“Negative self-talk can be hugely impactful on your daily life,” says psychologist Ashley Hampton, Ph.D. “Our thoughts influence our feelings and then our behaviors. This can lead to negative behaviors, like isolation, lack of motivation, and a desire not to engage in activities that bring you happiness.”
Before you have some negative self-talk about your propensity for negative self-talk, know that thinking this way isn’t a personal failing. From early childhood, we have a negative bias to hold ourselves accountable for situations and events that have nothing to do with us and for which we are not responsible. Because children do not have adult context to understand, for example, tension in the house of divorcing parents, they internalize the blame:
It must be my fault.
“Some of our basic attitudes towards ourselves are rooted in unexamined childhood programming,” writes psychologist and author, James L. Creighton. “Do you really want major decisions about your life made by a 4-year-old or an 8-year-old? That’s what’s happening when we accept negative self-talk as the truth about us and about life.”
Ready to flip the script? Here’s how.
Some psychologists recommend tracking negative self-talk in a notebook for two weeks. But if that idea immediately trips your negative self-talk script:
I can’t, I don’t have time, I have zero follow-through...
then start there.
Pay attention to the ongoing dialogue you have with yourself right now, in the moment. What do you say to yourself when you look in the mirror? When you eat lunch? When you speak in a meeting? When you lose your balance in Crow Pose?
Interrogate thoughts as they arise. Why do I think that? Is it true? Does it matter? Would I say this to a friend?
If feeling-states leave you feeling exhausted, depressed, or tempest-tossed, identify emotions as they arise:
I’m disappointed, discouraged, lonely.
Some psychologists suggest addressing the emotional experience as if it were separate from you, creating psychological distance that allows you to confront the emotion. Think of the old Billie Holiday song, “Good morning, heartache.”
“This psychological distance flips the switches in your survive brain and thrive brain,” writes psychotherapist Bryan E. Robinson, “at which point you are calm, clear-minded, compassionate, perform competently, and have more confidence and courage.”
Don’t try to strong-arm your inner bully with a perky cheerleader. When your self-talk moves from I’m not smart enough to I’m a genius!, you can give yourself whiplash. Researchers call this self-talk dissonance, and it can end up making you feel worse. Instead of a pump-you-up motivational speech, which is more effective in tests of speed and agility, offer yourself instructions, such as:
One step at a time or Take a deep breath.
Research shows small shifts in how we address ourselves can create a healthy distance from our thoughts helping us assess them more rationally, effectively regulating our emotions and lowering our anxiety. So, instead of “me” or “I”, try addressing yourself with the collective pronoun “we,” the third-person pronoun “she/he/they”, or even your name.
Let’s say Deb’s on a tight deadline at work. She thinks:
I’m never going to finish this report in time. I’m just not as bright as [insert name of brilliant coworker].
First, she notices the thought. Then she challenges it. Is this true? Or is she catastrophizing and thinking in black-and-whites? What does her coworker have to do with this? Why is she comparing herself? These are all examples of cognitive distortions. Then, Deb revises her thought:
Deb will have a draft completed in the morning. She’s written great reports before and she can absolutely do this.
Although it may sound a bit Stuart Smalley to you, consider the positive influence of self-compassion and positive self-talk. Studies show affirmations function as “cognitive expanders,” offering an escape from myopic tunnel vision and increasing feelings of self-worth. Self-compassion engenders happiness and feelings of well-being. And when we goof, self-forgiveness can keep us from repeating our mistakes.
Mindfulness meditation teacher and therapist, Tara Brach, talks about “attending and befriending” uncomfortable feelings such as fear. Brach suggests putting a hand at the heart center and speaking kindly to yourself:
It’s okay, sweetheart.
And if that feels awkward, consider it a benevolent sign from the Universe that you just need more practice at loving-kindness.
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