Negative self-talk is a killer. It can destroy joy, motivation, success, and self-esteem in a heartbeat. Born of fear and anxiety, it’s a powerful force that often lurks below our consciousness.
It can be the major determinant of how well or poorly we attain our goals and reach our potential. The way we talk to ourselves in our own minds has a big impact on our quality of lives.
By learning about negative self-talk, we can end its reign and get on with living our best lives. We can do this by:
How to Stop Negative Self-Talk
1. Understanding its purpose.
It’s sometimes difficult to view negative self-talk as purposeful. Why, we think, would I ever say things to myself which aren’t in my best interest? Why would I speak to myself in ways that I wouldn’t speak to anyone I love and care deeply about? The answer rests in the process of evolution.
When our species began some 200,000 years ago, there was a great deal to fear in our environment: wild animals, natural disasters, enemies – it was truly survival of the fittest. Our fears, tucked away in memory, were crucial to keeping us alive. These fears surfaced in the form of strong emotions and the meaning we made of them, such as fight or flight.
So if you thought that you were about to be attacked by a bear, you might have said to yourself, “Gee, that sounds just like a bear, like the one that tried to attack me last time I was in this part of the forest. I’d better skedaddle before he knows I’m here.” Of course, that would be extremely useful self-talk in that moment, because it’s for self-preservation.
Fast forward 200,000 years when we have far fewer authentic threats. What was then positive self-talk that protected us is now negative self-talk that prevents us from thriving. It’s true that if you were now in the woods and came upon a bear, you might want to urge yourself to move along in haste.
But it would also be important, if you were at the zoo with your son and saw a bear lumbering over to you, not to panic, grab your son’s hand, flee, and start screaming for help. Understanding negative self-talk means that you recognize that it might be there to help you—but it also may end up hurting you.
2. Listening to our self-chatter.
I use the word chatter to illustrate that our minds are full of babble pretty much all day long. This chatter is background noise that we ignore at our peril.
You may be thinking that you don’t engage in self-chatter, but saying to yourself, “Boy, would she get on with it” or “What a bunch of malarkey” is self-talk, that is, speaking words from self to self to express a thought or emotion.
We all engage in self-talk – that fact is neither good nor bad. It simply is. It’s part of how humans think and motivate themselves to take action. It’s no different than conversing with other people, except that we’re more conscious of doing the latter than the former. You know, that is, (hopefully) that you’re talking with someone.
You don’t always know that you’re having a tête-à-tête with yourself—but you are most of the time. As an eating disorders therapist, my clients describe the conversations they have with themselves about eating certain foods.
Self-talk might go like this, “Boy, I sure would love a piece of that cheesecake. But I shouldn’t have it. But I really want it. So what if I eat it. I already had French fries and a milkshake. The day’s already ruined.”
It really helps them to focus on what they’re saying to themselves, especially the directives that aren’t going to enhance their eating. If they can start listening to themselves, then they can identify what they’re saying that isn’t helpful.
3. Identifying negative self-talk.
Once you start to listen closely to the monologue or dialogue that runs through your mind all day long, you can decide what is negative – and stop saying it. Remember that our words reflect our thoughts and beliefs. What we’re really doing is rooting out the cognitions which are not beneficial and replacing them with ones that are.
Negative self-talk is chock-full of words such as can’t, should, shouldn’t, bad, and wrong. Frequently, it involves words such as always and never. It impedes progress and smacks of self-denigration. Here are some examples:
- I can’t do that.
- I know I’ll fail if I try.
- I always make mistakes.
- I can’t ever do anything right.
- I should know better.
- I shouldn’t do that, but I’m too weak to say no.
- I’m such a failure.
- Dad is right, I won’t amount to anything.
- Mom is right, I’m too fat to be lovable.
Negative self-talk can be general or specific, such as telling yourself you’re not good, or smart, or motivated enough to succeed at anything. It could be picking specific areas, for example, to eat healthfully, find love, or get a decent job.
It’s often a repetition of what we’ve been told in childhood, such as that we’re too picky, or quiet or lazy. The sad thing is that we don’t even realize that we’ve internalized someone else’s view of us. We actually believe its truth or fact that we came up with ourselves.
4. Reframing self-talk.
Reframing is a term that comes from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that means expressing a thought differently. Let’s say, for instance, that you want to try out for a local cooking contest and you’ve never done anything like that before.
Not wanting to make a fool of yourself, you might tell yourself, “That’s a stupid idea. What do I know about cooking?” Obviously, this declaration by your inner critic is bound to impede you from signing up for the contest. A way to reframe your thoughts in a more positive light would be, “That’s an interesting idea. I may not be a professional chef, but everyone’s been telling me for years what a fabulous cook I am.”
Reframing involves going from negative to positive. It’s best done in the present tense, so that “I’m signing up today” is better than “I plan to sign up.” It also works best when it’s specific, so that “I’m using that great chili recipe everyone raves about” is more powerful than saying, “I hope I find a good recipe.”
Reframing should be done in the moment. If you say something negative about yourself or your abilities – and you catch it – stop right then and reframe your thoughts. Don’t wait. After a while, this three-step process of listening, identifying, and reframing negative self-talk will become a habit.
5. Replace self-condemnation with self-compassion.
It’s not enough to eliminate negative self-talk. We must replace it by saying something positive about ourselves – that something would be via self-compassion. If you are hard on yourself, you might want to read ‘Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself’ by Kristin Neff, Ph.D..
It explains how we acquire and develop what therapists call a harsh super ego. The book also describes how to think about and speak to yourself in a loving, caring, kind way. As our self-talk is reflective of what we actually think of ourselves, it’s essential to change our self-view so that our talk flows out of it.
You will have a hard time erasing negative self-talk if you really believe that you’re a failure, that you’re defective, worthless, lazy, or stupid. Obviously, like the rest of us, you’ve made mistakes, have flaws, are motivated to do some things, and aren’t smart about everything. However, know that you are always worthy and lovable no matter what you internalized about yourself in childhood, or what anyone says about you now.
If you want to flip your self-talk from negative to positive, you’ll need to change your self-view. Speaking kindly to yourself in an upbeat manner will help the process. Fake it ‘til you make it works. But the fastest, most sustainable way to turn around your self-chatter is by making sure that you believe you deserve every kind and encouraging word you say to yourself.