PTSD, Self-Talk, and the Power of Change

Ten years or so ago, God gave me a wake-up call. The process involved a lot of things I didn’t like very much: illness, pain, confrontation from loved ones. In the middle of the mess, I figured out one thing.

I needed to change. I wanted to change. And God had put the tools in my hand to change.

Over the course of the next months, I began to do something simple: I started to study the way I thought and to journal about my thinking patterns. I learned to become “three Shellys.” I learned to observe my thoughts, then ask myself questions about the motives and goals behind them.

For instance, one day I walked into our master bathroom and immediately got ticked off.  Shelly #1 wanted to criticize her husband Dan about the way he was painting the bathroom ceiling (Who brush-strokes a ceiling anyway? Duh.). But I’d figured out that I could observe myself and ask questions about my behavior. So Shelly #2 paid attention. And, sure enough, she felt a pang of guilt for her attitude. She wanted to fling a sarcastic comment at her really sweet husband who was using his Saturday to paint a ceiling in a bathroom the size of a walnut. (And why? Because his wife was concerned that their weekend houseguest who would be staying in the master bedroom might look up while he was brushing his teeth and see a dingy ceiling…) But the minute Shelly #2 felt the twinge, Shelly #3 shifted into gear with a series of questions: Why are you so angry? What’s behind what you’re feeling right now?

I followed this process for a series of months, and I journaled about it. And over time, I learned a lot about my real motives. I learned a lot about secrets, ugliness, and hurts inside of me.

And, by the grace and power of God, I changed in powerful ways.  I didn’t realize at the time that I was practicing a form of external dialogue taught in trauma therapy.

Dr. Suzanne Phillips, author of Healing Together for Couples: A Couple’s Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress, tells us that “our inner dialogue is actually the fabric of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Sometimes the inner message is very conscious; sometimes it is so automatic that we hardly know we are thinking it; and sometimes it is without conscious thought.”

Dr. Phillips suggests ways that people can change their internal dialogue and move forward toward healing and hope. In the Christian faith community, we recognize this age-old principle as confronting lies with truth.

Dr. Phillips suggests the following principles for transforming negative self-talk to positive self-talk:

Replace negative messages from the past with positive message from your present adult self – That was then. They should see me now. That was a very small world. I own my life and my goals. I know how to parent myself. I want this for myself.  I have people in my life now who believe in me.

Connect positive messages with your present goals. – They always said I loved competition. I usually figured out a way. My parents never gave up on me. My Dad knew I was smart. I’m like my Mother – I don’t give up.

Re-frame negative messages from the past and use them positively. –  If I could get though cancer, I can do anything. I am not a victim – I’m a survivor. If I could cook for four kids all those years, I can cook for myself on this diet. I want to be strong enough to travel alone or with a group.

If you tell yourself you’re your own worst enemy or have a “lack of willpower” to achieve your goals, you may be stuck in an old survival patterns of thinking.

Learn to drop negative messages by coming to understand why you think you need to hang on to them.

To read Dr. Phillips’ article, go to

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