Negative self-talk is a very common issue that can have huge effects on our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. It takes many forms, which is why it’s easy to fall into, and so hard to catch ourselves when we do it.
Often I’ve fallen into the trap of immediately thinking worse of myself, for things that really aren’t that important. Nor are they a true reflection on who I am.
It can be hard to pull ourselves from negative self-talk, so I’ve written this piece to help us understand what it is, how it manifests, and helpful ways to change these internal narratives.
Negative self-talk is a mental habit in which we talk negatively of ourselves, often irrationally so. For example, when a boss or a parent asks us to ‘have a word’, we may immediately think ‘what have I done?’ There’s no reason for us to assume we’re guilty of something, and there’s no indication the other person is mad at us, yet we’ve jumped to deciding we’ve done something wrong. This is an unhealthy mental habit and a form of negative self-talk.
We can pick up negative self-talk without knowing. Mine started originally as self-deprecating humour; making jokes at my own expense, and laughing as I called myself stupid for small things. Yet, the jokes started to reflect how I truly felt about myself. I started to think that I was stupid, a waste of space, a failure.
Often, negative self talk can be triggered when faced with situations that cause us stress. However, it’s rarely the events themselves that are causing us suffering, but how we feel about those events internally. This is a phenomenon that psychologists have dubbed, Cognitive Mediation Theory.
To understand how this affects negative self talk, let’s first understand cognitive mediation.
The theory looks at the connections between our minds, emotions, and outside stimulus, focusing on the role that Appraisal has in our reactions. Appraisal, in this instance, refers to the way our subconscious automatically assesses situations, and further to that, what the situation means to us (or how we’ve appraised it). When we perceive a stimulus, our mind will go into overdrive to find the appropriate response and emotions based on previous experiences. These immediate cognitive appraisals to situations are what can trigger stress or fear.
Cognitive mediation theory outlines five steps that our minds undertake when appraising a situation:
Negative self-talk, therefore, can distort these cognitive appraisals and lead us to have irrational emotional responses to stimuli. For example, if we encounter a difficult maths problem and have repeatedly reinforced to ourselves that we’re no good at maths, then we will have trained ourselves to believe that we don’t have the resources for the scenario, increasing our stress. In this way our negative self-talk holds us back, causing us to overreact to harmless situations and preventing us from taking chances when they may well lead to us succeeding.
It can be easy to ask ‘Why is negative self-talk so bad?’. After all, a few self-deprecating jokes can’t do that much harm, right? Yet negative self-talk is a learned habit and can lead to mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
We learn mental habits the same way we learn physical ones; the process of learning to tie our shoes by repeating the process over and over again is the same as learning negative self-talk.
Therefore, it’s important to break from the learned habit and talk positively to ourselves, especially as members of the LGBTQ+ community. When we’re bombarded left, right and centre with people and rhetoric telling us that we’re sinful or somehow wrong, it can be easy to internalise that rhetoric and begin thinking negatively of ourselves. Part of flourishing as LGBTQ+ people is learning to break this coding, and seeing ourselves as the amazing, diverse, and beautiful people we are!
Part of the reason why negative self-talk has become so rife is that it’s hard to spot we’re doing it before it’s too late.
These examples are known by psychologists as cognitive distortions because they are unrealistic or inaccurate expectations for our lives which can lead to negative emotions. Here are ten examples of cognitive distortions to look out for:
When we assume that we know what’s going on in other people’s heads, often only imagining the negative without considering the positive possibilities
When we tell ourselves that isolated negative events will continually happen in the future. Such as, assuming we’ll never fall in love after one bad date
When we exaggerate our own errors and flaws, it can often takes the form of catastrophising, where we take isolated events and turn them into disasters in our minds. Making mountains out of molehills, essentially
The opposite of magnification, where we minimise our personal achievements and strengths. This often keeps us in a cycle of feeling inferior because we never allow ourselves to recognise our own virtues
This is where we let our emotions dictate our decision-making over what we actually want. This can lead us to avoid situations where we might feel discomfort but with the potential for furthering our goals
The tendency to evaluate things in terms of extreme categories. This is particularly common when thinking about ourselves. Thinking like ‘I didn’t get a perfect score in the exam, I’m a complete failure,’ and ‘I misspoke in my presentation at work, I’m terrible at my job’, are examples of black and white thinking
Assuming excessive amounts of responsibility, especially for things that are largely out of our control. This can lead to excessive attempts at control and chronic stress or anxiety. When something bad happens to a friend and we immediately thing ‘I should have been there’, that’s personalisation, it’s out of our control and doesn’t reflect on us at all
This is the habit of predicting the future or outcomes without evidence. If you’ve ever convinced yourself that you’re going to fail a job interview before you’ve even entered the building, this is fortune telling. This can lead you to sabotage your own efforts rather than do the best you can. Our minds immediately jump to the worst possible outcome
This is the habit of describing ourselves, or others, in extremes, usually negatively. Because we are all complex and ever-changing, labelling is an offshoot of overgeneralisation
This is a form of self-talk in which we are constantly telling ourselves what we should or should not do to try and motivate ourselves. This often doesn’t survive the real world as most of life’s decisions require nuance and ambiguity. This leads to us thinking that we should have more control than we do and can lead to anxiety.
Now we know different types of negative self-talk, we’re able to determine methods to prevent it. Just like any habit, negative self-talk can be broken, but it can be a huge undertaking. We are, after all, trying to rewire our brains and very way of thinking.
To help you get started, here are five simple steps to improve your self-thinking:
It can often be easier to identify these types of negative self-talk in other’s speech than our own. By improving our ability to hear them coming from others we are also training ourselves to identify them in our own speech
This is often easier said than done but it can have huge effects on the way you think about yourself. The way that something is said to us is often as affecting as the things said. Just look at sarcasm and how a simple shift in tone can change a statement’s meaning. Try and take extra care when talking to yourself; if you’re sarcastic, harsh, or judgemental with yourself it can affect your self-image. Breaking the habit can be a great step to ending negative self-talk
Whenever a lot of us feel negative emotions like anger, sadness, and jealousy, we often go straight to trying to “solve” them as if our emotions are a problem to fix. Instead, try to simply observe these feelings
There’s nothing wrong with thinking critically of yourself. It can help you realise your flaws and figure out ways to improve yourself. However, this should only be done intentionally and in response to actual issues. Why not try journaling about your emotions after the fact to ensure healthy reflection takes place?
The acronym may recall memories of grannies chastising us for saying something rude, but it can be a great tool when applied to self-talk.
When we catch ourselves in a moment of negativity, think:
If the answer for any of these is no then you may be engaging in negative self-talk.
If these options don’t work for you, ask someone to help you guide the way. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a great way to unlearn your cognitive distortions and can teach you to change your self-talk habits into positive self-talk. Positive self-talk has been shown to help with stress release and self-esteem as well as lead to healthier immune systems, increased vitality, greater life satisfaction, and overall improved mental, physical and emotional well-being.
With dozens of strategies and techniques to unlearn the harmful ways we’ve learnt to talk about ourselves, it can really help. With a qualified therapist, you can unlearn these distortions.
We list qualified counsellors and therapists who can support you overcome negative self-talk, and other mental health conditions you may be struggling with.
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