Negative self-talk can lead to a downward spiral of self-defeating thinking, which leads to an unhappy life. So, in this article I’m going to discuss what negative self-talk is, why it occurs, and what you can do to “pivot” the negative self-talk into positive self-talk.
What Is Self-Talk?
Self-talk is basically your inner voice, and whether you realize it or not, you’re most likely practicing self-talk right now. Often self-talk happens without even being consciously aware it’s occurring. It’s typically a subtle running commentary going on in the background of your mind. But, the bottom line is that this “commentary” is going to shape how you feel about yourself and it’s going to shape the quality of your life.
Obviously, self-talk can be positive or negative.
Positive self-talk is comprised of the thoughts that make you feel good about yourself and your life. It’s like having an optimistic voice in your head. Examples could be thoughts like “I’m smart and I’ll do well on this exam” or “I look good in this outfit” or “I can handle this work task…I’ll figure it out”.
Negative self-talk, on the other hand, is like having a “nemesis” within your own mind. This voice can turn any situation into a downer. Examples could be thoughts like “I’m stupid and I didn’t study long enough and I’m going to fail this exam” or “this outfit looks horrible on me and people will judge me” or “there is no way I can figure this out…I’m screwed!”
How Can You Stop Negative Self-Talk?
- Conscious Awareness Of Our Mental Chatter
For many of us, the constant negative “chatter” we engage in has become so habituated that we often don’t notice it’s happening. Obviously our goal is to stop this negative self-talk, but we can’t change something unless we are aware it’s happening in the first place. The first step is to become more consciously aware of what our thoughts are. So, take the time to stop and actively “listen” to the thoughts you’re having. The more you do this, the more you be able to get out of the thought “haze” and start to be able to consciously choose your thoughts going forward.
- Challenge The Reality Of The Self-Talk
Is the thought you’re having based in reality? Ask yourself what the evidence for and against your thinking truly is. Ask yourself if you’re jumping to conclusions. Ask yourself if these thoughts are based in fact or if they are just your interpretations. If you’re not sure, as yourself how you could find out if your thoughts are actually based in reality.
- Look For Alternate Explanations
Don’t just blindly accept your self-talk as the only answer. Be your own skeptic. Ask yourself if there are any alternate ways you could look at the situation or if it could just possibly mean something other than your perception of it. Additionally, ask yourself how someone with a positive perspective would actually perceive this situation.
- Put Things In Perspective
This is especially important if you’re feeling depressed or anxious, as often our self-tak can “amped up” and taken to extremes when in these states. So, try to ask yourself if the situation is really as bad as you’re making it out to be. Ask yourself if any of this will matter in a year. Try to determine if there is anything good about the situation.
- Use “Worst, Best, Most Likely” Thinking
When your thoughts start to spiral, ask yourself a set of questions. First, ask what the worst possible outcome is. Then, try to determine just how likely that outcome truly is. Next, ask yourself what the best possible outcome could be. Finally, ask yourself the most likely outcome. This line of self-questioning can often be very calming.
- Use This Specific Question To Stop Negative Self-Talk In Its Tracks
This question is a very powerful technique. Ask yourself if you would tell a 5 year old what an idiot they are for making a mistake? Of course not! Yet, you’re more than willing to do that to yourself. Of, ask yourself if you would say what you’re saying to yourself to your best friend. The key point is shifting the perspective outward. It can help you see how much worst you’re treating yourself than you would anyone “out there”.
- Give Your Inner Critic A Name
As you become more adept at recognizing when you’re having negative self-talk you can actually remove some of its power by giving it a name. By doing so, you can say something like “oh, that’s just Gertrude being Gertrude…what a nag she is…time to ignore her” or something similar.
- Give Common Thought Patterns A Name As Well
What you’ll probably find is that you have one (or several) common “stories”. Perhaps it’s that you’re not good enough, or that others are better than you, or that you always have bad luck…or whatever. The key is becoming aware that these stories probably repeat quite often. This can help you see that they’re not so much truths, but rather thought patterns or habits.
- “Pivot” Your Negative Thought By Trying The Power Of “Possible” Thinking
Certainly our goal here is to become aware of our negative self-talk and then “pivot” that self-talk into a more positive thought. In other words, if you realize you’re having a thought that “I’m not good enough” then you can simply choose to consciously replace that thought with the opposite…such as “I am good enough because I’ve trained and I’m qualified, etc”.However, sometimes if deep down we don’t really believe that more positive story, our internal B.S. detector goes off and it actually makes the situation worse. If that’s the case, use a technique call “possible” thinking.Let’s say you’re feeling bad about your finances. Maybe you have thoughts that “I’m a failure…all my friends are more successful than me…I’ll always struggle to pay the bills, etc”. Rather than just saying the opposite, simply state the true facts of the situation and then reach for a possble solution. In this example it could be “I’m not where I want to be financially. What are some possible ways I could change that? I could learn a new skill. I could save more money. Or..etc”.
Learning to become aware of our “self-talk” and understanding that negative self-talk in particular can be self-defeating (it doesn’t make you feel good or get you any closer to how you “want” to feel) is a very powerful realization.
Hopefully these techniques will help you down the road of challenging your negative self-talk and finding more positive alternatives.
My name is Amanda Itzkoff, MD. I am a New York City based Psychiatrist and Assistant Professor at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
For additional information about stopping negative self-talk, or any other mental health issues, please feel free to email our office at Amanda.Itzkoff@gmail.com. To schedule an appointment, call our offices at 917-609-4990.