How to understand and reverse Negative Self-talk

We've all heard it.

That little voice that tells you you shouldn’t go for it, it’s too hard, you shouldn’t speak up, you didn’t earn what you have, you’re not talented, people don’t want to hear your opinions. The list might go on forever. Sheesh. If you’re wondering whose voice it is, well… we’ve traced the call; it’s coming from inside the house.

Sometimes our thoughts and inner dialogue can be hurtful. Negative self-talk is the internal dialogue that tears you down and keeps you from:

  • reaching for your goals
  • stepping outside your comfort zone
  • feeling pride in your accomplishments
  • knowing that your opinions have value.


I am guilty of having all those thoughts listed above at different points in my life. Negative self-talk is what we tell ourselves because we feel that we know ourselves better than anyone. Here are some examples of negative self-talk:

  • “They are better at this than I am”
  • “I am going to make so many mistakes”
  • “They broke up with me because I was not good enough”
  • “I should be much farther along at ____ than I am”
  • “I am not very good at _____”


We may know ourselves well, but there are several things that can contribute to that unkind inner dialogue:

Negativity Bias

Most people will experience negativity bias: we are more inclined to focus on things that went wrong instead of what worked perfectly. We tend to react strongly to negative things, think more negative thoughts, remember insults rather than compliments, or constructive criticism above praise. In other words, we will shrug off 50 compliments but spiral if one person says they don’t like our shoes. We may never wear those shoes again, or if we do, we may have a more challenging time forgetting about the sting of that one rude comment. This tendency can significantly affect our ability to recognize our successes and alter our view of ourselves and the world around us.

Confirmation Bias

If I study for weeks for a math test and feel extremely prepared but get a failing grade, my internal dialogue might say, “wow, I guess no matter how much you study, you’re always going to fail.” That’s a hurtful thing to say, especially to ourselves. If we say something like this to ourselves enough, we might believe our negative self-talk. When we take our negativity bias at face value, our thoughts are more likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Our worries may only happen once or twice, but our brains become detectives that connect the dots between our concerns and the real-life events that validate them. This is confirmation bias, or our tendency to look for and interpret information in a way that confirms what we already believe to be true.

Now that we’ve explored its causes let’s define the four types of negative self-talk:
Filtering

Using the shoe example from before, we might filter out all fifty compliments only to remember the one bad one about our shoes, leaving us feeling like we made the wrong choice in buying them and wearing them out.

Illustration of woman sitting on the floor against a depressing blue background
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
Personalizing
An example of this negative self-talk might look like an inner dialogue with yourself after your date called to reschedule after their schedule changed unexpectedly. The thoughts might immediately be “they canceled because I am not attractive or they didn’t like me enough.”
Catastrophizing
Our thoughts immediately go to the worst possible situation or scenario. Perhaps it unexpectedly began to rain on your way to work, and now you feel your entire day is ruined.
Polarizing
This involves seeing things as either all good or all evil. An example would be setting a goal you could not complete, then telling yourself, “I have failed.” There is no wiggle room, no room to give ourselves grace if we almost met the goal but something came up, or we just didn’t feel well that particular day. Life is filled with nuances, and polarizing our beliefs doesn’t allow for inevitable failures, mistakes, and grey areas.
How to reverse negative self-talk
Since we know negative self-talk is based on faulty logic, we can stop them in their tracks. This is sometimes referred to as reality testing: we want to learn to catch a negative thought when we have it. Ask: “is there evidence to support this thought I am having?” We can also ask whether this thought is objectively true or subjective to what is happening. I remember being so scared about math in school. I tried to debunk these self-doubts when I was in the weeds. I acknowledged the test-taking anxiety that might alter my ability to concentrate. I looked at all the time I spent studying at home and remembered that I had done well with the practice questions. I found solace in my tutor’s confidence in my ability to find the correct answer. It’s important to practice being mindful when we experience negative self-talk. If allowed to rule our thoughts unchecked, negative self-talk can affect many areas of life, like relationships (romantic or platonic), job performance, and overall happiness and satisfaction. This shows how powerful our minds are and how our thoughts about ourselves can become our reality.  Positive affirmations There are ways to combat negative thoughts using positive affirmations. Positive affirmations are reasonable and productive statements we can tell ourselves to fight the negative thoughts.  You can use these affirmations whenever you feel you need a boost. These might include times when you want to raise your confidence when you’re feeling anxious or to help control negative feelings such as frustration, anger, or impatience. This can be a straightforward practice to add to your day. Try these examples to get you started:
  • “I am becoming more confident every day”
  • “I am enough”
  • “I am worthy of love”
  • “My thoughts and opinions are valuable”
  • “My body is strong”
  • “This is stressful, so I will take care of myself”
Once you get the hang of it, it might feel fulfilling to create affirmations that are specific to you. Affirmations can help us see the world as a much less threatening place than it once was. With practice, positive self-affirmations can lead to being mindful of our thoughts and feelings. We can arm ourselves with the knowledge that we are enough and that what we have to offer is enough. 

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