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?
- Cognitive Distortions and the 10 Most Common Types of Negative Self-Talk
- How to Change Your Negative Self-Talk
- Summary and Key Points
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.
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
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
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:
- 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.
- Negative self-talk is not an intellectual problem. Most of us, when we read these examples of negative self-talk, understand that they’re not completely true. The problem is the habit of saying them to ourselves. Merely understanding that we have inaccurate self-talk isn’t enough—as we’ll discuss, it’s the habit of regularly catching ourselves in the act of this inaccurate self-talk that matters.
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.
- During a presentation we’re giving we notice the boss looking at her phone the whole time, so we assume in our minds: She’s so bored. I knew I shouldn’t have volunteered for this.
- Our spouse doesn’t immediately say hello when we get home from work, so we assume: He must be upset with me for something.
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.
- After being passed over for a new position at work, we think to ourselves: I’ll never get offered a promotion. I should just look for a new job.
- After being told that our flight was delayed, we comment in our mind: Typical! My flights are always delayed.
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.
- After mistaking someone’s name at a cocktail party, we imagine: Great, now they’re going to think I’m not interested in them and don’t care about anyone but myself.
- After feeling a small heart palpitation, we think: Is something wrong with my heart? Am I having a heart attack? I need to get to the ER now!
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.
- After receiving a test back, we comment to ourselves: Yeah, I got an A, but I missed the easiest question on the whole exam.
- After a congratulatory remark from our spouse after helping our child, we say to ourselves: They probably would have figured it out on their own.
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.
- I’m not going to go to the gym this evening; I just don’t feel it.
- If only I felt more motivated I could get ahead of my studying and be able to enjoy vacation guilt-free.
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 bad about ourselves.
- After getting a B- on an exam, we mutter to ourselves: I’m such an idiot.
- Thinking back on a recent date that seemed to go badly, we think: Ugh… I’m so awkward!
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 leads to chronic stress and anxiety.
- After our child makes a crucial mistake at the end of a basketball game, we think to ourselves: If only I had practiced with her yesterday when she asked me to, she would have made that shot!
- When a supervisor points out an area for improvement in our work, we assume: I’m such a screw-up. Why can’t I just do things right!
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.
- After a date that finished quickly, we say to ourselves: There’s no way she’s going to call me again.
- After walking out of a meeting, we predict: They hated it (Mind Reading); There’s no way they’re going to accept our proposal (Fortune Telling).
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.
- After finishing a 5K with a slow time, we tell ourselves: I’m a loser.
- After a fight with our spouse, we tell ourselves: He’s such jerk.
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.
- After missing an important call from our boss, we tell ourselves: I should have known he was going to call about the Johnson account this evening.
- I just have to nail this performance! we tell ourselves before going on stage.
How to Eliminate Cognitive Distortions, Change Your Negative Self-Talk, and Feel Better
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:
- Look for specific cognitive distortions in other people’s speech. Of course, the idea is to change ourselves not other people. But, it can often be easier to identify examples of negative self-talk in other people first. Once we get better at noticing them in others (via their speech), we can more readily start to see them in our own thinking and self-talk.
- Change your (inner) tone of voice. We all know that the way someone says something to us often affects how we feel at least as much as what they say (think about sarcasm). The same thing applies to the way we talk to ourselves. In addition to paying attention to what you say to yourself, try and be attentive to the way you talk to yourself. Are you harsh, judgmental, and sarcastic with yourself? What would it look like if you were more gentle, empathetic, and straightforward in the way you talked to yourself?
- Validate your feelings instead of analyzing them. Many of us feel the discomfort or pain of an emotion and our gut reaction is to start talking to ourselves about those feelings and what they mean. Instead, try to simply observe and notice these feelings. When we instantly rush in to “fix” or “solve” our feelings with a bunch of self-talk, we train our brain to think of these feelings as problems. Mindfulness can help you get better at this.
- Be intentional, not habitual, with your self-criticism. There’s nothing wrong with self-criticism, pointing out your own mistakes, and holding yourself to a high standard. But you’ll be much more likely to do this productively (and accurately) if it’s intentional and deliberate rather than a gut reaction. Instead of instantly passing judgment on yourself in the moment, schedule a time to reflect on a perceived mistake or flaw intentionally, maybe by journaling about it or talking it over with someone you trust.
UPDATE: I recently published an entire guide dedicated to changing negative thinking, which you can read here:
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:
- The American Board of Professional Psychology, Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology Division
- The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy
- The Academy of Cognitive Therapy
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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