Self-talk is the voice in your head when you talk to yourself—sort of like your inner narrator telling the story of your life.
Now, most of the time our self-talk is pretty ordinary and unremarkable:
- I think I’ll stop by the store and get some ice-cream on my way home.
- That’s a nice-looking car.
- I wonder if it’s going to rain…
But sometimes our self-talk gets kind of negative—or even downright mean:
- I suck at ping-ping pong. I don’t know why I keep playing…
- That meeting was awful. I’m sure Jon thinks I’m a total idiot now.
- Ugh, why am I always so nervous meeting new people?! I’m so awkward. If only I was confident like Jess.
Here’s the problem: If overly negative self-talk becomes a habit, your moods and overall happiness can suffer for the simple reason that…
How we think determines how we feel.
Think about it like this—your thoughts, including your self-talk, are like a filter for how you feel:
- If your self-talk is full of worries and catastrophizing, you’re going to feel chronically anxious.
- If your self-talk is full of self-criticism and judgment, you’re going to feel ashamed and sad.
- If your self-talk is full of ruminations, you’re going to feel angry and upset.
So, if you want to feel happier on a regular basis, it’s important to make sure you aren’t falling into habits of overly negative and unrealistic self-talk.
Here are seven types of self-talk that make people unhappier than they should be.
Mind reading is when you assume you know what someone else is thinking with little or no evidence.
A couple examples:
- Your spouse gets home from work, looks irritated, and in your head your self-talk is I wish he wasn’t always so stressed after work.
- You sit down after pitching a new idea at work. Then you notice Henry from marketing shaking his head slightly. Your self-talk pipes up with He didn’t like it… I knew I shouldn’t have volunteered to do this!
In both cases, you’re assuming you know what another person is thinking based on very superficial evidence…
- Maybe your spouse was thinking hard about what to get you for a birthday present?
- Maybe Henry from marketing was shaking his head in response to a totally unrelated joke the person sitting next to him made?
When you assume the worst in people, you’re guaranteed to feel bad, regardless of whether it’s true or not.
In some ways, mind-reading is just laziness. The fear center in your brain is sounding the alarm, but you’re too lazy to verify if something is actually wrong or dangerous.
Doing this once or twice is no big deal. But if you’re in the habit of reading people’s minds and assuming the negative, your moods—and probably your relationships—are likely to suffer.
Stop guessing other people’s thoughts and try asking them.
Learning to communicate more assertively and building the confidence to do so is one of the best antidotes to mind-reading.
- An Expert Guide to Assertive Communication with Dr. Randy Paterson (Podcast)
- Assert Yourself: Build the Confidence You Need to Ask for What You Really Want (Workshop)
Catastrophizing is when you immediately jump to the worst-case scenario when faced with possibly negative news.
In a sense, it’s like mind-reading the universe—you’re assuming you can predict the future and that it’s going to be very, very bad.
- Your supervisor sends you an email asking you to stop by their office after work. Your self-talk immediately goes to Oh, shit! She hated my report. I’m probably going to get let go… I won’t be able to find a job in this economy… We won’t be able to afford the mortgage and we’ll have to sell the house…
Now, bad things do happen. And the ability to think about worst-case scenarios isn’t a bad thing—in fact, it’s a really useful skill! But when catastrophizing becomes habitual and unthinking—your default response to anything even possibly negative—it can have a pretty negative impact on your mood and wellbeing.
If you’re always imagining the worst-case scenario, you’re always going to feel like it is the worst-case scenario.
It’s important to remember that just because you have the ability to imagine the worst—and just because it’s a helpful thing to do sometimes—doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to do all the time. Or to assume that you’re particularly good at it. I fact, I’d suggest the opposite:
You’re not nearly as good at predicting the future as you think you are.
But don’t worry—none of us are 🙂
If you need to think about negatives in the future, do it intentionally, not reflexively.
If-only mind is a form of self-talk where we oversimplify the causes of our happiness or suffering.
- If only my husband was more supportive, then our marriage wouldn’t be so stressful and unhappy.
- If only my boss was more direct, then I could get my career back on track.
- If only I had chosen to study medicine instead of history, then I’d feel passionate about my work.
Now, there are two big problems with if-only mind:
- Oversimplification. For one thing, it’s almost always a massive oversimplification. Sure, the fact that your husband isn’t as supportive as you would like probably has something to do with your marriage being unhappy. But chances are there are dozens of other things affecting the quality of your relationship—including your own issues.
- Helplessness. But more importantly, if-only mind leads to helplessness. When you’re in the habit of telling yourself that everything would be better if some thing in the past was different, or someone else started behaving differently, you’re implying that it’s only forces outside of yourself that influence your life. Tell yourself this often enough and you will start to believe it and you’ll increasingly feel hopeless and helpless.
If-only mind is a form of procrastination—you’re avoiding the hard work of making changes to your life by rationalizing them onto external factors.
One of the best ways out of the pattern of if-only mind is to make the time to get really clear about what your values are and what you actually want out of life. Because the more time you spend reflecting on your values, the more ownership and sense of responsibility you will feel for your life.
Black and White Thinking
Black and whites thinking is a form of self-talk where you force everything into false dichotomies.
- I wish I wasn’t so lazy. Why can’t I just be productive like Zoey? In reality, it’s not like you’re always incredibly lazy and Zoey is always hyper-productive. But when you frame it like that, that’s how life starts to appear, which is kind of a crushing standard: If I’m not hyper-productive then I’m “so lazy.”
- God, she’s so negative! Now, intellectually, I’m sure you don’t believe that she is literally incredibly negative all the time. But if you’re in the habit of talking to yourself like that and framing her in that way, that’s how you’re going to feel. And if you constantly feel like that, it’s probably going to impact your behavior and lead to—among other things—a lot of excess conflict and resentment in your relationship.
Most people who struggle with black and white thinking understand intellectually that it’s inaccurate. But that doesn’t matter.
Regardless of what you know intellectually, your feelings and actions tend to follow from what you do consistently.
So, if in your mind your self-talk is constantly categorizing things into black and white, good and bad, smart and stupid… Well, that’s how life is going to feel. And despite our affinity for fairy tales and Disney movies, living in a black and white world isn’t actually very enjoyable or healthy.
- The Problem with Positive Thinking (Article)
- Unpacking the Science of Language and Emotion (Podcast)
Personalizing is when you inappropriately assume things are a reflection of your worth as a person.
- Your editor gives you some tough criticism on a section of your new manuscript and your self-talk response is I’m probably just not cut out to be a writer.
- It’s been over a month and your partner still hasn’t worn the new jacket you got him as a birthday present and your self-talk response is I wish I was a better gift-giver.
In both cases, your self-talk is assuming that what happened (the criticism, your partner not wearing the jacket) is about you as a person. But it’s perfectly possible—if not probable—that those things have either nothing to do with you (maybe your partner is saving it for the next time you go out on a fancy date) or they have to do with some extrinsic part of you (your skill writing minor character dialogue rather than your overall aptitude as a writer).
When you’re in the habit of personalizing things, your self-worth is constantly on trial.
And that’s a pretty miserable way to go through life.
I mean, how could you not feel bad about yourself all the time if everything is a reflection of your worth as a person?
Shoulding is a habit of self-talk where you’re constantly telling yourself what you should do.
Of course, there are plenty of times where it’s true that we really should do something: Paying your taxes or showing up to your new job interview on time.
In cases like these, it’s not just that we would like to do them, or even that it’s important to do them—it’s that it’s really, really important that you do them because the consequences would be pretty bad if you didn’t.
But it’s easy (especially if you’re the high-achieving type) to start applying the should standard to all sorts of things:
- I should work out extra hard today.
- I should stay late this evening and get this project done.
- I should be kinder and more patient with my kids.
- I should go mow the lawn but I’m exhausted.
Of course you want to do these things. And they’re probably important to you to some extent. But if you’re in the habit of constantly telling yourself you should do just about everything, your whole life is going to feel like some kind of giant exam or inquisition. And if that’s the case, you’re going to feel pretty rotten.
So consider this:
Substitute I would like to for I should.
I think you’ll find that you end up achieving just as much—if not more—with dramatically less stress.
Emotional reasoning is when you make decisions based primarily upon how you feel or want to feel rather than on your values and what you think is right.
- After getting home from a long day at work, you tell yourself I know I told myself I’d go to the gym, but I just don’t feel up for it. I’ll definitely go tomorrow…
- You’re considering sharing an insight in the middle of a meeting at work when the following self-talk pops up: I do think it’s a good idea, but what if someone thinks it’s dumb? That’d be too embarrassing. Maybe I’ll bring it up later…
Obviously, I’m not suggesting you should ignore your emotions and feelings. Sometimes they’re trying to tell you something important.
But it’s a serious mistake to get in the habit of assuming that your emotions should always take precedence. Because if you do, you’ll find yourself constantly compromising your values and commitments in favor of what feels good in the moment.
By all means listen to your emotions—just don’t take orders from them blindly.
Especially in major decisions, it’s important to evaluate your decisions in light of your values and good judgment, not just how you feel.
All You Need to Know
The more aware of your negative self-talk you are, the easier it will be to break these patterns and all the emotional suffering that comes with them.
To recap, here are seven types of self-talk making you unhappy:
- If-Only Mind
- Black & White Thinking
- Emotional Reasoning