Recognizing and Neutralizing Negative Self-Talk
by TERESA SCHIFFER
As the new year gets underway, there’s always a lot of talk about resolutions. Healthy lifestyles, fewer expletives, diets and procrastination rank up there with the most common goals. This year, how about a different kind of resolution? One that could have a lasting effect on your life?
Negative self-talk can be a major obstacle in our quest for better mental health and self-esteem. It can have a detrimental impact on our lives, well-being, and quality of life. We spoke with Dr. Marcus Cherry, a licensed psychologist with Kindelan McDanal & Associates in Lakeland, to learn more about negative self-talk, how to identify it, and tips to fight it to avoid long-term consequences.
First, what exactly is negative self-talk? It’s a disruptive stream of thought that can occur when our beliefs and thoughts about ourselves become altered by inaccurate, unrealistic, or unhelpful messages, resulting in feelings of anger, sadness, shame, or other needlessly negative emotions.
“Negative self-talk can be sneaky and takes many forms,” Cherry explains. “Some common forms are feeling like everything is our fault (self-blame), thinking about or speaking to ourselves harshly (self-judgment), only noticing or remembering negative events (ignoring the positive), and expecting everything to end in disaster (catastrophizing).”
So how can you recognize this form of thinking in yourself?
One strategy involves starting with the negative emotion and working backward.
“Evaluate whether or not there is a rational cause for this feeling. If you are unable to find any, consider what thoughts you have been having about yourself and if those thoughts have been overtly negative.”
Cherry says another good way to determine whether your negative thoughts are unfounded is to ask yourself, “Would I say this to someone I care about?” and, “How would I feel if someone I care about said that to me?”
It can be easy to fall into a pattern of negative self-talk, and Cherry explains why.
“Negative self-talk comes from when we do not carefully consider our thoughts and we simply believe in or accept our negative thoughts as true or real. The catch is our negative thoughts are typically automatic and usually seem reasonable, but if we start to question them then we can see their flaws.”
Everyone’s thinking pattern is different, and that can sometimes make it tricky to understand where our negative self-talk comes from.
“How prone we are to negative thinking depends largely on how we are trained to think about ourselves,” Cherry says. He goes on to say that people tend to learn it from others in their lives, including well-meaning parents, romantic partners, friends, teachers/coaches, or other influential figures in our lives.
The effects of negative self-talk can ripple throughout our psyche, manifesting in a myriad of unhealthy behavior patterns. This type of mental monolog can distort how we see ourselves — our self-image — and undermine how we feel about ourselves — our self-esteem. Both of these biases can carry harmful consequences. Poor self-esteem causes us to feel bad about ourselves, while a faulty self-image can have a more global effect on our mental health because everything we experience is filtered through the lens of how we perceive ourselves.
Negative self-talk can cause depression and anxiety that exacerbate harmful thinking patterns, creating a vicious cycle of inaccurate self-perceptions fueled by despair, anger, fear or paranoia. This cycle can quickly become overwhelming, which is why it’s so important to identify and rectify the thinking patterns.
The good news is that it is possible to overcome the habit of negative self-talk with just a little determination, objectivity, and effort. According to Cherry, the first step is to take notice of what your thoughts are saying about you and recognize when you fall into a pattern of self-blame, self-judgment, ignoring the positive, and/or catastrophizing. Next, actively challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself, “Is this thought accurate?” or “Is this thought helpful?” If the answer is yes, then there may be something besides your thinking that needs some work. However, if the answer is no, take a moment to consciously reword those thoughts to make them more accurate or helpful.
Once you have committed to accurately assessing your inner criticisms and dedicated yourself to correcting these statements, you can do more to help differentiate the unhelpful, negative self-talk from more useful, legitimate concerns. One way to do this, Cherry describes, is by treating your negative self-talk as its own persona – an “inner critic” acting as a harsh commentator.
“You can even give this inner critic its own character, voice, look, and style,” Cherry says. “The more detailed you can be the better. Then when your negative self-talk shows up, it will start to come from this inner critic instead of from you.” This can make it easier to identify, manage, and counteract.
Negative self-talk is incredibly common, but it is possible to neutralize it. The average person who makes a sincere effort to follow the recommendations can expect it to take about a week or two to familiarize themselves with the techniques, another three to four weeks to establish the habit of applying the strategies, and about eight to 12 weeks for new habits to take root and become automatic.