Words have power, the words we say to ourselves even more so. The way we communicate with ourselves shapes the way we see and experience the world.
There is an internal dialogue in each and every one of us that helps us process and make sense of our experiences. How you talk to yourself is the lens from which you see the world.
Self-talk develops in childhood and is built on throughout our whole lives. It becomes so automatic that we often associate it with who we are.
When that self-talk is predominantly negative it creates emotional states of guilt, regret, shame, fear or anger. It affects your ability to see things objectively and to believe in yourself. Negative self-talk diminishes your ability to make positive changes in your life.
Negative self-talk can take many forms. It can be less obvious (“I’m not good at this, I’d better stop wasting time on it”) or downright mean (“I am such a failure!”). Negative self-talk is when we internalize and accept anything that goes wrong as a definitive statement of who we are.
Types of negative self-talk
Personalizing is when “It’s not you, it’s me” becomes your default. If anything goes wrong, if someone is in a bad mood, you automatically take the blame and think it has something to do with you (your partner comes home in a bad mood and right away you think “He’s mad at me”).
Catastrophizing is when you tend to imagine the worst possible outcome. You automatically anticipate the worst and manage to convince yourself of its inevitability (“If I fail this task I’m gonna lose my job”).
Absolutism is when you make generalized assumptions based on one single event. It is thinking in terms of always, never, every time, everyone, no one, and so on (you accidentally spill your coffee and go “I always make a mess”).
Mind reading is when you hold conversations and arguments in your head with someone. You imagine them saying and doing things that anger you or make you feel bad. You convince yourself that this is what they actually think, what they would actually say and you let this imagined conflict affect the way you treat that person.
Beating yourself up over a past mistake is when you lay in bed at night thinking of that time you screwed up. You replay the situation over and over again, drowning in shame and guilt, enforcing a bad self-image.
Where does negative self-talk come from?
People tend to give more importance to negative experiences than to positive ones. This is called the negativity bias. This is hard-coded into our brains due to millions of years of evolution.
Noticing, remembering and dealing with possible threats was key to survival. We are still constantly on the lookout for threats – threats to our image, threats to our relationships, threats to our career.
Negative self-talk is your brain trying to “save” you from real or perceived harm. But when negative self-talk passes the threshold of keeping you safe and motivated, it becomes damaging.
Effects of negative self-talk
Research links rumination and self-blame to an increased risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Negative-self talk increases stress levels while lowering your self-esteem. This leads to loss of motivation as well as feelings of helplessness.
Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.— Henry Ford
Negative self-talk also lowers your ability to see opportunities and to take those opportunities.
The more you tell yourself you can’t do something, the more you believe it. This stops you from pursuing your dreams without even trying.
How to break the habit of negative self-talk?
As any other bad habit, the habit of negative self-talk can be broken. It will take time and a lot of effort, but you must remember negative self-talk is not who you are, it is something you do. And you can stop doing it.
You can consciously choose to stop and replace your negative thoughts with ones that will benefit you.
Notice when you engage in negative self-talk. Be on the watch out for certain keywords such as “always, never, everybody, nobody”.
Challenge your negative thoughts. Ask your inner critics for evidence. Ask yourself if this is a fact or just your interpretation of the situation.
Remember your thoughts and feelings about yourself can be skewed like everyone else’s. They are subject to biases and are influenced by your mood and your energy levels.
Reframe the negative thought in a more neutral way. Swap “I can’t do this” with “This is a challenge”, “I hate…” with “I’d prefer..”, “I always fail…” with “I didn’t make it this time”.
A good tip is to think if you would have said that to a friend. If something is too mean to tell to a friend, why do you tell it to yourself? Learn to be your own best friend.
Distract yourself. If you find yourself falling in the same negative self-talk patterns, do something to distract yourself with. Work on a different task, chat with a friend about something unrelated, watch a fun or educational video.
Find something positive about the situation. I know this is a cliche but there is always something positive. You must train yourself to see it.
“What if” it. Dare to imagine a positive outcome of the situation you are being negative about. Go wild with it. Dreaming of the best version of how things could work out will lift your mood and will push away the negativity.
Book recommendation on breaking the habit of negative self-talk: The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Self-Esteem: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Move Beyond Negative Self-Talk and Embrace Self-Compassion
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