Even during our sunniest moods, there can be a slight shadow. It might be for something minor: “Geeez, I was rude not letting that driver pass.” Or a situation more major: “I’m sure the boss thinks I’m an idiot for speaking up like that.”
Negative Self-Talk is Common
Few of us are immune to negative self-talk, and there are many reasons for this. The inner critic always thinks it knows best, because part of our initial survival mechanism as a species included being alert to threats, regardless of origin. Then, scientists note, the blueprint of our self-talk patterns form during our toddler years. This article from Psychology Today details the process. Initially, it’s all positive:
- As children grow, they go through stages of using self-talk as a way to understand how to do things, the world around them, and interacting with people.
- Using self-talk during make-believe play helps children learn, develop strategies, and increase concentration, self-regulation, and organization.
Obviously, how others talk to us as children deeply impacts our future self-talk patterns as well. Researchers use these examples:
- If an adult uses calm step-by-step, non-emotional language with a child to learn something new or become more proficient with a task, the child has a better foundation to deal with failure and the willingness to try again. Future self-talk will mirror this approach and help the child be more successful.
- By contrast, if an adult is impatient, short-tempered, or quick to judge during the task instruction, the child internalizes the frustration, which often prohibits them from guiding themselves effectively, and gets upset when they feel confused. Not only will they have more negative self-talk patterns as they get older, but also an inability to self-regulate or learn effectively—widening the circle of doubt, insecurity, and lack of self-efficacy.
Not all negative self-talk is rooted in misguided adult influence, but the complex computer that is your brain definitely stores these interactions. In addiction and behavioral science, the amygdala is a key player—it’s where emotion, memory, and fear processing occur. Quite often, if a person has deep-seated memories of interactions that prompted confusion, frustration, doubt, and other negative aspects, the shadow of limiting self-talk gets bigger.
If you’re struggling with addiction, anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, or other co-occurring conditions, your negative self-talk pattern might be more defined. Unfortunately, this will crowd out other important aspects of your life and create even more chaos, such as:
- Restricted thinking. The more your inner critic says you can’t do something, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Relationship challenges. If the recording in your head repeats that you’re not worthy, makes you feel insecure about what you say or do, believes you always mess up things or that you must criticize yourself and others in order to be better, the less likely you’ll be to have healthy relationships with others—but more importantly, with yourself.
- Striving for unreachable perfection. Nothing in the world is truly perfect, but if this is your end goal, anything less than that vision will create more stress and less joy, instead of guiding yourself to do your best and trusting in that authentic effort.
And pessimistic self-talk will certainly contribute to the complications of whatever condition you’re dealing with—researchers affirm this pattern worsens depression, for example.
Control the Narrative of Self-Talk
Limiting self-talk is rarely based on reality. Now certainly, if you had a terrible experience with someone or something, it was real. Afterward, your brain will fire off as many warning signals as it can to prevent a reoccurrence. But that reaction usually involves common sense and awareness.
Research firm Genomind calls negative self-talk the “bully in your brain“. It shares data that indicates that of the “80,000 snippets of mental dialogue daily, we tend to think mostly negative thoughts roughly 80 percent of the time.” Certain methods, Genomind suggests, help alter the self-condemnation pattern.
Of course, it takes frequent practice and a little time, but your guiding thought for retraining your brain should always be, “I can do this. I’ll try again.”
When you can acknowledge a limiting thought without internalizing it, you’ve made a vital first step toward better wellness. Cognitive behavioral therapy—a leading therapeutic technique offered at many inpatient rehabilitation treatment centers—helps you notice, assess, and then disregard negative thoughts through other coping methods.
Name your inner critic
Adding another entity to the narrative helps reduce negative “I” statements that shift you into blame, shame, or guilt. Then, you regain control. The negative thought becomes Penelope. Or JoeBob. Or something. Now address the thought directly: “Thank you for you input, JoeBob, but I really don’t believe that’s true.” Is it silly? Sure. But researchers say it works.
Rumination—the habit of circular thinking that tends to cause more discontent—is often at the heart of negative self-talk, especially for people trying to manage mental illness. So the key is to redirect. Go for a short walk. Wash dishes and look at soap bubbles. Call a friend. Eventually, the less attention you give a negative thought, the more likely it will fade away.
Learn to reframe
Reframing a thought allows for more neutral analyzation. If a task is challenging, say so. If you’re learning something new, acknowledge that growth. You’re not dumb, incompetent, or any of the other hypercritical labels—the situation simply is what it is.
Don’t deny what’s actually wrong, but bring back the sunlight by expressing gratitude. Some people might do this through prayer, others as a form of mindfulness. Psychologists recommend writing down positive thoughts and moments to give them more purpose and create a better pattern for your brain to follow.
Willingway’s Techniques for Progressive Change
Through modern therapeutic applications to a wide circle of uplifting support, Willingway offers guidance and stability to help you continue to be your best self. Learn more about breaking negative patterns with our treatment for substance abuse, co-occurring disorders, and adolescent issues.