Self Talk. We all have it. That persistent inner voice that narrates our existence and tells us what to think and what to feel. It can be a useful guide and motivator. It can help us navigate a difficult path or reinforce the joy of a positive experience. Like having your own personal cheerleader. But what happens when that inner voice decides to turn against you? What happens if your cheerleader decides to change team? It’s time to learn about Negative Self Talk.
What is Self Talk?
The inner voice that I refer to is also known as “self talk”. It is usually a very normal and helpful element of our mental infrastructure, a constant presence as we go about our daily lives. It is constantly thinking about and interpreting the situations we find ourselves in.
Much of our self talk is okay – “I should really get that credit card paid” or “I am so excited about my date next week” – but sometimes it can edge towards the negative – “I am terrible wth money” or “There is no way he’s going to like me”.
This is known as negative self talk and we are all likely to experience a degree of this as part of our day to day lives. But sometimes, it can get a bit out of hand…becoming the rule rather than the exception and creating a real difficulty for us as we go about our lives. And this is why it is so important to understand what it is, what to look for, how it can affect you and what you can do about it.
So what should you look for?
Well, there are a few different types of negative self talk that you might experience. You could be a Worrier – often characterised by making “What if…” statements. What if I fail, What if No-one likes me, What if I can’t…. – Each one of these openers leads to a limiting statement. And this sets you up to view the situation through the eyes of potential failure rather than of success.
The watch-word here is “Should”. I should do…., feel …., say….. – Again, these are limiting statements, setting the scene for you to believe that your value is based on something that should happen – conditional worth.
Now this isn’t where you make someone else feel like a victim! This is where your self talk makes you the victim. There isn’t an obvious watch-word or phrase to look out for here sadly – it is more about blaming everything on someone or something else – “I am always ill – why does everyone pass me their germs”.
Victims also do not believe that anything will change – there is a degree of fatalism about the self talk.
The Constant Critic
This is the most obvious type of negative self talk and it is extremely damaging. Through constantly criticising your own actions and beliefs, you divert focus from your many qualities. Examples include “I am so useless, I always get things wrong” or “I am so fat – I will never be able to stick to a diet”.
Interestingly, these negative self talking examples are often things that you would never dream of saying to someone out loud!
Now we need to talk a bit about the brain…
…and not in too much depth because frankly, I would be seriously over-reaching if I tried that – but it is important that you understand the mental impact of negative self talk.
You will know from your own self-talk, that it happens at lightening speed and the majority of it doesn’t even register in your conscious mind as you go about your daily business right? It’s the same for all of us. We learn to tune it out – there is simply too much volume of chatter there for us to pay attention to without becoming very muddled up with what is going on around us at the same time.
But (and here is the brain part) your sub-conscious mind does pay attention. The sub-conscious mind takes everything in – everything. Its like a giant sponge for every single piece of information that it comes across. And where this starts to become important is that the subconscious mind accepts everything it receives. There is no rationalising (that’s your frontal lobe’s job after all), there is no contextualising or emotion – it simply accepts what it is told as actual fact.
So what does this mean?
Imagine then if you will, the constant stream of negative self talk that is literally flooding into your subconscious mind every day, without any filter. All of that worry or victim-mentality or perfectionism or criticism just flooding in and being taken as fact.
Once the brain receives this information, it will react accordingly. It produces the required emotion or anxiety-state that it perceives is necessary to protect you. It isn’t hard to imagine therefore that a sustained period of worry would create a sustained period of anxiety.
Okay – thats enough brain stuff for me. I’m no scientist or neurosurgeon and I am certain that my explanation has a few holes in it! But the gist is there and hopefully you have got the idea….
So what can you do to release yourself from negative self talk?
Well the great news is that is is totally reversible. With some effort and determination it becomes possible to switch your mind over to a place of positive self talk.
First up it is important to become more aware of your negative self talk. You need to start paying attention, looking out for those pesky negative thoughts, and ideally getting them noted down. keeping a notebook handy and jotting down each negative thought that you catch for a couple of weeks will give you such a fantastic library of examples of what your mind is telling you and an excellent place to start when it comes to challenging them.
Which leads neatly to the second tip
This is where we develop the ability to answer some challenging questions about your self talk examples. Try some of these….
- What is my evidence for and against my thinking?
- Are my thoughts factual, or are they just my interpretations?
- Are there any other ways that I could look at this situation?
- If I were being positive, how would I perceive this situation?
- Is this situation as bad as I am making out to be?
- What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it?
- What is the best thing that could happen?
- What is most likely to happen?
Once you have challenged some of those thoughts, you need to come up with some new replacement thoughts. Look through your noted thoughts and reframe them to a positive alternative. Imagine being kinder to yourself. Lets take a few examples from earlier in this article and reframe them to show you how its done.
Negative Self Talk – “I am so useless, I always get things wrong”
Reframed to Positive Self Talk – “I got that wrong but I will learn from my mistake”
Negative Self Talk – “I am so fat – I will never be able to stick to a diet”
Reframed to Positive Self Talk – “I need to lose some weight and will find a diet and exercise plan that works for me”
Once you have worked through some of your more frequent and persistent negative self talk examples, you will be ready to begin the final stage. – putting the reframed thoughts into your self-talk narrative.
Now this isn’t going to be quick or easy.
It has probably taken you years to build up your negative narrative. But with persistence and determination, you should keep watchful for the negative self talk and when it occurs, immediately stop it – it may even be helpful to mark the moment by saying “Stop” (perhaps in your mind rather than out loud depending on where you are!). This then provides you with the right moment to replace the negative self talk with a reframed and positive example.
I hope that this has given you an overview of how negative self talk works. It is so important in making sure that we get in under control for our own mental health. I will add another article to pick up on how to reframe your thoughts in more detail as time allows, but for now, if you feel that you need some support to get your negative self talk under control, please do not hesitate to contact me.