in my arm (I'm remembering something like 250 cc., but it always seemed like about a gallon and a half) never hurt much, but they always were…weird. Laced with a little adrenaline to help it absorb better, it always raised a welt on my shoulder, often with little short-lived prickly heat-sized bumps on the skin, and invariably accompanied by a cold, crawly sensation in my arm as if a bunch of quick-frozen worker ants had thawed out all at once and gotten down to business.

I liked not sneezing and having the red, watery eyes, but I have to say that the injections were not pleasant. And, presumably, I was looking at a lifetime of these to control the symptoms.

In mid-1884 my former spouse abruptly walked out of our seemingly good marriage, leaving me basically in shock, grief, and with two kids, 1 and 3, to raise on my own [bear with me here; this actually is part of the story I'm telling]. Over the next few months, as you can imagine, I had a lot of adjusting and soul-searching to do. I did continue to receive the regular allergy injections, however, but they began to take on an even more aversive persona than the previous "oh, they're a nuisance but they keep me from sneezing 30 times in a row." I began to question whether I needed this particular (literal) pain in my life at a time when there already was way too much other emotional pain in my life.

Later in the summer of 1984, my department at the university invited back a wonderful guy named Ray McGee to teach a summer workshop. Ray and I had become friends a couple years earlier, and as I sat with him and his students I listened with brand new ears to a story he also had told during his previous class with us. And it was about the power of self-talk.

Without going into significant detail, the story was about Ray's experience in a human development training experience some years before called the Omega Seminar. One requirement of the seminar was for each participant to repeat -- mantra-like -- a series of six self-talk affirmations morning and night, upon rising and just before going to sleep. Each was to be repeated 10 times in succession before going on to the next statement, and all the affirmation statements were to be completed each time.

The statements were broadly applicable affirmations emphasizing self-worth and personal responsibility, and again are listed below (they're also on the main Positive Self-Talk page):

1. I like myself unconditionally.

2. I never devalue myself through destructive self-criticism.

3. I have unconditional warm regard for all people at all times.

4. I am easily able to relax at any time and every day through every affirmation I am healthier in mood, body, and spirit.

5. I am a self-determined person and I allow all others that same right.

6. I am completely responsible for all my responses to all other people and to all events.

As I listened to Ray McGee's story, it struck me that similarly-formulated statements, but specifically directed at a particular individual's important life issues, could be quite helpful to a person. Of course, the person whose life issues I was most acutely attuned to at that time was me. So over a period of weeks I ruminated on a meaningful "Tim list" of statements. My initial list followed the basic dictates of the more generic Omega Seminar statements I had learned from Ray McGee, and in the years since I have taught this to all my own stress management students:

    1. Each statement was personally meaningful, about an issue that had significant importance to me, and therefore a worthy reminder to self.

    2. Each statement was carefully worded so as to be positively, affirmatively framed [i.e., even a positively-intended reminder to self could carry a darker meta-message. For example, if the reminder was to be about healthy eating habits, the statement "I like and enjoy eating healthy foods" is much more positive and less ambiguous than "I like and enjoy being less of a junk food junkie."].

    3. Each statement was concise enough to be easy to remember by heart (and early on, as I was getting into the habit of repeating them, also brief enough to copy onto a small note card that I could carry with me).

    4. Each statement represented either something important enough to keep in place in my life or something that I wanted to have in place in my life, even if that was far from being the case at the moment (in other words, a goal to work towards).

    5. Each statement began with the words "I like and enjoy…."

In general, it is important to remember that one's list need not remain static over time. While some particular statements may be so important that they are worth repeating every day of one's life, others may address shorter-term issues or goals and will disappear from the list after a time. Each person decides on their own; they are in charge of the number and content of the reminders.

My original list in mid-1984 had some additional "here-and-now" items on it, but below are the basic items that have endured in one form or another from then until the present day:

    1. I like and enjoy liking myself and treating myself with respect no matter what happens.

    2. I like and enjoy being a good spouse to Susan and a good dad to Adam, Katie, Megan, and Rick.

    3. I like and enjoy being clear about what is truly important in my life.

    4. I like and enjoy loving life and being grateful for all that I have.

    5. And finally in 1984, at a time when wresting back control of my life was a big priority, I included one more item, clearly a goal rather than a reminder:  I like and enjoy being free and clear of all allergens without medication. Late in the summer of 1984, upon commencing the positive self-talk, I made a deal with myself that I would continue to receive the weekly injections of allergy serum until first frost, then continue with the maintenance doses through the winter (the serum already had been purchased). When the serum ran out in the spring of 1985, however, I would not repurchase it, and would face the next allergy season without it.

And that's exactly what I did, and without sneezing fits…ever again. Oh, on the days when the weather people on TV show the projected pollen levels to be sky-high, I still sneeze, but -- like the vast majority of others in our part of the country who have hay fever -- I control it with over the counter allergy medication. It's great being this "normal" again.

In the years since, I have had some interesting discussions with friends and students about how (they think) I obviously just "grew out of" my allergies. This talking to my body stuff was just something quirky -- flaky, even – that I did, but certainly had nothing to do with the fact that the symptoms I'd had for eight years all but disappeared over the winter of 1984-85. And my response to them always was, "Well, maybe you're right. But, then again, I believe that my reminders to self had something to do with it." And in any case, I no longer am talking to myself about a goal; it's a reality.

This reality also came at no monetary cost to myself, unlike the purchase of the expensive serum and the 39 trips to the clinic every year to be injected. Conservatively, the cost to me was the time that it took to say to myself 10 times in succession, twice per day, "I like and enjoy being free and clear of all allergens without medication."

The math on this, by the way, was that by the time my serum ran out in the spring of 1985 I had given myself the "free and clear" message (along with the other ones as well) around 3000 times (150 days x 20 times per day). Between 1985 and this most recent revision of this website in mid-2013, even allowing for forgetfulness or lapses in the routine, and only repeating the important messages 10 times each (instead of 20) the important messages have been "heard" by me over 104,000 times. So no matter what happens to be going on in my life at any given point in time, these reminders are always with me.

So, what one or two or three issues or goals are important enough to you that keeping them in the forefront of your consciousness in this way could become a priority for you? Think about it -- there's no time like the present to begin.

Tim