Negative Self-Talk and How to Change it
“You are so stupid!”
“Why would you make such a dumb mistake!”
“I am so fat! No one would ever find this attractive.”
“I can never do anything right!”
Do you find yourself saying things like this to yourself? Do you put yourself down constantly in your head? This is negative self-talk and if you’re average, about 80% of your thoughts are negative. We used to call this the peanut gallery after the crowd sitting in the cheap seat at vaudeville performances because they would heckle the acts. These days you might have heard it referred to as the inner critic. But whatever you call it, this type of thinking can be really harmful, both to our mental and to our physical health, but you probably already knew that. It’s pretty much impossible to stop negative thoughts completely, but it is possible to decrease these thoughts and to decrease the effect they have on us.
Why do we talk to ourselves this way??
As you might suspect, there are many different reasons why we have negative self-talk. It can come from depression or anxiety. Negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves and the world around us are a symptom of these illnesses and this often leads to a litany of negative self-talk.
Often, the negative things that we say to ourselves are actually things that we’ve heard others say about us over the years. This can be a parent, sibling, teacher, or other people close to us, but it also can be from sources such as TV, magazines, books, images on social media, or even social norms. These messages are accumulated over the years and contribute to the negative thoughts in your mind.
Another reason is that many of us believe that we have to use these types of negative thoughts to motivate ourselves to do better. In fact, it is much harder to make changes if we feel bad about ourselves, and negative self-talk absolutely makes you feel bad about yourself! For example, let’s say that you did worse on a work project than you were expecting to. You might then say things to yourself such as, “Why can’t you ever do anything right?” “Anyone else in the department would have gotten that done, but not you! You are so stupid”. Now imagine how you would feel with these thoughts running through your head. Would you feel motivated to pick yourself up from the disappointment and try harder? Or would these types of thoughts further discourage you? Would they raise or lower your self-esteem? If you are anything like most of us, these thoughts make you less likely to try anything, and more likely to sit on the couch doing a whole lot of nothing.
So How do we Get Rid of Negative Thoughts?
I almost always think that the first step to fixing a problem is noticing that we have one. So, you have to start paying attention to what you are saying to yourself! You might think this is really easy but it can be more difficult than you’d expect. Your brain is going a mile a minute all the time, and it’s constantly spitting out tons of thoughts, many of which we don’t even pay attention to. This is why some people talk about automatic thoughts. These are thoughts that occur almost instantly and without conscious thought. They are habitual thoughts and are based on all of the things that have happened to you over your lifetime. Because of this, it can be challenging to become aware of the messages that we are telling ourselves. So it can be helpful to go looking for the thoughts. You can do this by simply paying attention to your thoughts at various times throughout the day, or by stopping when you notice an emotional response such as anxiety or sadness, and thinking back to what your thoughts were just prior to the feeling.
Once you have discovered your negative thoughts, ask yourself if this is something you would say to your mother or a good friend. If it isn’t, why wouldn’t you? Maybe you want to be sensitive to their feelings? You don’t want them to feel bad about themself? You think it would be a rude thing to say? Well if you can’t say it to your mom then it’s not OK to say it to yourself!
Another tactic to try is to practice saying the thought out loud. This can give you a little perspective on what it is that you are actually saying to yourself. Then you can decide whether or not you really want to say it!
And the last suggestion I have is to try to reframe your thoughts into something more positive. So if your negative self-talk was “Why do horrible things always happen to me?!” You can change it to something like, “Bad things do not always happen to me. Sometimes good things happen and I’m going to try to notice that more often”. It’s important to make sure that the new thought is something that you believe, or this can backfire on you. Like if you’re telling yourself how ugly you are and you change it to, “I’m the most beautiful woman in the world!”, you won’t believe it and your mind will reject it. Also, it can feel more than a little bit awkward when you first start doing this but trust me that it does get easier to do and with practice, you’ll notice a change in your thinking.
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