Negative Self-Talk: What it Is and How to Stop

“How could you be so stupid?” “Of course you messed this up.” “You really are an idiot.”

If someone else spoke to you this way, hopefully, it would set off some alarm bells saying that this person is not treating you in an appropriate or kind way. You may need to remove this person from your life. However, if we use this language toward ourselves, we somehow find that to be okay! This kind of language when used toward ourselves is labeled negative self-talk. While it may seem harmless at first, when this style of negative thinking becomes habitual over time, it can actually be very destructive. This is because we are often unaware of these negative automatic thoughts, which makes them extra insidious. We can’t challenge something that we are not even aware of thinking! If you find that the language above describes how you talk to yourself (even sometimes), read on to learn some tips about how to catch, challenge, and change this behavior!

The first step is awareness.

As with anything, you can’t change it if you don’t know you’re doing it! As you go about your day, really tune in to that inner dialogue that runs (often unchecked). Is the voice in your head more positive, neutral, or negative? Listen to how you speak to yourself. Our inner voice usually has comments about almost everything we do. If your inner voice tends to be critical more often than not, that’s an indicator that things need to change. Even if it’s “right” on some points, negative self-talk is substantially more harmful than helpful. If tuning into your thoughts proves challenging, try paying attention to your emotions. These are often a very good indicator of the tone of the voice in our heads.

Recognize that negative self-talk is not the “real you.”

Another reason that this critical inner voice can be so hard to notice is that it masquerades as accurately representing your true thoughts and feelings. However, none of us were born with the negative self-talk track; rather, it has been cultivated over time through experiences with critical people in our lives, unreasonable expectations that we’ve formed for ourselves, through the media, etc. When we can externalize our negative self-talk (that is, separate the self-talk from ourselves), it feels easier to try to talk back to it. Bonus points for asking yourself” “Whose voice is this? Where did this self-criticism start?” Another way to externalize negative self-talk is by slighting altering the format of the thought to make it more of an observation. Instead of thinking “I’m not good enough,” change it to “I’m noticing I’m having the thought of not being good enough.”. This allows you to acknowledge the thought without immediately accepting it as fact.

What if it was someone else?

Whenever clients experience negative self-talk, one of my go-to questions for them is: What would you say to a friend who spoke to themselves the same way you do?”. Often, people would be quick to come to their friend’s rescue and assure them that their negative thoughts are not only inaccurate- they’re downright untrue! Another twist on the “someone else perspective” is to imagine what a close friend would say in response to a negative thought. For example, if you feel like a presentation at work didn’t go as well as you’d like, your friend would likely not say “Well, your career is over.” They would probably say “You could’ve done better, but there’s always next time.”  A good rule of thumb to follow: if you wouldn’t say something to a friend because it’s so harsh, then you have no business saying it to yourself either.

Evaluate the story.

Events are not inherently good or bad, it is the way we think about them that gives them these values. So, if you find you’re beating yourself up for something that happened, evaluate it. Often, the versions of stories that we tell ourselves make a lot of assumptions that may not be true. For example, if we’re anxious about having done something embarrassing, like tripping while walking down the street, negative self-talk would likely have you believe that the entire city was there to see, point, and laugh at your momentary loss of balance. However, if we can just look back at the actual events, we may recognize that only a few people were around, and those people were more likely than not tapping away on their iPhones or absorbed in their own days rather than observing us walk down the street. Try to look at the facts, rather than getting wrapped up in our version of the story.

Start to talk back.

When you notice yourself engaging in negative self-talk, don’t give in. Challenge this voice. Really look at the situation and examine the evidence. Are you really stupid, or did you just make a mistake? Is the voice in your head being realistic, or is it only interested in perfection? Feel free to talk back to the voice. This doesn’t mean taking a negative thought and forcing it to be positive; it wouldn’t feel very authentic to change “I’m so stupid” to “I’m a genius.” Aim for something more moderate. For example: “My inner critic is being unreasonable. I’m not stupid, I’m simply human. It’s ok to make mistakes”. While all habits are hard to break, we know that it takes repetition and practice to start forming new habits. Even if it’s really challenging at first, it will become easier to challenge and change your negative self-talk the more often you do it.

 

If you find yourself struggling to manage or talk back to the critical voice in your head, or recognize that your inner critic is taking too much control over the way you feel, it may be time to seek therapy. A therapist can help you learn the skills you need to challenge and change the inner critic’s voice to one that is more realistic- and often, this means more kind. Give us a call today to schedule an appointment with one of our highly-trained therapists!

Dr. Samantha Turetsky

Dr. Turetsky is a postdoctoral fellow. She is a CBT specialist, anxiety expert, and family therapist. Her specialties include academic success, relationship counseling, and teaching coping skills.