A lot of mental and emotional suffering comes from the way we talk to ourselves in our own minds, what psychologists call negative self-talk.

In this article we’ll cover what negative self-talk really is, the most common types of negative self-talk (sometimes called Cognitive Distortions), and some strategies you can use to identify and start to change your own unhelpful negative self-talk.

Feel free to use the links below to jump to a specific topic you’re interested in:


What Is Negative Self-Talk?

When people ask me what I do, I respond with, “I’m a psychologist.”

“Oh, neat…” they say as they turn to walk away.

But occasionally people stick around and want to learn a little more about what I do as a psychologist and therapist.

If they aren’t scared off by my initial rush of enthusiasm at someone being genuinely interested, I often explain what I do like this:

I help people identify and unlearn mental habits that are causing problems in their lives.

Of course, that’s a bit cryptic, so I typically follow it up with some clarification:

Just like we all have physical habits—brushing our teeth before bed, twirling our hair when we’re nervous, shaking someone’s hand when we first meet them—we all have mental habits too.

These mental habits often take the form of standard ways of talking to ourselves, sometimes called Negative Self-Talk.

For example, whenever another driver on the road near me does something I think is dumb, the little voice in my head almost always says:

You idiot, watch where you’re going!

It’s a not-very-nice mental habit, but there it is.

Here’s another example: I had a job once where my boss was in the habit of sending vaguely-worded emails every time he wanted to talk:

When you get a chance, stop by my office. We need to talk about something.

Without fail, my self-talk in response to these emails was:

Oh man, what did I do?

In the end, it usually had nothing to do with me screwing up. But that little script was my default mental reaction to those emails.

I’m sure you can think of lots of these little bits of negative self-talk in your own life.

Narrative Habits

Negative Self Talk Narratives

The English major in me likes to think about these mental habits as a form of narrative.

Our lives are like a story constantly unfolding in front of us. And we are constantly narrating the events of this story to ourselves as they unfold.

Much like a narrator in a book explains what’s happening in the plot, we talk to ourselves in our head about what’s happening in our lives, what it means, what it makes us think about, what we should do, etc.

At this point, the psychologist in me gets fascinated because, turns out, the way we talk to ourselves about the events in our lives is subject to the same laws of learning and habit formation that physical behaviors are.

That is, we can learn to talk to ourselves in specific ways just like we can learn to tie our shoes or say please and thank you.

On its own, this is a neat idea, but the idea of mental habits has profound practical implications for our lives, specifically, how we feel emotionally.

All the Feels

negative self talk all the feels Nick Wignall

As the Stoics have been preaching for 2,000 years, events themselves don’t cause us suffering, it’s the way we think about events that influences how we feel. And thanks to some good science over the past 50 years or so, we’ve basically confirmed this and solidified it in what’s knows as Cognitive Mediation Theory.

Feel free to read up on the theory using the above link, but it all boils down to this: Events + Thoughts = Emotions. 

Our emotions are always mediated by some form of cognition or thinking. And often the cognition that’s mediating our emotions is this narrative self-talk we all have playing in the background.

Okay, thoughts mediate emotions… So what?

If our thoughts determine how we feel, that means how we habitually think will determine how we habitually feel.

Let that sink in for a minute because it’s arguably one of the most important ideas in all of psychology.

The practical implication is that if we want to change how we feel, we must learn how to change how we think.

Specifically, we need to learn how to identify and examine our habits of thinking and talking to ourselves if we want to feel better on a regular basis.

Of course, there’s more to human suffering and mental health than our habits of talking to ourselves. But our mental habits are an enormous and often overlooked piece of the pie. They also happen to be something we all have direct control over (unlike certain aspects of our environment or our genetic code).

Which is why I usually sum up my job by saying that I help people identify and unlearn problematic mental habits.

Or maybe better: I help people tell themselves a different story about themselves.

But before we can start telling news stories, we have to get rid of the old ones…


Cognitive Distortions: 10 Forms of Inaccurate Self-Talk that Make Us Miserable

cognitive distortions and negative self-talk habits

Here are 10 of the most common forms of unhelpful self-talk that lead to us feeling badly on a regular basis.

In psychology, we call them Cognitive Distortions because they’re usually unrealistic or inaccurate explanations for what’s going on in our lives that lead to unnecessarily negative emotions and moods.

A couple points to keep in mind as you read:

  1. There’s a lot of overlap between the cognitive distortions. These aren’t totally cut and dry categories; rather, they’re meant to be helpful labels for a more general pattern of mis-explaining reality in our self-talk.

Mind Reading

Mind reading is assuming we understand what other people are thinking without any real evidence. We imagine what’s going on in someone else’s head, but we do it in a way that’s biased and inaccurate. At its core, Mind Reading is a failure of imagination—we often only imagine the negative without exploring many different possibilities, some of which are bound to be neutral or even positive.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is the habit of telling ourselves that a negative event is bound to continue happening in the future. When we overgeneralize, we make predictions about the future based on isolated pieces of evidence from the present.

Magnification

Magnification is when we take our own errors or flaws and exaggerate them. Often magnification takes the form of catastrophizing when we take small negative events and turn them into disasters in our minds.

Minimization

Minimization is the mirror image of Magnification and involves being dismissive of our strengths and positive qualities. When we minimize, it often keeps us in a cycle of feeling inferior because we never allow ourselves to benefit from and be boosted up by our true positive qualities and accomplishments.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is the habit of making decisions based on how we feel rather than what we value. When we use our emotions and feelings as evidence for what we should or shouldn’t do, we end up spending all our time running away from discomfort rather than toward the things we really value. Depression and procrastination are common results of this.

Black and White Thinking

Black and white thinking is the tendency to evaluate things exclusively in terms of extreme categories. It shows up most commonly when we evaluate our own personal qualities and characteristics this way. Black and white thinking is a problem because it sets us up for chronic disappointment. When our expectations are consistently exaggerated, we never meet them and then always feel badly about ourselves.

Personalization

Personalization involves assuming excessive amounts of responsibility, especially for things that are mostly or entirely outside our control. An exaggerated sense of responsibility leads to excessive attempts at control, which in turn lead to chronic stress and anxiety.

Fortune Telling

Fortune Telling is the mental habit of predicting what will happen based on little or no real evidence. Instead, when our mind throws a negative outcome or worst case scenario at us, we “go with that” and tell ourselves that that’s what will happen. Like Overgeneralization, Fortune Telling is a failure of imaginative flexibility, and it often leads to a state of hyperarousal and anxiety.

Labeling

Labeling is the habit of describing ourselves or others in one extreme way, usually negatively. Because people and their sense of self (including our own) are highly complex and ever-changing, Labeling is always an inaccurate oversimplification.

Should Statements

Should Statements are a kind of self-talk we use to try and motivate ourselves by always telling ourselves what we should and should not do. The problem is, most of life’s decisions are not obvious cut and try choices—they involve ambiguity, uncertainty, and inherent risk. When we’re in the habit of using Should Statements, we set up a false expectation that we should have more certainty than we do. This can lead to chronic frustration, anxiety, and resentment.


How to Eliminate Cognitive Distortions, Change Your Negative Self-Talk, and Feel Better

How to change your negative self-talk nick wignall

Changing our habitual ways of thinking and talking to ourselves can be a huge undertaking, especially if the habits are long-standing and pretty firmly entrenched. But there are some simple steps we can all take to build better habits of self-talk:

UPDATE: I recently published an entire guide dedicated to changing negative thinking, which you can read here:

Cognitive Restructuring: The Complete Guide to Changing Negative Thinking

Or Try Therapy

If you feel like your self-talk and habits of thought are really interfering with your life in a significant and prolonged way, consider working with a therapist.

Therapy or counseling is often the most powerful and efficient way to work on problems of self-talk.

Specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has dozens of strategies, techniques, and skills to help people identify and modify habits of thought and behavior that are interfering with their lives.

And by working with a therapist (many CBT therapists are actually more like coaches than traditional therapists), you can work on undoing these habits with an expert guide who can provide structure, accountability, clarification, and encouragement.

Here are the best places to find a qualified cognitive behavioral therapist in your local area:

If you go through those resources and are still stuck, here’s a shameless plug for my own book. It walks even complete therapy beginners step-by-step through the process of finding a good therapist:


Summary & Key Points

Often the best way to change how we feel on a regular basis is to change how we think.  Specifically, we can learn to change how we talk to ourselves (self-talk).

By learning to identify the ways we consistently misinterpret events in our lives (Cognitive Distortions), we can begin to think more realistically and helpfully about even the most difficult of circumstances. This tends to have beneficial effects on our mood and outlook in the long run.

Changing our thoughts won’t change reality, but it just might change how you feel about it.


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Comments

Breaking negative self talk is a new idea to me. Seems like it takes a ton of practice. When does one become proficient at it? Great article

Thanks, K! And yes, it does take a lot of practice, which makes sense since most of us have practice negative self-talk for years if not decades or our entire lives. So it makes sense that undoing those mental habits would not exactly be a quick fix.

That being said, I think the quality and consistency of one’s practice matter more than the overall duration. In my experience working with clients on this, the ones who succeed relatively quickly are the ones who are most diligent and consistent with their practice, ideally every day.

If that’s the case, I’ve seen it start to significantly improve in a number of weeks.

Hope that helps. –Nick

Good job. You approached the subject thoughtfully and explained it well. I especially liked the part about changing your inner tone of voice. That shows great wisdom and sensitivity. I commend you on a well-written piece of work.

I love how this is well-written. I know a friend who is guilty of all 10 forms of inaccurate self-talk. Will totally share this article with that friend. I am also guilty with most of the cognitive distortions you listed so I really took the time reading til the end to see if you have tips to help me overcome them and I was right. Good read. Thank you for this article. Very informative.

You’re welcome, Sam! Yeah, most of us struggle with them from time to time. I’ve found the trickiest part is just getting in the habit of noticing them in the first place.

I was guilty of this for years but with hard work and counselling I was able to kick “Gollum” out of my head.(Sorry, I’m a massive Tolkien fan and that analogy always made sense to me.) I am dismayed to find that just a few years later Gollum is back. Thanks for the great article. I will be trying to give Smeagol the upper hand again and will try your advice.

Love the LotRs reference! And yes, it’s does take vigilance to keep it in check! Good luck, –Nick

Great article Nick with lots of helpful insights! I just wanted to add my insight…I’ve also found that my faith helps me have more positive self talk. For example, if I think,”I can never do this…”, I can recall and say the scripture in Philippians 4:13…”I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
There are verses for every issue. For example, verses that remind me that I’m loved, chosen, valuable and I have a future. It seems easier to believe the written Word of God than to believe my own words if I’m struggling. I retrain my mind to repeat these truths instead of my negative self talk!

Thanks Kay! And yes, I like that idea of using scripture to help modify that unhelpful self-talk—nice!

Martin Seligman tells to get in the habit of WWW meaning recalling every morning , What Went Well yesterday ? And recalling 3 Small episodes that went well yesterday, especially ones that YOU played a part in no matter how small . Just don’t recall and forget on the spot but give the “ good pleasing memories “ the same treatment you give to your most shameful cockups . I E you dwell on them and relive the feelings of shame . Now dwell on the good feedback with prolonged recall of the pleasing emotion. And deal with negative stuff as above.

Who would of thought that a Facebook post would lead me here and hit myself so hard with some self realization. I am guilty of almost all negative self talk and I’m actually really disappointed in myself. I’m going to fix that. I will be looking up more of your information. Thank you!

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