We’re all guilty of negative self-talk. We forget our cup of tea or leave our phone at home, and suddenly we’re big stupid idiots – it’s a completely natural reaction.
It’s great to have a sense of humour and not take ourselves too seriously; but when does our inner monologue begin to get the best of us?
How do you know if you have negative self-talk?
A good thing to start asking yourself, is would you speak to a friend the way you speak to yourself?
If you have negative self-talk, the answer is probably no. So why do we do it?
We are naturally a lot more critical of ourselves than we are of others; it’s a way to protect ourselves from failure or external criticism. Think about it – if we call ourselves fat whales, then no one else is going to bother, right?
Or maybe we tell ourselves we’re rubbish and that we’ll never get a promotion, so in the end we never go for it. We may have avoided ‘failure’ in the short-term, but we have also robbed ourselves of the chance to be proven wrong, to succeed.
It’s important to note that we are allowed to be negative, and the intention here isn’t to be positive all of the time. Faux positivity is the worst, and actually just as bad as constant negativity. The idea is to look at these thoughts with a more balanced and realistic approach.
Identifying and redirecting negative self-talk
The next time you’re putting yourself down, try and challenge it. I’d recommend working your way down this checklist
Step 1: Say you have a negative thought. Think about it. Are you:
Your colleague sends you back an article you wrote with some amends. You decide you’re rubbish at your job.
Your boyfriend said he’d text you when he got home okay. He forgets, and you get scared he’s been attacked and is lying in the street.
Your friends forget to add you to a group chat, but you incorrectly assume that you’ve been excluded on purpose.
Someone gives you a funny look on the street because they thought they recognised you – but you assume they’re thinking that you’re ugly.
You pass your driving test with 5 minors. Instead of celebrating your success, you beat yourself up for the 5 mistakes you made.
Discounting the positive?
You get a top mark on a piece of coursework, but you explain it away as a fluke or sheer luck.
Making “should” statements?
A client at work is unhappy because you missed a small section of a report. You demean yourself because you “should” have seen it and “should” be better and “shouldn’t” be making mistakes.
Your feel guilty, so you reason that you’ve definitely done something wrong.
You accidentally upset a child, so you label yourself in single, total terms: “a bitch” or “evil.”
Successfully identifying your distorted thought pattern
This doesn’t mean I think I’m the bees knees with a rockin’ bod. It also doesn’t mean that I discredit any negative thought pattern I have. Sometimes something will be a fluke, and actually, maybe you should’ve checked for the error in the report before you sent it to your client.
It just means I’m not constantly beating myself up unnecessarily. Instead, I’m beating up my overly self-critical thoughts!
Step 2: If you’ve caught a negative thought and identified with any of the distorted patterns above, it’s time to try and challenge it without emotion. Ask yourself, is this a realistic thought or am I mentally filtering / labelling / mind-reading? If I am, how can I work around it?
Here’s an example: Today I’m bloated, so I’ve resorted to calling myself “a hideous swamp monster.” This is funny and makes me laugh, but I know from previous self-talk behaviors that I will really start to believe it if I teach myself it’s okay to say these things by laughing. That’s why I’m going to…
Challenge the thought: Am I *really* a swamp monster, or am I overgeneralizing / catastrophizing / something else? Why do I feel like I’m deserving of the title ‘swamp monster’? Is it because we’re all taught from birth that a thin body is the ideal body? Could it be that I’m bloated because I’m due on my period, and I feel bad about myself because of hormones? Should I really call myself names for having a normal bodily response?
Step 3: Replace the nasty names with nice ones.
Instead of looking at my bloated belly and calling myself a swamp monster, I’m going to actively decide to focus on the positives. For example, my body pulls me through an autoimmune disease every day, I am worth so much more than the shape of my hips or the number on the scales.
How do I fix negative self-talk?
The most important thing to remember is to not beat yourself up if you find this challenging. That’s being mean to yourself twice over! If we live with anxiety, depression, guilt, or low self-esteem, being kind to ourselves can feel impossible, but I promise you it isn’t.
Think about it this way: we have thousands of thoughts each day, so recognizing the harsh ones and challenging the patterns we’ve grown up with is difficult. These things take time; it’s important to be patient with yourself. That in itself is a really powerful act of self-kindness.
You may also wonder if this is all a load of old guff. If you asked me a few years ago, I would’ve definitely said so. Self-kindness isn’t going to solve all your problems, cure you of a mental health condition, or completely remedy low self-esteem. But it will help you begin to feel better about yourself, and I’d say that’s worth it.
Remember: just because you think you’re rubbish, it doesn’t make it true. You are worthy of kindness; be patient with yourself, and over time, it will come.
Start small and work your way up
This may feel too overwhelming to start off with, and that’s okay. If you want to start small, have a go at grabbing a piece of paper, or the notes on your phone, and listing the reasons you like yourself.
Maybe you struggle to come up with one thing, let alone a list, but try your best. There is definitely something worth writing down!
You may like your soft skin, how kind you are to others, the way your hair curls naturally, or how good you are at making coffee. It can be anything – it doesn’t matter. You may find that once you’ve written a couple of things, more start flowing. Doing this every day, or every week, will help you view yourself in a more positive light.
If you want to try challenging your negative self-talk but can’t get past the belief that what you’re saying is true, it’s time to distract yourself. Pick something you love – watching Netflix, or petting your cat – and try to focus as much as you can on what you’re doing.
A quick example…
Let’s say you’re making a cup of tea. If you can, listen to the kettle bubble and whistle; pay close attention to the sound of the water hitting the bottom of the cup and watch as the steam rises. Observe the swirl of the milk dissolving as it hits the water. These mindful actions will drive you away from negative self-talk and gradually condition you to overcome critical thoughts by focusing on the things that make you feel good.
These are just the things I learnt from my own therapy, and I am by no means a licensed professional.
However, I hope some of it helps and you gain something out of it. Remember that these things aren’t straight forward, and you will fall sometimes – but that’s okay!
These are the techniques that have helped me work on my self-esteem; they may not work for you, because different things work for different people.