Self-talk is that inner voice you hear as you encounter situations and interpret what happens in your life. That self-talk relates to how you perceive any given situation. Understanding and recognizing a negative inner voice helps you turn those thoughts into a positive voice that can help you through your day.
What Is Negative Self-Talk
Before figuring out how to stop hurtful self-talk, it’s important to understand exactly what it is. Negative self-talk encompasses a variety of internal conversations you have with yourself. Self-talk can be neutral or positive and is often helpful. For example, you might drive by the grocery store and think, “I need to plan our menu for the week, so I can go grocery shopping.” This is a normal, useful thought. But often, self-talk turns negative. Someone who engages in negative self-talk might think, “I’m so disorganized. I can never get ahead,” or, “I always mess up. I’ll never succeed.”
Examples of negative self-talk include:
- Internal negative message about yourself, such as, “I’m so stupid. I never do anything right.”
- Replaying conversations or interactions that didn’t go as you wanted
- Worrying about things you did or that could happen
- Having a victim mentality
- Limiting beliefs based on your past
- Magnifying negative things that happen while minimizing positive things
- Focusing only on the negative while losing sight of the overall picture
- Making assumptions about what other people think about you
- Making a generalization about yourself based on one negative experience, such as telling yourself you are incompetent at your job because you made one mistake
- Expecting perfection from yourself
- Engaging in self-pity, such as thinking others are lucky and you are unlucky or thinking that bad things always happen to you
Why Hurtful Self-Talk Occurs
Learning why negative self-talk happens can help you stop that inner negative voice. Self-talk is something everyone does, but you may not even be aware of it. Self-talk can include unconscious beliefs and thoughts you have about yourself in various situations. You may not even realize your brain is generating these negative messages because it is such an automated process. Even your conscious thoughts can sneak up on you without you being fully aware of how they affect you.
Why do those thoughts turn negative? People who experience depression often interpret situations in a negative light. This can cause you to shift your self-talk into a negative space. Low self-esteem is another common reason people let negative self-talk take over their thoughts. Improving self-esteem can help ease the negative thoughts that can become overwhelming.
Effects of Hurtful Self-Talk
The things you say to yourself do not change the events in your life. They do change the way you perceive those events, however. That perception can affect how you cope with the situations you encounter in life.
You may think those negative thoughts are no big deal or that they push you to be better, but every bit of self-talk has the power to influence not only how you feel, but how you act as well. Think of negative self-talk like a punishment. It might discourage behaviors you want to change temporarily, but a punishment doesn’t really focus on improving. Positive self-talk is more like a reward. You teach yourself in a gentle way how to change your behaviors and get to where you want to be.
So what happens when you constantly fill your head with negative self-talk? Some of the potential effects include:
- Fear of failure
- Feeling that you are not good enough
- Inhibitions that keep you from doing things you want to do
- Stopping you from living your life
- Unhealthy focus on flaws
- Increased negative self-talk
- Upsetting your emotional well-being
- Increased stress levels
- Decreased sense of self-esteem and self-worth
- Can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions
Fortunately, there are many ways to cut back on your hurtful self-talk. Working on your self-esteem can be a major factor in learning how to stop negative self-talk.
Recognizing Negative Self-Talk
Being aware of your negative self-talk is the first step in managing those hurtful thoughts. If you’re used to streams of negative thoughts flowing through your mind, they become second nature. You may not even realize you are thinking them. Those thoughts may slip in amid all your other thoughts during the average day.
To stop putting yourself down, you need to make a conscious effort to identify those patterns of thought. This gives you the chance to change how you think. How can you recognize those negative thoughts if they happen subconsciously? Try these methods:
- Note your emotions: Negative self-talk often causes negative feelings to follow. If you feel guilt, doubt, worthlessness, shame or similar negative feelings, stop and think about what you are telling yourself. These emotions are often a signal to yourself that your negative, critical voice is in effect.
- Journal your experiences: A journal can help you recognize patterns in your thoughts and behaviors. Record your emotions as well as the details about the situation and the events that caused negative feelings. Use this journal to help break those patterns in negative self-talk that show up.
- Check in with yourself: Stop periodically during the day to consider what types of thoughts you’re having. Pay special attention when you know an uncomfortable or potentially difficult situation is coming up. For example, if you have to give a presentation at work and you hate presentations, pay particular attention to how you talk to yourself before, during and after.
Challenging Negative Self-Talk
Once you recognize instances of hurtful self-talk, you can challenge those thoughts and replace them with healthier ones. When you look closely at your negative thoughts, you may realize they are completely inaccurate.
Changing them is not always easy, though, especially when you are so used to the negative thoughts about yourself. However, with some practice, you can stand up to the negativity and replace it with a more positive approach.
Asking yourself certain questions helps you learn to resist those negative thoughts. Some effective questions to ask when you notice negative self-talk include:
- What facts exist to support these thoughts?
- Am I basing these thoughts on what is actually happening, or am I jumping to conclusions?
- Could there be a different explanation for this situation?
- What is the worst-case scenario in this situation?
- How likely is the worst-case scenario?
- What could be the best possible outcome of this situation?
- Is it as bad as I am making it out to be?
- Are these thoughts helping me reach my goals?
- How can I handle this situation differently next time?
- Is there anything I can do right now to improve this situation?
Let’s look at an example. Imagine you just moved to a new city where you don’t know anyone. You decide to attend a social event to meet new people, but your negative self-talk makes you believe no one will like you and that you will completely humiliate yourself or will never make friends in your new city.
In this situation, you might ask yourself what the worst case scenario is. You might feel embarrassed. You might not make any new friends this time. You may find this isn’t your scene and is not the way you want to meet people. Now, what is the best possible outcome? You might connect with some really great people who share similar interests. You might find other people who are also new to town and feel the same way as you. Another question you might ask is, “Are these thoughts helping me reach my goals?” If your goal is to meet new people, negative self-talk is not likely to help.
Isolating the Negative Inner Voice
People often make the mistake of believing the inner voice is part of themselves. That negativity is a learned behavior based on your experiences and the expectations and beliefs imposed upon you by society. The negativity is not part of who you truly are.
To help silence the inner critic, recognize that it is not you. You can separate yourself from the negativity of that inner critic. One strategy to create that separation is to name that negative voice in your head. You might call it the Whiner or the Pity Party Patrol. These names can also help ease some of the stress when you think about the negative self-talk.
Finding Replacement Thoughts
As you start paying more attention to your negative self-talk, you may start noticing patterns of thoughts and behaviors. For example, you constantly think negatively about your weight or you badger yourself about messing up as a parent. You might notice your inner voice repeats certain phrases, such as, “You’re a bad mom,” or “You’re never going to be as good as your sister.”
While it might be painful to face those common negative phrases, it is also the key to overcoming them. Prepare replacement thoughts for those negative phrases you hear yourself say frequently. If your inner critic starts to tell you that you are a bad mom, stop that voice and say, “I give my kids so much love,” or “I’m always there for my kids even when I’m having a difficult day.”
If you’re having trouble thinking of replacement phrases, put more of your focus on finding positives about yourself. When you spend so much time dwelling on the negative, it can feel like you have nothing to offer, but everyone has positive traits. You just need to retrain your brain to recognize those traits and feed into those habits.
One way to do this is to find examples in your life that prove the positive traits. For example, if you tell yourself you aren’t a good friend, think back to find examples that prove you are a good friend. You might not call as often as you would like, but you brought food when your friend had a baby, or you listened when she was facing a difficult time in her marriage. If negative examples creep into your head, push them aside, and focus on finding even more positive evidence.
Practicing Positive Thoughts
Positive thinking takes practice. Instead of waiting until negative thoughts start popping up, practice positive thoughts all the time. Let yourself relish in that good hair day you’re having. Compliment yourself on your ability to make other people smile. Pat yourself on the back for studying hard for that exam and scoring well on it.
If you’re having trouble with positive thinking about yourself, keep these things in mind:
- You don’t have to please everyone: It is tough to deal with criticism or judgment from other people, but remind yourself that there will always be people who are negative or don’t approve. If certain people in your life constantly make you question your self-worth, distance yourself from those people. This gives you a chance to increase self-esteem without the outside negative influence.
- You won’t like everyone, and everyone won’t like you: Think about the people you interact with on a daily basis. Are they all your best friends? Do you connect with all of them? Do you enjoy being around all of them? Probably not, and that’s okay. We’re all drawn to different personality traits and types. If you get the feeling you’re not someone’s cup of tea, remind yourself that there are plenty of other people in the world who will appreciate your quirky personality.
- Your best friend wouldn’t say those negative things about you: When your inner voice starts talking, ask yourself if your best friend would say those same things about you. The answer to this is usually no. Take it a step further. Would you say those things to your best friend? If you wouldn’t say the same things to your best friend that you say to yourself, stop saying them.
- Most things won’t matter in five years: One way to put things into perspective is to ask yourself if it will matter in five years. If you mess up on one presentation at work, is anyone going to remember in five years? You may feel like you really messed up, but most people move on very quickly. If something is not important enough to have a lasting effect, don’t let it suck up your energy with negative thoughts.
- Everyone falls short sometimes: Sometimes it can feel like you are the only one who messes up. However, when you focus so much on what you think you do wrong, it’s easy to forget other people fail to live up to their own high expectations for themselves as well.
Focusing on Your Self-Esteem
Working to improve self-confidence overall can help minimize your harmful self-talk. When you feel confident about yourself, you won’t think negative things about yourself. There are several small ways you can build up your self-esteem to get to a healthier place in your thought process.
If you know your self-confidence is an issue, work on these areas:
- Keep your expectations realistic: When you set excessively high expectations you know you can’t achieve, you’re setting yourself up for failure. When you fail to meet those expectations, you feel as if you let yourself down. You might enact those negative thoughts. Setting challenging yet realistic goals gives you a sense of accomplishment and boosts your image of yourself.
- Stop comparing yourself to others: It’s so easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to your peers. When you don’t seem to measure up, your self-esteem takes a hit. Social media, in particular, can cause envy or make you feel as if you are lacking. The key to remember with social media is that everyone puts their best foot forward. What you see is a very filtered view of that person’s life. Focus on your own growth instead of how you measure up to your peers.
- Take care of yourself: You feel better when you practice good hygiene, exercise and eat well. Sleep is another important self-care task. Being well-rested helps you look at situations from a more positive perspective and can help you feel better about yourself. It’s very difficult to feel good about yourself when you aren’t meeting those basic needs. Set goals in areas of personal care to help yourself gradually build healthier practices.
- Address past issues that affect your self-esteem: In some cases, low self-esteem relates to abuse, childhood trauma, health issues, traumatic life events and other experiences that are outside of your control. If those past events hold you back, work with a professional to address those situations and find healthy ways to work through them.
- Explore your interests: Trying out new activities and exploring interests can help you feel better about yourself. Doing enjoyable activities makes you feel happy. You may uncover a new talent that boosts your self-esteem. Community education classes are a great low-pressure way to test out an activity you’ve always wanted to try.
- Practice gratitude: It’s so easy to get caught up in the negativity of everyday life. Focusing on the positive things and practicing gratitude for those things can help you change your perspective and feel more positive overall. A simple way to do this is to keep a gratitude journal where you write down a few things you are grateful for each day.
- Surround yourself with people who make you feel more confident: You can’t always avoid people who have a negative influence on your life, but as much as possible, surround yourself with people who love you and who make it easier to have confidence in yourself. If you hang out with “friends” who constantly make fun of you, it’s difficult to feel confident.
- Help others: Making a positive impact on other people can be just as good for your own self-esteem as it is for the people you help. Everyone can have positive effects on the lives of others. Do something as simple as smiling at a stranger, holding a door or listening attentively to a child who has a story to tell. Doing volunteer or charity work can help you find a sense of purpose that has a positive impact on your self-esteem.
- Focus on your accomplishments: Many people fall into the trap of perfection. They feel as if they have to do everything perfectly from the beginning. Release that idea of perfection, and instead look for accomplishments you achieve along the way to becoming a better person. Reflecting on your growth can also help you realize how far you have come to get to this point. You may still have growing to do, but you already have made so much progress.
- Put your energy toward things you can change: Some things in life are out of your control, no matter how much you wish you could change them. Instead of wasting your energy on those aspects of life, put your efforts toward changing the things that are within your control.
- Give it time: When you have low self-esteem, it won’t improve overnight. Continue working on small, doable tasks that help increase your confidence in yourself, but know that it may take time to notice significant changes.
Negative self-talk does have a major impact on you, but you can stand up to your inner critic to create a more positive inner voice. If your negative self-talk becomes overwhelming or you struggle to get it under control, professional support can help you create a more positive thought process.