How to Overcome Negative Self-Talk


Talking to yourself has a bad connotation. Have you ever watched someone walking down the street muttering to him/herself? We associate it with isolation and low self-esteem. But even if we don’t mutter aloud, the truth is that each one of us talks to ourselves much of the time. And not only do these inner monologues determine our moods and behavior, they literally become self-fulfilling prophecies and eventually define our reality.

As expressed by Elinor MacDonald, “The things that you keep silently telling yourself are your most important conversations. Whatever you habitually dwell on in your mind you will become, express, or experience. Your subconscious mind will be your best friend or your worst enemy.”

Here’s an example. As I was starting to write this article I was having trouble with my computer. It had been slow for a few days, putting out warning signs that something wasn’t normal. Then it stopped working completely. I could not open any files or folders or get on the internet. A hard shut down and reboot didn’t solve the problem. I became alarmed that something serious, perhaps a virus or at least bad malware, had infected my hard drive.

I was aware that I could talk to myself in a couple of ways. One way would sound like, “I don’t have time for this. I have so much to do and can’t be without a computer. This is going to ruin my day and the rest of the week if I have to spend all my time trying to get it fixed. And it would be horrible to lose my work from the last few months. I knew I should have been backing them up. So stupid of me not to. This can’t be happening to me. DANG.”

Or, my self-talk could sound more like, “I don’t know what is wrong or how serious this is. But I know that things like this are an inevitable part of using technology and that I have to deal with these glitches from time to time. It is okay. My first order of business is to find someone to help. I’m really glad for people who are more technical than me. I’ll find something else to do today or even the next few days while it’s being fixed. It’s not the end of the world if I lose the use of my computer and have to shift my priorities. What is my next step and how can I make the best of this?”

These two ways of talking to myself result in very different outcomes. One leads to a downward spiral of grungy emotions and, ultimately, feeling victimized and powerless. The second way of talking doesn’t make everything better but it does give me a better perspective, helps me feel better, and allows me to retain a sense of my personal power.

Here’s another example. You arrive at work one day to the news that your company is being purchased by a competitor. You’re told that many of you will be without a job in the next few months. Your boss is sorry but affected herself and can’t do anything about it.

The fear and anxiety created by this kind of announcement are real and negative thinking is going to be a natural reaction for many people. It may sound like: “What horrible news. There’s no way I can go without a paycheck and, besides, I have no idea what I’ll do next. I’ll never find another job in this city and to uproot my kids and family and move would devastate them. I don’t know how we’ll survive.”

More empowering self-talk may sound like: “This is bad news but not entirely unexpected. The rumors have been out there. Change is inevitable and I know I have to flex with it. I’ve got some choices here. Do I want to stay? Are there some things I can do to increase the chances that the company wants to keep me? Or would I prefer to leave? The good news is that I’m a competent person and have been a good employee everywhere I’ve been. A new company would be lucky to have me. This could be hard for my family but it’s an opportunity for us to pull together and support each other. I’ll make this work.”

Notice that the first narrative is rooted in scarcity, fear, and mistrust and results in a downward spiral of thinking, feeling, and behaving. The second narrative is grounded in abundance, trust and confidence. The focus is on options, choices and the future. It results in hopeful feelings and a sense of personal empowerment. Two very different ways of framing and talking to oneself about a difficult reality.

I could go on and on with examples. How do you talk to yourself about something as simple as the weather? Or what about bad traffic? Your health? Age? A recent embarrassment? A spat with a loved one? Children who are choosing different values and lifestyle than your own?

Do you talk to yourself in a way that is predominantly weakening and discouraging or strengthening and empowering? Would you like to talk to yourself in a more positive way? Doing so is both empowering (short-term) and healing (long-term). Here is a process to do so.

How to change your self-talk

  1. Become aware of the inner voice. You first have to recognize when you’re being sucked down that unproductive rabbit hole of negative self-talk. Observe how you are talking to yourself. Pay attention to the words you’re using to describe both yourself and your experience. What is the tone? Is it helpful or hurtful? Strengthening or weakening?
  2. Look at the consequences. Ask yourself what will happen if you continue talking to yourself in this way. How will you feel? How are you likely to act? What are the longer-term consequences? Is it consistent with your long-term vision for your life? Is that what you want? If it isn’t easy to shift from the negative self-talk, keep looking at all the rip-offs and negative consequences for not doing so. Use these to tap into a deeper motivation.
  3. Recognize the distortions in your self-talk. We confuse our self-talk for truth. “This is the worst thing that could happen.” “My day is ruined.” “I’ll never get this done.” “I can’t believe I said that.” “I’m so fat and ugly.” “Nobody else cares.” And so on. We act like these statements are the truth and even selectively perceive and seek evidence to prove we are right about our point of view. But, if you really take time to examine your negative self-talk, you’ll discover distortions of logic. Some common distortions are black and white thinking (seeing the world in either-or terms), filtering (seeing only information that confirms your point of view), mind-reading (guessing what others are thinking without checking it out), fortune-telling (assuming how things will turn out in the future), catastrophizing (assuming the worst possible outcome), over-generalizing (taking a few data points as the whole truth), personalizing (taking on too much responsibility for other’s actions), and so on. If you can take a step back from the story and view it from a larger perspective, you’ll begin to see that it is not the whole truth.
  4. Try out an alternative narrative. By alternative narrative I’m not talking about simply adopting a positive mental attitude or thinking only positive thoughts. I am talking about seeing what is going on from a bigger and more objective perspective. Rather than “This is the worst thing that could happen,” I might tell myself, “This is a hard reality.” Rather than “My day is ruined” I might think “this is a setback but I do have some choices about how to respond.” Rather than “I’m such a big screw-up,” I might say, “I’m not perfect. I’m going to make mistakes and that is okay. I’ll keep trying.” And so on. The point is not to tell yourself something that you can’t believe. That does not work and will backfire. What does work is constructing a new narrative or way of talking to yourself that is more objective about what is going on and which will allow you to be more empowered to take positive action.
  5. Say it out loud. You deepen and reinforce positive self-talk by speaking it out loud. This may be to a family member or friend, although sometimes it is not convenient to do so or you may not be ready to be that vulnerable. Most often, you will say it out loud to no one but yourself as you are driving down the highway, taking a walk, or standing in front of a mirror. Saying it out loud makes it more real. It deepens the meaning of your words and gets them into your heart.

Someone once said that the goal of therapy is to teach a person to become his or her own therapist. That is exactly what good self-talk does. It comes from a commitment to respect ourselves and support ourselves in good times or bad. Most of us are better at supporting other people than ourselves. Learning to have good, uplifting, positive dialogues with ourselves, whether driving down the road, during morning meditation, or in the middle of a difficult experience is a great way to discover inner strength and love.

I recently had a great talk with myself in the bathroom mirror. I talked to myself out loud for about an hour. I shared how I perceive myself. I talked about what I like about myself. I grieved about a few of the challenges and came up with some actions to meet them. It was a very moving experience. I left feeling a deep love and support for myself and empowered to deal with life.

Application

I want to be realistic. Changing your self-talk is not easy. It seems so natural to fall into negative self-talk. Social scientists tell us that this is true for two reasons. First, the human brain is subject to a “negativity bias” in which we selectively attend to, believe, and inflate the bad and what goes wrong in our lives. I suppose this is to prepare us mentally to deal with the hardships of life. And second, our brains are also subject to “hedonic adaptation” which is our tendency to minimize the good of life. Most of us have immense blessings—our health and daily breath, the beauties of the world, modern comforts and conveniences, love and support from others. Yet how quickly we take them for granted. Both of these inclinations make it so much easier to be negative than positive.

What this means is that you gotta wanna feel better. Changing your self-talk requires a deliberate decision and the willingness to practice.

So, I want to give you a simple exercise. Stay with me. It will take just a few minutes. Begin by thinking about a challenge you are currently facing. In less than a minute, what does your negative self-talk sound like? Now take about one minute to express an alternative, a more objective and empowering way of thinking about this challenge. What would it sound like? Which of these alternative views of reality feels best to you? Which will best serve you and support you in becoming your best self?

If you have read my book, The Hero’s Choice: Living from the Inside Out, you have seen Hal Stratton’s personal transformation. A big part of this was learning to talk differently to himself. The Hero’s Choice Workbook also has a number of lessons to help you apply this principle. Learn the power of taking control of your life and experience more love and serenity by changing the way you talk to yourself.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

One response to “How to Overcome Negative Self-Talk”

  1. Mark Shane Van Niekerk says:

    Dr.Allen I am sure you have a satellite on me when I walk to the shop so you can read my lips and negative talk about my past and future challenges. I am spiraling down in my thinking but I have so many blessings around me. I am going to start spiraling up with my thoughts.
    Excellent article Thank you

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