Negative self-talk: be more aware of its hurtful impact
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Are you aware of talking to yourself all the time? Let’s call this the internal chatter or self-talk of your brain. Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you’re going crazy.
Everyone has internal chatter
All day, you’re commenting to yourself about what’s happening, and what others did or didn’t say or do. Not only that, you’re continually passing judgment on yourself, and what you’ve done.
The problem is that sometimes, you focus more on what’s gone wrong than on what’s gone well. And you may get stuck worrying about future events, rather than thinking about the pleasant side of life.
Self-talk is hard to notice
But this self-talk is hard to notice. Usually this chatter is outside your conscious awareness. You’re probably so used to it, you don’t notice that it’s going on all the time.
And most people find that it just never stops.
So where does self-talk come from?
Firstly, your self-talk is partly determined by past experiences you’ve had. These past experiences have helped form your views of yourself, the world in general, and your corner in particular.
These views are only perceptions. They’re your interpretations of what you’ve seen and experienced. But unless you’re aware of this, you tend to view these perceptions as truth.
The types of perceptions you form can also be affected by your genetic makeup.
You may be more vulnerable to external stresses than someone else who’s been through the same experiences. So your self-talk may be more anxious or negative than theirs.
Some people’s internal chatter is benign or even positive. They may have had mainly positive experiences in the past. Or they may not have a genetic vulnerability to seeing life in a negative light.
But if you’ve had a lot of negative experiences, and/or have a genetic vulnerability, you may have more negative perceptions and self-talk.
So your self-talk may be mean and nasty most of the time. Imagine how you’d feel after weeks of self-talk telling you that you’re a hopeless, stupid loser that no-one likes.
That’s why it’s important to notice this internal chatter.
Self-talk reflects self-esteem
In fact, your self-talk reflects your self-esteem. This makes sense, really, because your self-talk comes from your own brain. It’s like a barometer of your self-esteem, and shows how well or badly you think of yourself.
It also shows patterns of thinking that you’ve developed, and how these have affected your overall emotional state.
So self-talk can give you some clues as to why you’re feeling worried, angry or agitated at any particular moment.
The trouble is, you’ve listened to your mind’s chatter since you were tiny. It’s such a part of you, that you’ve probably never even thought of challenging it.
So you may be surprised to learn you can’t always trust your thoughts.
Distorted messages in self-talk
When you’re highly emotional or stressed, your thoughts can be distorted. This means that your self-talk will also be distorted. Your brain may be sending you messages that are exaggerated or misleading.
But these messages can be very strong and convincing. So you think they must be true, and treat them as if they’re facts.
This stops you from seeing how skewed your thinking is. Then you start to believe that you are hopeless or stupid or incompetent, with no future ahead of you.
However, other people see you and your qualities from the outside. They can see what you’ve achieved, or how well you treat others.
When they hear you talking badly about yourself, they may try to persuade you that you’re wrong. That you’re exaggerating your faults as a person, or your lack of ability.
But because your negative beliefs about yourself seem so real, you don’t believe the positives that others say about you.
You just think they don’t know what they’re talking about. And so you continue to listen to the negative self-talk that’s going on in your head.
Unhelpful negative self-talk
So when things aren’t going well, your internal chatter often isn’t helpful.
Say you’re distressed, tired or ill. At those times, your self-talk can get quite negative and pessimistic. You may find it’s more self-critical than usual.
In fact, these negative messages can take over your attention, so that you find it hard to think of anything else.
Your brain starts obsessing over things you should have done, or how you’ve messed up. Or it focusses on how terrible you are, and what awful things are going to happen in the future.
After a few hours or days of this constant negativity, you can end up feeling unhappy, anxious and fearful of what others think.
Usually, however, these mood states don’t last too long. Once you feel better physically, or the difficult situation that was worrying you is sorted out, you recover and move on.
Then your self-talk goes back to normal.
But sometimes your negative self-talk keeps on and on. Over time, you start feeling really bad about yourself. Your worries can expand till they seem to take over your mind.
If this creeps up on you fairly slowly, you may not be aware this is happening. You don’t hear how nasty you’re being to yourself, or how you’re assuming you’ll fail at everything, or that nobody likes you.
And you may not recognise that your thoughts aren’t 100% accurate.
So this chatter sits in the background of your mind without you noticing. But over the long-term, it can poison your mood and motivation.
Eventually this negative self-talk is devastating to your well-being. Your mood will fall, and you’ll become more and more anxious. Your worldview will also become darker and darker.
So it’s worth learning how to tap into your self-talk.
Benefits of tapping into self-talk
1 Improved self-esteem and mood
Challenging your self-talk will help raise your self-esteem, and improve your general mood. If you can identify the negative messages your brain is sending you, you’ll be able to look at them critically.
If you can recognise how exaggerated or even misleading they are, you can start to change your self-talk.
Challenge the unrealistic messages, and send yourself more realistic ones that reflect your real qualities and abilities. Over time, your mood and outlook on life will improve.
2 You stop expecting problems
A second benefit of tapping into your negative self-talk is that you’ll stop expecting so many problems.
When you identify your negative self-talk, you’ll hear yourself worrying. You may be telling yourself everything will go wrong, and you won’t be able to cope.
And you’re so sure of this, that you become too scared to try anything different. You believe you’re sure to fail. Then everything will descend into chaos, and you won’t know what to do.
In your worst fears, you’ll look like a total idiot, and everyone else will find out how hopeless you are.
However in reality, how many times has this happened? Or have you just imagined that it would?
And if it did happen, was it really a total disaster? Did you truly make an absolute hash of everything? Did you lose everything, your job, your relationships with others?
Or did you just make a few mistakes that were unpleasant at the time? And the situation eventually worked out OK?
Did you cope well enough to get through?
Did you actually do a few positive things, no matter how small, to help?
If you re-examine situations you’ve always believed were disastrous, often you’ll find that they weren’t true catastrophes. They were annoying, inconvenient, somewhat unpleasant or difficult, or even embarrassing.
But somehow you managed to get through.
So identifying and challenging your beliefs about yourself can often let you see yourself in a new light.
You’ll realise you don’t need to dread problems. You do cope with issues that arise. Maybe not perfectly, but then – who’s perfect?
3 You notice self-imposed rules
A third benefit of identifying self-talk is that you start to notice rules you’ve made for yourself. These self-imposed rules can limit what you allow yourself to do.
Some of these rules are helpful, but many aren’t.
For instance, you were told as a child to be quiet in company. As an adult, you still stick to this rule. You’ve internalised it, and don’t question its validity.
But now it’s affecting your work and social life. You don’t speak when you’re with others, so they never get to know you. As you seem to discourage anyone from being more friendly, you’re getting more and more isolated and lonely.
And yet you’re not even aware you’ve got this rule about staying quiet.
If you don’t know what’s driving your behaviour, you can’t change.
So being aware of negative self-talk lets you drop unhelpful rules you’ve made for yourself.
4 Improved resilience
A fourth benefit of identifying your self-talk is that it can help improve your resilience. If you can challenge negative beliefs about yourself, you’ll cope with stress better. And you’ll bounce back more quickly when you’re down.
This is especially important when self-talk is telling you you’re a failure or a fraud. Once you see reality more clearly, you’ll feel more confident. You’ll believe more in your ability to take effective action, and to make reasonable decisions.
In turn, you’ll solve problems more easily. So your emotions and thoughts won’t be as distressing, and you’ll be able to cope better with life’s uncertainties.
5 You can set goals more easily
Lastly, identifying your self-talk can help you set goals more easily.
Negative self-talk often blocks people from taking effective action. That means they may start an activity, but don’t keep going. They persuade themselves they’ll fail or it’s too hard. And that they can’t afford the time, expense or effort.
So they give up.
But if you can stop these negative thoughts in their tracks, you’ll be more able to persist and achieve what you want.
Tap into negative self-talk
Tap into your self-talk to be more aware of its impact on you. Then you’ll be able to banish self-doubt and set goals more easily.
Identifying unhelpful self-talk can prevent many difficult issues, and improve your mood. So it’s really important to get a grip on it. Read the next article in this series to learn how to identify self-talk.