How to Eliminate Negative Self-Talk for a Happier, Healthier You
Have you ever thought to yourself, ‘How could I be such an idiot,’ ‘I look so bad,’ ‘I can’t do that,’ or ‘ I hate the way I…’ If so, you are certainly not alone. We all have an inner voice. We all conduct a silent and ongoing dialogue with ourselves. We are constantly checking our situation and critiquing ourselves, and we then pass judgment on our ability or performance. It’s called self-talk.
Self-talk is “the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head…[that] can be positive or negative,” according to a definition by the Mayo Clinic. At its best, self-talk can be helpful. It acts as a form of self-awareness, helping us to regulate our behavior and improve our performance. However, if our self-talk is negative, it can be damaging.
Consistent, negative self-talk can contribute to a subversive, downward spiral that impacts our performance and behavior. Let’s look at how it works.
When I reflect, restate, or recall negative thoughts, I relive the experience and the emotion of that critical or negative episode. Reliving the experience causes two very real reactions.
First, from the point of view of my physical body, I can experience stress and anxiety. Consistent stress is harmful to our bodies. Research confirms that having a positive and optimistic outlook leads to better health outcomes. Negative and pessimistic outcomes produce stress and anxiety that can be harmful to our health.
Second, as I restate self-criticism or self-doubt, my subconscious is listening. I confirm my faults. I restate my limitations. Over time, these consistently reinforced limitations can become who I believe myself to be. What I think about myself can set the boundaries of what I actually do.
Further, as I relive a poor experience or reinforce a negative self-perception, I may be prone to magnify things in my mind. Overwhelmed, I exaggerate the negative consequences in my mind. I lose perspective. Not only do I cause a physical and emotional impact as I dwell on the negative, I may cause a response beyond what is “balanced.” I risk reducing my confidence, impacting my self-esteem and reducing my resilience over something which I have blown out of all proportion.
Yet how many of us go over our mistakes or limitations in our mind, beating ourselves up again and again and again?
A famous coach whose writings always inspired me, Lou Tice, once asked a powerful question: “Would you let someone else talk to you the way you talk to you?” Often the answer is “No, and hell no!” But there is good news!
In the same way negative self-talk sets up a potentially destructive spiral, positive self-talk can set up a constructive thinking pattern. Here are the steps for getting positive!
- Be Aware. Be aware of your inner dialogue. Work to notice those times when you are being critical of yourself. Try this exercise. For at least 24 hours, pay conscious attention to your inner voice. If you catch yourself being critical of yourself, note what you are saying. Ask yourself, “Would I say this to a friend?”
- Practice the Positive. When something goes right, do you talk to yourself about it? Chances are you don’t. We can forget to celebrate all those things we do well, so practice positive self-talk. Take time to dwell on and congratulate yourself for your successes. Plus, with self-talk, hey, you don’t have to be humble! Compliment yourself as enthusiastically as you would complement a good friend.
- Keep Things in Proportion. This can be easier said than done. As you become more aware of your self -talk, check to make sure you are keeping things in proportion. What does that mean? It means deciding to move away from our emotional response, by choosing to engage our rational
In art, you move away from an object to get perspective—so, too, in life! To keep things in proportion, you need to step back and ask yourself objective questions. For example:
- If something has gone wrong, ask, “How long will this have impact?”
- If you were made to feel embarrassed, ask, “What is the real consequence of what happened?”
- If you messed something up, ask, “How can I make it better?”
- If you feel totally overwhelmed, try asking, “How important is this in the bigger context of my life?”
This is not a call to ignore real problems or dismiss genuine emotions. Instead, it is a suggestion to engage the logical brain to help accurately assess the situation. You may catch yourself getting things out of proportion, and if you do, you can avoid the downward spiral. Let’s face it, if the negative situation is real and not exaggerated, it’s best to let our logical mind get to work on it!
As we are checking for how realistic our self-talk is, watch out for another scenario. Our negative thinking is often not anything that actually happened. Sometimes we are pessimistic in anticipation that things will go wrong. “I know I will mess up the presentation.” “I know he won’t like me.” When you catch yourself engaging in this thought pattern, finding proportion means asking, “How likely is it that this worst-case scenario will actually happen?”
- Learn From Everything. Much of the time, we don’t deserve the extent of the criticism we level at ourselves. Sometimes, maybe, we do deserve the tough self-talk we direct our own way, but even when we deserve to be tough on ourselves, we can still make it constructive. We avoid the downward spiral when we use our self-talk to intentionally learn. When you find yourself criticizing your performance, you can pivot and use the experience to determine what you’ll do differently next time. Instead of thinking, “That presentation was awful. I will never be good at public speaking,” we need to try, “That presentation wasn’t good. Next time I will practice more, or prepare for possible questions, or know my audience better” and so on. By focusing on what we learned, and identifying the concrete steps we can take to improve next time, we take back control. We stop the downward spiral when we begin to think in terms of how to turn the situation around.
Being conscious of our thoughts, recognizing our gifts as well as our faults, keeping things in proportion and learning from our experiences are all examples of healthy thinking patterns. These patterns of thinking create positivity, build self-esteem, and improve our resilience. They may even make us healthier.
We all talk to ourselves, all the time. Let’s decide to be careful what we say. Let’s be our own best friend.23