The other day, my sister Jeanne and I were discussing what we said to ourselves when we did not do something quite right, forgot something, or made a mistake—and it wasn’t pretty. In fact it was downright degrading. I asked her if she would say the same thing to anyone else who had done the same thing. “Absolutely not!” she responded in a horrified tone of voice.
I mentioned this subject to several other colleagues (primarily, but not solely women) and found that all of them—not several, but ALL—to some extent did the same thing. Such self-talk can be so demeaning that it moves way out of the realm of negative and into the sphere of self-destructive: disrespectful, degrading, and disparaging. Sometimes this negative self-talk occurs over the pettiest of matters, so you can well imagine what we might say to ourselves if the matter was serious!
People say heartbreakingly cruel things to themselves, and some eventually come to believe it. This damages self-esteem and quite frankly undermines our performance—most particularly when it is “heard” day after day after day. In an objective forum, it would be considered verbal abuse. Certainly it is a characteristic of abusive relationships. It is learned behavior, though many of us have no idea where we learned it. Nonetheless, thoughts produce emotions, which produce chemicals that affect a person both physically and psychologically.
What has any of this to do with ethics? Well, you are a person too. You also have human rights, among which is the right to be seen and respected as a human being by everybody, you included. Saying such things to anyone else, being so disparaging and disrespectful is, on its face, wrong. Saying such things to yourself is equally as wrong, but for some reason many of us do not seem to see it as clearly because self-talk is so automatic. And, obviously, thoughts are private, so no one else can know about it and correct you for thinking such things about yourself.
Moreover, if self-talk undermines your effectiveness, others can be hurt by your thoughts, especially when you are in the “business” of caring for others. Words and thoughts have their own energy, and thoughts clearly include self-talk. Everything you think and say more than affects — it effects — the energy you transmit, often unconsciously, to others. Ethics has to do with figuring out what is right and what is wrong. Cruel self-talk is wrong.
Morality has to do with what you do about what you think is wrong. So now we face the moral question. Are you going to do something about it? It will take a conscious effort. Changing an automatic response is very difficult, it is really, really hard. However, morality definitely includes what we do about what we think is right.
I am not sure whether this reflection comes under the rubric of “ethics” or “morality.” Perhaps it belongs under both.
Leah Curtin is Executive Editor, Professional Outreach for American Nurse Today.