Picture this: you've just arrived home from the grocery store and realized that you forgot to purchase the main ingredient that you needed for dinner. You're frustrated and exhausted. The voice inside your head says, "That was really stupid of me," or "Why am I always so careless?" and you get back in the car (while berating yourself) to head back to the market.
We all engage in negative self-talk like this from time to time. A mistake is made or something unfortunate happens, and then you take it out on yourself with your words or thoughts. The problem is that negative self-talk can impact your mental and physical well-being over time. So it can be helpful to examine your inner voice and change the negative voice into one that is more supportive and empowering.
The Impact of Positive vs. Negative Self-Talk
According to the American Psychological Association, self-talk is the internal dialogue that a person has with themselves. It is the voice inside your head or subconscious chatter that engages with us all day long. In a very simplistic way, movies and cartoons sometimes represent this dialogue as an angel or a devil sitting on your shoulders and whispering into your ears.
Psychologists recognize two forms of self-talk: positive and negative.
- Positive self-talk is when a person engages with themselves in a way that is supportive, motivational, and uplifting. For example, "I'm trying my best."
- Negative self-talk can reinforce unhelpful thoughts and beliefs that a person might have about themselves or the world. Such as, "I'm never going to be good enough."
Our inner voice can provide a 24/7 live feed of our thoughts, whether they be good or bad. If the self-talk is positive, it can help us to feel inspired and empowered. But, if the self-talk tends to be negative, then we're exposed to doubts and fears on a regular basis and it can take a toll on our mental health, relationships, and self-esteem. For this reason, negative self talk has been studied and examined in order to help people manage it and change it.
Negative Self-Talk Examples
The way that you engage in negative self-talk might not be the same way that someone else does. In addition, some people might find that they rarely have unhelpful thoughts, while others might experience them more often.
Think of the words and phrases you say to yourself when you're upset. Then, take a step back to evaluate whether they're helpful or hurtful. If you notice that the majority of your thoughts are critical or harsh, it might be a sign that you engage in negative self-talk. Phrases like these might sound familiar:
- I'm not good enough.
- I can't do anything right.
- People don't like me.
- I'm too needy.
- I don't deserve good things.
- I'm broken.
- I'm not talented or skilled like other people.
- I'm a bad person.
- I'm a failure.
- There's something wrong with me.
Not everyone talks to themselves in the same way. However, if you find yourself thinking or saying these things to yourself when you face a challenge or become frustrated, it may be a good idea to be more gentle with yourself.
Thought Distortions and Negative Self-Talk
Negative self-talk often comes in the form of thought distortions. Thought distortions, also called cognitive distortions, are inaccurate beliefs, perceptions, or ways of thinking. Everyone experiences them now and again, even if they aren't aware of it. Explore the list below to learn about several different types of thought distortions.
- Catastrophizing - This thought distortion is when one negative thought snowballs into a much greater adverse event. For example, "I'm running late to school, which means that I'm going to be able to take my test on time, so then I'll end up failing and then have to retake the class."
- Black and white thinking - Also referred to as all-or-nothing thinking, this thought distortion revolves around the idea that events are either perceived as all good or all bad. Such as, "I'm an absolutely terrible person for canceling plans last minute."
- Jumping to conclusions - This thought distortion occurs when a person takes the limited information they have and then infers or assumes something based on that knowledge. For example, "I asked them to text me when they got home, but I haven't received a response, so they must not care about my feelings."
- Negating the positives - This behavior occurs when a person disregards the positive elements of a situation. For example, a person might be focused on the fact that they mispronounced a word during their presentation despite the fact that they earned a round of applause and that many people asked engaging questions.
- Mind reading - When a person experiences mind reading, they believe that they know what others are thinking despite not having much information. A person might go out to dinner with new friends and think, "They don't really like me," when the conversation is limited at the table.
- Fortune telling - This is when a person's thoughts predict a negative outcome in the future. A person might think, "I'm going to lose my job, I just know it," simply because they are anxious about their work performance.
- Overgeneralization - This thought distortion occurs when a person takes one event and uses it to justify the prediction of negative future events. For example, "I failed a quiz in this class so I'll probably fail all of the other tests, too."
The list above features several of the most common cognitive distortions noted in the field of psychology, although there are others that may be impacting your life. Whenever a negative thought arises, take a moment to check in with how you are feeling. Try to examine it without judgment and consider whether you might be experiencing a thought distortion.
Effects of Negative Self-Talk
Self-talk is associated with a wide variety of cognitive functions. For example, it can affect reasoning, problem-solving skills, and a person's ability to plan and execute behaviors. In addition, it can also impact a person's attention and motivation.
Negative self-talk in particular is associated with adverse health consequences. Research shows that people who engage in this behavior experience decreased levels of self-confidence, higher rates of anxiety, and lower rates of overall well-being. In addition, self-criticism has also been liked to higher rates of stress and increased rates of mental health conditions, such as depression.
No matter how often you experience negative self-talk, it might be weighing you down. It can negatively impact your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and reduce your overall quality of life depending on how often it occurs.
How to Stop Negative Self-Talk
It's not always easy to change the way you talk to yourself. Habits can be hard to break because they feel automatic. However, if you notice that you engage in negative self-talk and want to be more mindful of your thoughts, it is possible.
One way to get started is to follow the three steps below. You can practice these strategies over time to learn more about your negative self-talk behavior and how to combat the thoughts whenever they arise. Learning to restructure the way you think and speak to yourself in a more positive way won't happen overnight, but with time and practice, you will be able to show yourself the compassion you deserve.
1. Monitor Your Thoughts
The first step in changing the way you talk to yourself is to notice the language you use. What do you say to yourself when you make a mistake? What thoughts arise when something doesn't go as planned? Do you realize when negative self-talk occurs?
This process of noting how you talk to yourself is known as thought monitoring, and it's a cornerstone for cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). It's a simple practice that you can do at home on your own throughout your day.
The first step in thought monitoring is to wait until a negative thought occurs. Then, simply note that it was present. You can keep a tally on a piece of paper, write down the thought in a journal, or simply imagine a bell sounding off in your mind -- whatever works for you. Do this throughout the day for a whole week and simply notice how often negative thoughts arise.
2. Challenge Them
After you have monitored how often you engage in negative self-talk, it's time to challenge those beliefs. One way to do this is through the process of thought-challenging.
The next time you have a negative thought, write it down. Then, collect evidence for and against this claim. For example, if your negative thought was "I'm a bad mom," write down a list of ways that you were both helpful and unhelpful as a parent. In the unhelpful category, you might write "I picked my kid up late from school" and in the helpful category you may put "I made my child breakfast, packed their lunch, and dropped them off at school on time."
Next, compare the categories. Is there enough evidence to support your negative thought? Do the supporting details outweigh the contradicting details? If the negative thought is supported, it might be a sign that certain aspects of your life may need to be reevaluated. However, if the evidence contradicts the thought, it shows that it's untrue and unhelpful.
3. Change the Way You Talk to Yourself
The final step in the process is to take the evidence you have gathered, and then change the negative thought into one that is more valid and kind towards yourself. You change negative self-talk into positive self-talk.
For example, if we return to the "I'm a bad mom" scenario, one way to restructure the thought would be to change it to "I'm not a perfect mom, but I am trying the best I can." This thought acknowledges that things might not have gone as planned, but it doesn't criticize or place blame on the individual.
We can all be hard on ourselves, at times. That's just human nature. But we also deserve compassion and kindness. A good rule of thumb is to try to talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend. Whenever a negative thought occurs, pause a second and ask yourself if you would use those same words when speaking to a loved one in the same situation. If the answer is no, it might be a sign that you could use a bit more self-compassion. The world is tough enough as it is, so it's not only okay, but it's also essential to be kind to yourself.