Living with constant negative self-talk is awful…
- The firehose of self-doubt at the very moment you need self-confidence
- The nagging self-criticism that you just can’t shake
- The bullying self-judgment that makes you feel worthless or inadequate
Unfortunately, like so aspects of the mind, our natural instincts for dealing with negative self-talk are frequently unhelpful—and often they only make it worse.
In the rest of this article, I’ll walk you through three common mistakes people make trying to manage their negative self-talk. And for each one, I’ll offer a healthier, more effective alternative.
DON’T Get Into Arguments with Your Negative Self-Talk
When your mind starts saying things about you that are mean, hurtful, and ultimately just not true, it’s natural to try and reason with your negative self-talk—as if you could convince it through reasonable argumentation that its position doesn’t make sense and that it should, as a result, cease and desist immediately.
You’ve probably tried this before, only to realize that trying to disprove your negative self-talk not only doesn’t work, but it frequently makes things worse.
Let’s say you’re getting ready to give a big talk at work when your negative self-talk pipes up with a bunch of unrealistic self-doubt: Everybody’s gonna hate it. I’ll probably forget all my key points. They’re gonna be so bored… I never should have agreed to do this…
You realize this inner chatter is highly unrealistic so you argue back with your negative self-talk and show why it’s ridiculous: Really? Literally everyone in the room is going to completely hate it? I don’t think so. That’s completely unrealistic. Or No, it’s good that I volunteered to do this presentation. If I ace it, maybe I’ll get that big promotion I’ve been wanting.
The problem is the more attention and engagement you give your negative self-talk, the more you reward your brain for producing it. Which means even if you temporarily feel a little better, your brain is now more likely to bombard you with even more negative self-talk in the near future. And in this case, that near future could easily be while you’re in the middle of your talk!
But there’s another problem with this strategy of arguing back with your negative self-talk: It’s really easy for any kind of argument (even good, rational ones) to quickly lead to more arguments that are not so good or rational).
For example: The thought If I ace it, maybe I’ll get that big promotion… might immediately trigger a related thought that’s not so helpful: I haven’t had a promotion in 3 years… No one else on the team has gone that long. What’s wrong with me…
Negative self-talk is like quicksand: The harder you struggle to escape, the faster you sink.
The more productive, if counterintuitive, approach is to simply accept it and move on.
Which brings us to our first negative self-talk DO…
DO Acknowledge Your Negative Self-Talk (and Move On)
Rather than struggling with your negative self-talk by trying to disprove it or rationally convince it of the error of its ways, a more helpful approach is to briefly acknowledge it for what it is and then re-focus on the task at hand.
Let’s start with the first part… Briefly acknowledge your negative self-talk.
To acknowledge your negative self-talk simply means that you are aware of it without getting involved with it. Like saying hi to someone as you’re passing them on the sidewalk—you’re acknowledging them, but you aren’t stopping to have a conversation.
For example, you might say something like this when you experience some negative self-talk:
- There’s my negative self-talk popping up…
- Oh, hello there, negative self-talk…
The key is to keep it brief and merely descriptive—you’re not making any comments on why your self-talk is here, how it’s so unhelpful, etc.
Helpful Tip: Give your negative self-talk a name. I had a client once who started calling her negative self-talk voice Milly (named after a particularly cranky old aunt named Mildred). Anytime her negative self-talk cropped up, she would simply say to herself: Oh, hello Milly.
The benefit of personifying your negative self-talk is that it creates distance between you and your self-talk. It helps you see it as merely a thing that happens to have popped up—one you can choose to listen to and engage with or not.
Now, once you’ve (very briefly) acknowledged your negative self-talk, the key is to quickly re-focus on what you actually want or need to be focused on at the moment: The conversation you’re in, the game of blocks you’re playing with your toddler, the 300 pounds you’re trying to bench press, whatever.
If it helps, remember this:
Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to think more about it.
DON’T Criticize Yourself for Your Negative Self-Talk
Negative self-talk can be a sneaky devil. And one of the sneakiest ways it sticks around is by being critical of negative self-talk!
- Suppose you’re in the middle of an emotionally-sensitive conversation with your spouse. You’re trying really hard to be attentive and focused because being a better listener was your New Year’s resolution this year.
- But in the middle of the conversation, a little bit of negative self-talk pops up: You’re just faking this good listening stuff. It’s not really authentic. Not only does this hurt—you might feel ashamed or sad in response to such an accusation—but it’s also distracting and makes it hard to actually listen attentively.
- Because you want so much to remain focused on listening to your spouse, you find yourself criticizing yourself for negative self-talk: God, why do I always have to be so judgmental with myself?! This negative self-talk is killing me and really hurting my relationship.
- This is negative self-talk’s Trojan horse: It convinces you to be critical of yourself for your negative self-talk. But this is really just one more form of negative self-talk!
So, even if you don’t like your negative self-talk—and even if you don’t like yourself for having all your negative self-talk—criticizing yourself for it simply isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s very likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy and lead to even more negative self-talk.
So, be very careful of your instinct to be critical or judgmental of yourself for your negative self-talk. Because while it feels justified, it’s just more of the same.
Alternatively, when you find yourself getting judgmental about yourself and your negative self-talk, try substituting a little self-compassion instead…
DO Practice Self-Compassion
Self-compassion means that when you’re struggling, you treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
For example, suppose a good friend called you up and started telling you about how they’ve been feeling pretty down lately. They go on to describe how they’re being really hard on themselves for missing their kid’s music performance recently—lots of negative self-talk about not being a good parent, how their kids won’t love them when they’re older, etc.
Now, if a friend said all that to you, how would you respond?
For one thing, you definitely wouldn’t get super judgmental and critical of them for having a bunch of negative self-talk: God, you’re always so negative all the time! No wonder you feel depressed.
And I doubt you would start delivering a detailed, point-by-point argument about why their idea of being a bad parent is completely false in seven specific ways.
Instead, you would probably be gently supportive and understanding…
- You might start with some kind of validating words like: Being a parent is so tough. I’ve definitely struggled with worrying about not doing enough too.
- Then you might show them a side of the story they’re missing, something like: I know you hate missing their recitals, but I’ve always admired how really present and attentive you are with your kids when you are with them.
- Finally, you might offer some kind encouragement and support going forward: I know it feels hard right now, but if I know anything about you it’s that you’re resilient (remember the banana incident in college?!). Come on, let’s go grab a coffee…
The great thing is, compassion is something you likely already know how to do because you probably do it reasonably well with other people when they’re struggling. It’s just a matter of remembering to apply the same thing to yourself and your own struggles with negative self-talk:
Briefly validate the negative self-talk then gently encourage yourself to move on.
Don’t hold onto the double standard of being kind to others and cruel with yourself. Not only is it okay to give yourself a little kindness and support, it’s actually a far more effective strategy than beating yourself up or getting into an argument with yourself over all that negative self-talk.
DON’T Try to Control Your Thoughts
One of the biggest mistakes I see people making with their negative self-talk is trying to control it—either to prevent it from showing up in the first place or making it disappear once it’s arrived.
While totally understandable, this attempt to control your negative self-talk is both unrealistic and unhelpful.
It’s unrealistic because you actually don’t have much control over your thoughts. You can’t simply tell your brain not to have a certain type of thought. And in fact, doing so will actually make it more likely that your brain push that thought into consciousness.
It’s also unrealistic to think that you can simply make unwanted thoughts disappear. Sorry, there’s no magic spell that eliminates unwanted thoughts. And the more you struggle with and try to banish your thoughts, the more you train your brain to see those thoughts as a threat. Which means it’s more likely to notice them and get entangled with them in the future.
And as we discussed earlier, even though you do have control over thinking new thoughts—you could generate a bunch of arguments against a particular piece of negative self-talk—that’s usually not that helpful either.
So where does that leave us? Are we simply helpless in the face of negative self-talk?
Not at all. While it’s rarely a good idea to try and control your thoughts, you can—and very often should—try to control your attention.
Here’s how to think about the difference:
- Suppose you’re at a play. The lights go off, the music starts… Suddenly a spotlight shines down onto the middle of the stage revealing a shabby-looking gentleman and his dog.
- The actors on stage are like your thoughts. They come and go and do their own thing pretty much regardless of what you want them to do. Some scenes might be scary, some might be happy. But overall, the characters are not something you can control.
- But the spotlight is different. The spotlight doesn’t actually change the actors. But depending on where it’s placed and how broad or narrow it is, your experience of the play is going to be very different. If the spotlight stays focused on the scary villain, you’re going to continue to feel fear. But if the spotlight shifts onto the courageous hero, your feelings will likely shift somewhat.
- Now you might be saying to yourself: But what a second, that’s all true enough. But I can’t control the lighting at a play. Someone else is doing that…
- Well, that’s the catch. In the play of your own mind, it feels like someone else is controlling the lighting (where your attention goes). But in reality, that is absolutely something you can and should learn to control. Attention is just focus. And what you choose to focus on and for how long is something you can become more skilled at with practice and patience.
So, when it comes to dealing with negative self-talk, keep in mind that you have very little control over the negative self-talk itself—when it shows up, what form it takes, how intense it is, etc.
But what you always have control over is your attention, which is what we’ll talk more about in the final section…
DO Control Your Attention
Most of the time our attention gets pulled around by our environments—both internal and external:
- A notification dings on your phone and your focus shifts to the little text message on your screen.
- One of your employees says something critical about the team during a meeting and your thoughts keep returning to the comment over the course of the afternoon.
But just because your attention is consumed by something doesn’t mean it can’t be shifted:
- Suppose you’re laying in bed late at night worrying about your insomnia and not being able to fall asleep. Your mind is consumed by those worries and other forms of negative self-talk. But then all of a sudden your fire alarm goes off. I guarantee you’re going to quickly shift your focus off those worries and anxiety and onto something else…
- Or let’s say you’ve been ruminating all afternoon about how annoying your coworker is being lately and how much you wish you could just leave your job entirely. Then all of a sudden you get a call from your spouse that you’ve inherited 10 million dollars and never have to work again a day in your life (or put up with that obnoxious coworker), what’s going to happen to your attention?
Obviously, your attention can be shifted if a bigger thing shows up in your environment that outcompetes the first object of attention.
But if you’re stuck dwelling on some negative self-talk, you don’t have to rely on catching a lucky break of something incredible happening to distract you from it. You can shift your focus and keep it on something else through nothing but your own will.
Of course, the trick is that even if you do manage to briefly refocus your attention onto something more productive than your negative self-talk, like gravity, it tends to quickly get pulled back to the self-talk.
At this point, most people basically throw their hands up in the air, assume it’s just inevitable, and let their focus return to the negative self-talk. But that’s a bit like going to the gym, trying to run a mile, getting tired at half a mile, then getting off and deciding running’s not for you.
Sure it’s hard. But that doesn’t mean you’re incapable of it. It just means you need to get better at it.
Attention is like a muscle. If you don’t practice controlling it yourself, it’s going to get controlled by whatever the most salient thing in your environment is—including negative self-talk.
So, if you want to get better at letting go of your negative self-talk, you need to get better at strengthening your attentional muscles. And that means looking for small opportunities to practice…
- When your phone dings, resist the urge to check it, and instead, keep your focus on the email you were writing.
- When a thought about how great your vacation next week is going to be pops into mind while you’re playing with your kid, resist the urge to follow it and keep your focus on the game you’re playing.
- When you’re deep in a conversation and a brilliant idea for what to say in response to your partner’s argument comes up, let it go, and keep your attention on what they’re saying instead.
It’s difficult. But it’s not rocket science.
If you want to get better at letting go of your negative self-talk, you must practice refocusing your attention and keeping it focused on what really matters.
It takes practice. And it certainly takes patience. But it’s very much worth it.
Want to go deeper on learning to manage negative self-talk?
I teach a six-week course called Mood Mastery that’s all about building mental strength and resilience by cultivating a healthier relationship with your thoughts and emotions. Learn more here →
10 CommentsAdd Yours
This is so helpful, Nick! I have always wondered the “how” on shifting your thoughts from negative self-talk. This article goes into great depth to give practical tips! I will definitely be giving this a try.
Thanks, Brandy! Glad it was helpful 🙂
Love the shifting the spotlight to refocus!!! I’m ready to practice that. Thank you Nick. You are a good find 😁
I appreciate that, Yasmin! Glad it was helpful.
Thank you I enjoyed that. Not sure if what I do is healthy, but I say to my self…no! stop boring me with that moaning. I am strong healthy and capable and I’ve always bounced back. Then I go and do something absorbing. It seems to work
I thought I was supposed to control my thoughts and was not able to, so I felt helpless. Now Instead of blaming myself for thinking negatively I see that I can refocus my attention at will. What a wonderful tool! Thanks so much!
Great blog post! I also find it very useful to ‘schedule’ negative self-talk. Every time I find myself engaging with negative self-talk, I tell myself that I will think about it ‘later’ (it can be after work, in the shower, etc). I allow myself to engage in negative self-talk for 10/20 minutes, and after that, I do everything I can to shift my attention. Every time I find myself thinking about it again, I remind myself: ‘This is not the time to think about it, but you can do it…later’.
From 1 “Wignal” to another “Wignall”, this was very helpful. Looking at myself as another friend that I would normally console about similar problems of self-worth to my own is so out-of-the-box fascinating. And just the thought of it seems to be effective. I don’t even have to imagine if it’ll work at this point — thank you!
Thanks for the article!
How can one know in what sort of situations or to what thoughts apply cognitive restructuring and when to apply the tips mentioned in the article? How to choose between each method. If I understood correctly cognitive restructuring would be the “arguing” you advise against doing in the article, correct?
This is exactly what I needed to hear today. It’s counterintuitive but makes perfect sense. Thank you as always for your pertinent insights, and thanks too for the kindness with which you communicate them.