How to Stop Negative Self-Talk
Would you tell one of your friends that they’re “stupid?”
“Not good enough?”
That it’s “too late” for them to go after their goals?
That you “don’t like” their body, nose, skin, fill-in-the-blank?
That you “hate” them? (and not in the “omg-I-hate-you-why-would-you-do-this” kind of way, when they do something silly)
Well, if you’re a good friend (and I do hope that you are :) ) you wouldn’t say those things to another person, let alone someone you love. But you don’t always have a problem with being unkind or mean to yourself, do you?
We say all those things to ourselves without hesitation.
The way you talk to yourself can help you stay motivated, driven and inspired. Sometimes, it can be a source of solutions to your problems. It can, however, also be a source of a lot of excessive negativity- that’s when it becomes harmful. I spent years struggling with this and it wasn’t just me telling myself that “I’m so stupid” when I did something… well, stupid. It was a constant, ongoing battle. I would tell myself things that made me doubt myself, things that made me feel bad about myself, things I did, said or wanted to accomplish.
Most of the time, no one else says these “bad” or negative things about you, to you, on a daily basis.* Definitely not in the way you say them to yourself.
Negative self-talk is a learned behavior. This means that just like other habits, it can also be unlearned. Or, rather, replaced by other, positive patterns.
HOW TO STOP NEGATIVE SELF-TALK
Negative self-talk can be one of the most harmful mental habits.
Just as you make an effort to stick to a healthy diet, your workout routine, an organized desk or a productive schedule, you have put as much effort into those mental habits you want to change. These are not always, as I call them “visible habits.” Because when you’re in great shape, it shows. When you’re healthy and full of energy- it shows.
The thing with the self-talk is that most of it, if not all of it, happens on the inside. Many of us also have no problem pretending that everything’s fine until we’re alone and start going in circles, criticizing ourselves. For doing too much, for not doing enough. Maybe it’s for not being good enough, maybe it’s you blaming yourself for something you did, said, or… didn’t do.
These negative thoughts can sometimes be called cognitive distortions– a term used to describe irrational, fixed and inaccurate thoughts and beliefs that distort our perception of reality, usually in a negative way. They can affect your confidence, your performance, self-esteem. To stop negative self-talk patterns, you need to do a little more than just using positive affirmations (although you know that I do love them).
The approach we’ll talk about in this post is based on the concept of cognitive restructuring- a method of challenging those irrational thoughts. This is something you’d normally do with the help of a therapist but it can be very helpful in recognizing some negative thought patterns and cycles. There’s a lot more to the concept than just what I talk about in this post and if it’s something you want to understand/explore further you can find more information in this book.
1. STAY AWARE + RECOGNIZE TRIGGERS
Pay close attention to things that trigger your negative self-talk. Are there any specific events or circumstances that set it off? Whenever you find yourself in a situation where you experience sudden negative emotions, hit pause. The first step is noticing that a situation triggered a negative response. Stay aware and make note of exactly what happened. Sometimes these emotions are triggered by other people, for example:
- someone cuts you off on the road
- your boss tells you “we need to talk when you get a minute”
- a friend (or your partner) acts distant or quiet
Other times, these emotions can also be set off by thoughts that suddenly pop into your head:
- “This is the second time I’m having this pain on my side, what if something is wrong?”
- “My work colleague didn’t say hi to me today, is she avoiding me? Did I do or say something wrong? Was she giving me a dirty look earlier today?”
- “I can’t believe I talked so much at that party last weekend. Can’t I ever just shut up? I am so fucking annoying!”
Ask the right questions
To help identify and specify your triggers, you can use the five “Ws” (Who? What? Why? When? Where?). It’s usually easy to identify which situations are the cause, as long as you make an effort to be more aware of shifts in the intensity of your emotions. This is mainly because most of the time, these are repetitive patterns. As these responses often run on autopilot, you might not even be aware the patterns exist, until you become more mindful of them. Maybe you are quite aware but thought of it as neither a positive nor a negative thing? You know, as in “this is normal, it’s just the way I am and I can’t change it.” Well, you can change it and you can start by recognizing your triggers. After identifying the first trigger, write it down.
2. ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR THOUGHTS
Your thoughts and the narrative you’re setting up are both linked to your emotions. If your thoughts about yourself are habitually negative, you’ll also find it nearly impossible to feel good about yourself.
Usually, your negative thoughts are automatic. They’re an instinctive response to and judgment of situations and triggers we talked about above. Let’s use the scenario of your friend acting distant mentioned in the previous paragraph. The trigger that set off a strong negative emotion, was (“who?”) a friend (“or what?”) a friend acting distant. What automatic thoughts do you notice? Some of these can be:
- “I must have said something wrong.”
- “She’s probably annoyed with me for not coming out with her for drinks last Saturday.”
- “Maybe she’d rather hang out with her other friends who are way more outgoing than me.”
To stop, or at least reduce, the time you spend engaging in negative self-talk, you have to increase your consciousness of these thoughts and analyze them carefully. Write down those automatic thoughts you noticed.
3. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR EMOTIONS
The emotions you experience are generally determined by the type of thoughts you’re having. In this part of the exercise, you will examine your emotional response triggered by those instinctive thoughts. What emotions are linked to the thoughts you’re having? How intense are the emotions you’re feeling? Which thoughts cause an intense reaction?
So, if your friend is acting distant and you’re thinking “I must have said something wrong” you’re likely to feel worried. When you’re thinking that “she’d rather hang out with her other friends who are more outgoing than me” you might be experiencing multiple emotions. Such as a mix of both anxiety and sadness. Note how these thoughts are making you feel, and how strong those emotions are.
4. CHALLENGE YOUR THOUGHTS
After you recognize your trigger, along with thoughts and emotions linked to them, take some time to analyze what you’re thinking. The point of doing this is to challenge your thoughts and face them with a more realistic approach. Our thoughts are biased most of the time. The process of challenging your thoughts will allow you to interpret your negative response using a more objective viewpoint. You can do that by asking yourself some of these questions:
- Is this thought a result of me jumping to negative conclusions?
- What is my evidence that supports this thinking?
- What is my evidence that doesn’t support this thinking?
- Am I basing my judgment on my thoughts or facts?
- Is there a different way of looking at this situation?
- Is this situation as bad as I am making it out to be?
- What are some things I can do to solve the problem?
- Does this way of thinking help me feel good about myself?
- Is this way of thinking helping me in achieving my goals?
Some of the above questions help you challenge your thoughts by serving a “reality check.” Others will help you seek alternate explanations or put things into perspective. The last-three are goal-oriented questions- they will help you realize whether your thinking and emotional response are helpful in achieving your goals. Depending on the emotions you experience, pick which questions are relevant and write down your honest answers.
5. RE-VISIT YOUR EMOTIONS
Once you have challenged your thoughts and have a balanced and more realistic view of the situation, re-evaluate your emotions and their intensity. Chances are, your negative emotions have decreased.
You can use this exercise in a form of journaling, or simply note your answers on your phone or a tablet in sections like this:
CHALLENGING MY THOUGHTS:
MY CURRENT MOOD:
Repeat this exercise as necessary, for each of the triggers identified.
These negative thought patterns are often enough to convince you that all those things you allow ourselves to think, while your brain runs on autopilot, are true. That you’re a bad friend, that your life isn’t going the way you want it to, or that you’re disappointed in yourself.
Remember that negative self-talk will manifest itself by those thought patterns magnifying your flaws, small mistakes, and failures. At the same time, it minimizes things that are good, positive, valuable and wonderful about you.
In addition to using this as a tool for challenging some of these beliefs, remember the importance of self-compassion. Both will help you predict emotional reactions to negative events that take place in your daily life. It’s been proven that high-levels of self-compassion are associated with less procrastination and higher levels of motivation. Consequently, helping you achieve your goals. If you ask me, mindful self-compassion is necessary to stop negative self-talk. Without it, you probably wouldn’t seek change and improvement in the first place. Don’t forget that if it’s not something you’d say to a close friend you love, you probably shouldn’t say it to yourself, either.
*I realize that this isn’t always true for all of us. There might be, or perhaps was at one point, a person in your life who did subject you to a lot of unhealthy criticism, sometimes to the point of verbal abuse. Regardless of your relation, be it a parent, partner, friend or spouse, this is unhealthy and toxic. That kind of treatment can destroy your self-esteem, self-worth, confidence, even years after the relationship has ended. If another person is the main source of your negative self-talk, please know that the “damage” you think has been done, doesn’t have to be lasting. Even if you were subjected to years of being treated this way, you can stop negative self-talk. I’ve gone through that and am speaking from personal experience when I say: you can change the way you see yourself and the way you think of yourself. It just takes work.