Self-Distancing and Soul-Talk

The cover article of the current issue of Psychology Today talks about how to “Silence Your Inner Critic.” It opens with the story of Elena, a recent law-school graduate at the top of her class, who botches a job interview. One of the recommended techniques to silence the inner critic that kicks in at such times is “self-distancing,” based on research by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and Ozlem Ayduk of UC Berkeley.

To self-distance, one replaces the first-person pronoun I with a non-first-person pronoun, you or he/she, when talking to themselves. (Elena , what happened is no reflection on your abilities. You were surprised by his question during the interview but now you know what to do. It’s called experience.) Self-distancing can be combined with asking yourself “why” questions: Why does Elena, who is so confident in the classroom, feel like a sham in the boardroom?

Such self-distancing, according to the article, allows us to replace a self-critical interpretation with a positive one. Instead of framing her job interview as a failure and beating herself up about it, Elena can create some distance from her critical self and reframe the story as an important learning experience, as a step along the way to something better.

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Photograph by Nathaniel Welch

I use this tactic of stepping back from myself and reinterpreting events and I often help my counseling clients apply it to their own lives. But for me, it’s not based on psychological research as much as on Scripture. I see the psalmists describing this sort of move repeatedly.

One excellent example is a verse repeated three times in Psalm 42-43:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation [or “my saving presence”] and my God.

What’s striking here is that the psalmist is addressing his soul like it’s another person. He’s saying, “Soul, I don’t know about you, but as for me, I’m going to praise God!” So who is the “I” here and who is the soul?

Modern translators tend to avoid the word soul, for a couple of good reasons.

First, it sounds like a separate compartment of the whole person, as if I have a body and a soul, and maybe a spirit or an intellect or a set of emotions. But the Hebrew word nefesh is better understood as the life-breath, the whole person, the self. In addition, the word “soul” suggests a duality between body and soul, the Greco-Roman idea that I have a pure and immortal soul contained within this mortal (and otherwise highly problematic) body. In this perspective, the goal of spiritual life is to somehow preserve the soul from bodily temptations and corruptions so that it will eventually depart from the body and dwell in some heavenly domain.

But the biblical, Hebraic view is holistic—yes, we have bodies and souls, but in reality we are whole persons. Soul and body are thoroughly inter-connected and whatever distinct components we might identify within ourselves don’t really capture who we are as whole human beings.

Some modern translations render nefesh as “self” or “being”, as in Robert Alter’s rendering of this verse:

How bent, my being, how you moan for me!

Hope in God, for yet will I acclaim Him,

His rescuing presence and my God.

This captures the sense of “I” exhorting my “being” to hope in God, but doesn’t seem to work as well as more traditional translations. It’s the same with Alter’s version of one of my favorite verses for exhorting oneself: “Bless, O my being, the Lord/and everything in me, His holy name” (Psalm 103:1).

I find “soul” more poetic and more helpful than the abstract “being” in learning to speak to my own inner person with words of faith and affirmation. I need to keep in mind that this soul that I’m addressing is my whole inner being, my self–yet at the same time somehow distinct from myself. The old word, soul, can be misleading, I guess, but if I get it right it is warmer and more lively than the abstract “being” or “self.”

The main point is that practicing soul-talk that reflects our father-son/daughter, I-thou relationship with God, in terms provided by Scripture, gives us power over self-criticism and the depression and anxiety that go with it.

As part of the how-to of this practice, we need to find time to absorb some of these soul-talk verses and carry them with us, through memorization or writing them down on a 3X5 card (very 20th-century) or smart phone. Here’s my example above in full context:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. Psalm 103:1-5

That ought to silence your inner critic.

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