By Simone Sobel, LCSW
Source: Official Star Wars website
I have a confession to make. Even though I teased my husband mercilessly for downloading C-3PO’s voice for his Waze navigation app, and every subsequent “yes master!” our kids parroted in response to his requests, for at least a week thereafter, I now fully intend adding my two cents to all of this Star Wars silliness. Much could (and probably has) been said about Star Wars characters from a psychotherapeutic perspective: Luke has Daddy issues, R2-D2 is constantly projecting, and Chewbacca could certainly benefit from learning to express his feelings more effectively, for example. However, since it’s anxiety we’re talking about here, C-3PO is the character who most readily springs to mind. Listening to C-3PO worriedly muttering “what a desolate place this is!” as we pulled into a motel parking lot in the middle of nowhere, on a recent road trip, made me think about all of C-3PO’s doom and gloom predictions, which seem to be powered by some seriously anxious self-talk.
In my last post I defined self-talk as our internal monologue, what we say to ourselves in any given situation. I also said that anxious or negative self-talk is one of the ways that we create and hold on to anxiety. What we say to ourselves, either positive or negative can happen so quickly and automatically that we don’t even notice it. We assume that events happen in our lives and then we have reactions or feelings about them. We don’t realize we’re missing a step in the process. In between the event and our reaction is what we tell ourselves, which is to say, how we are interpreting what’s happening. Our interpretation can have a profound effect on our feelings, reactions, mood and outlook.
I remember a conversation I had with a parent several years ago, while picking my daughter up from a play date. When I asked how things had gone, the father told me they’d had a great day and hadn’t fought once. He smiled as he reminisced, “yeah, she’s such a chilled kid now, you’d never know how much she cried as a baby.” Then he turned to his daughter and said “We didn’t mind it at all. You just needed more snuggling than your average baby and that’s how you let us know. ” I was struck by this father’s beautiful re-frame of a challenging stage in his daughter’s development. His positive interpretation allowed him to view her colicky infancy with more than a little fondness and it undoubtedly strengthened their mutually affectionate bond both then now. It can be difficult to admit how much we influence the way we feel based on what we tell ourselves—it requires taking responsibility for our reactions versus looking to external events as explanations for our feelings. But it can also empower and free us to realize we are not simply victims of circumstance and can master our reactions and their effect on our brains and bodies—an essential realization for anyone who wants to feel calmer, happier and less anxious.
Pychologist Edmund Bourne has observed that not all negative self-talk is created equal. He describes various “subpersonalities” or types of self-talk common to anxiety sufferers. Taking a look at the way C-3PO interprets and copes with various events we can see how these different subtypes express themselves:
The Worrier tends to imagine the worst-case scenario in any given situation. Danger or catastrophe seem to be around every corner, as in when C-3PO exclaims, “we’re doomed!” (Followed by the Resistance doing just fine). The odds of bad things happening are generally greatly overestimated, as in C-3PO predicting to Han Solo that, “sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1,” right before the Rebels successfully navigate the asteroid field. The Worrier often begins thoughts with the phrase “what if…” “What if I fail?” “What if I can’t manage?” “What if I end up making a fool of myself?” “What if I get hurt?”
The Critic in us likes to point out all of our flaws and faults while generally ignoring or minimizing our strengths. Critical self-talk causes us to constantly compare ourselves unfavorably to others and to judge ourselves negatively–a recipe for low self-esteem. Here’s how C-3PO berates himself when Luke and company get stuck in the trash compactor: “curse my metal body, I wasn’t fast enough, it’s all my fault! My poor Master.” Critical self-talk often takes on the voice of a critical authority figure, such as a parent or teacher, who hurt us with harsh words in the past.
The Victim makes us feel depressed and helpless by attempting to convince us we’ll never be any better, we can’t solve our problems or that there is something incurably faulty or defective about us. Here’s C-3PO again, in a classic demonstration of Victim type self-talk: “we seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.” When we employ Victim oriented self-talk we tell ourselves things like, “why bother trying, this never gets any better anyway,” “I can’t do this,” or “it’s too late to fix this.” C-3PO illustrates the effect this mentality can have on our functioning when he says “it’s times like this that I really feel like shutting down.”
The Perfectionist which is the part of us that pushes us non-stop into doing more and more to be “good enough.” The perfectionist in us wants always to be pleasing, since it associates self-worth with factors such as how much we achieve, how much we own, whether others notice us or like us, how accepted or loved we are. This persona is reflected in C-3PO’s fastidious description of his duties and fussy, overly-polite manner: “I am C-3PO, human-cyborg relations…I am fluent in over six million forms of communication” or “Excuse me sir, but might I enquire as to what’s going on?” or “Sir, If I may venture an opinion…” If only C-3PO knew that perfectionist self-talk leads to exhaustion, chronic stress and burnout.
So what’s a protocol droid to do? You’ll have to stay tuned for Part 2 to find out….
Simone Sobel, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Atlanta, providing individual, couples, and group therapy. She specializes in treating mood, anxiety, trauma, and relationship issues. Simone offers 6 week introductory anxiety skills groups for adults struggling with anxiety and panic attacks. If you would like to explore the possibility of joining a new 6 week cycle of this popular group or meeting individually with Simone, please contact her at Simone@capstoneatlanta.com or (404) 964-9260.