Identify if negative self-talk is sabotaging your life

Worried young man in sunglasses staring at the camera

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Does your internal chatter pull down your mood? Do you tell yourself you’ll never get anywhere? Identify if negative self-talk is sabotaging your life.

Learning to identify your negative self-talk can be tricky to start with, if you’re not used to it. But there are lots of benefits if you persevere. Learn more about the impact of negative self-talk on your life, and why it’s important to challenge it.

If you find it hard to hear your own self-talk, don’t worry. Here are some easy first steps that will help.

1 Tap into other people’s self-talk

It’s often easier to identify what others are saying about themselves, rather than listening to your own internal chatter. 

So listen – really listen – to what others say about themselves.  You may be amazed at what you hear ,when you make the effort to really listen.

Just a quick note, though. 

Don’t make any comments to anyone about what you’re hearing, unless you’re on very good terms with the person.

Even then, make sure you raise your concerns in private, and in a sensitive way.  

2 What they say about themselves

So let’s assume you’ve been listening carefully to what others say about themselves.

For example, you notice when someone says a lot of things like:

I’m such a klutz.

I can’t do maths/draw/play sport/cook/etc.

I can’t stand it when my kids don’t listen to me.

Jim always tells me I’m hopeless.

They always give me funny looks.

I hate everyone staring at me when I walk down the street. 

3 What else are they saying?

Next, see if you can imagine what else they may be saying to themselves. 

So ask yourself (not them!) these sorts of questions:

How do these people probably see themselves?

What else are they probably saying to themselves?

How do these thoughts affect other areas of their lives?

What faults or deficiencies do they think they have?

Do they worry they’ll make mistakes or be seen as inadequate?

How do they see their future?

What else are they worrying might happen?

4 Make educated guesses

Of course, you may not know if your ideas are correct. That doesn’t matter. You’re just making educated guesses about what their thoughts could be.

This is practice in tuning in to the sorts of negative internal chatter others have. In turn, it might hint at what you’re saying to yourself.

However, just to identify the negative self-talk of others isn’t enough. We also need to question or challenge these thoughts, to see if they’re realistic or not. 

So in your own head or on paper, see if you can pick holes in the messages these people are sending to themselves. 

5 Question negative self-talk

For example, ask yourself:

Are these negative statements really true 100% of the time? Or are they true to some extent, or only a little of the time?

Are these people making faulty assumptions on the basis of flimsy evidence?

For example, how do they know they’ll never learn any new skills? Have they ever been able to learn in the past? What’s stopping them now?

Do they have to believe they’re hopeless, just because one person has told them they are? Where’s the evidence that they’re totally hopeless all the time, in every single thing? Surely there are some things they’ve managed OK at some stage of their lives. 

Or if they think everyone is staring at them, are they absolutely sure that every single person they come across stares at them?

Have they checked out whether each person looks steadily at them for an extended period of time? Or do they just feel as if everyone is staring at them, when in fact most people aren’t?

You can see that it’s possible our negative self talk can be distorted.

At times, people leap to all sorts of conclusions without really knowing the facts. They assume they know what’s going on when they don’t know the full story.

The problem is, that then they behave as if their beliefs are actually reality. And that can lead to a lot of trouble.

6 Any patterns in their thinking?

We’ll discuss more about unhelpful thinking patterns in later blog articles. 

For now, notice unhelpful patterns in the way that other people think, especially if they’re a bit down, stressed or angry.

For instance, one person is anxious, because she thinks she’s bad at her job. However, she always gets good performance reviews.

Another is sad and avoids others, because he believes they don’t like him. And yet people quite enjoy his company, even if they’re not outwardly demonstrative. 

Neither of these individuals have stopped to examine if their beliefs are valid, or are supported by the evidence.

7 Apply to yourself

Of course, you’re still just making educated guesses about the negative internal chatter of others. But once you’ve had some practice in this, you can apply the process to yourself.

You’ve probably noticed that a few things that others say about themselves sound familiar. After all, most of us worry about much the same issues.

So this could help you identify your own negative self-talk, and how it may be sabotaging your life.

8 Be patient

Even so, to identify your negative self-talk can take a while. You may need to be patient while you consciously tap into the words in your head. 

Sometimes you may notice your internal chatter more when you’re thinking of what’s gone wrong, or something that’s upset you. And it can pop up when you least expect it. For instance, when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, or sitting quietly instead of rushing around.

9 You can’t hear your self-talk

But what if you’ve tried and can’t hear your self-talk?

Don’t worry.

Do what you did before, and take an educated guess about what you’re saying to yourself. Since these thoughts are coming from your brain, they’ll be close to the mark a lot of the time. You may have had similar thoughts in the past, and so it’s likely you still think this way about yourself now.

And the more you practise, the more likely it is that you’ll begin to hear your actual self-talk.

10 Be mindful

To start with, you may be distressed by what you hear if your self-talk is very nasty or depressing. 

Use mindfulness skills to accept that you’re distressed, without adding any further emotion to it. 

Choose to remain calm.

Notice any emotions you feel, and allow them to be there without doing anything about them.

You don’t have to get distressed over how distressing your self talk is. You don’t have to agree or disagree with it. Simply acknowledge that it’s there, moment by moment.

Imagine you’re a scientist, studying a laboratory subject – yourself.

Scientists don’t get involved with their subjects’ emotions. They simply record what they see or hear. And they don’t make conclusions until they collect the data.

At the moment, you’re just collecting data. Later, you’ll learn how to deal with it. For now, notice your internal chatter with an open mind, and then let it wash over you without reacting.

11 Refuse to judge yourself

It’s also important not to judge yourself. Don’t be tempted to see your self-talk as terrible, or hopeless, or unmanageable.

Instead, choose to be effective, not emotional. Being effective means doing what works.

So choose to keep your emotions in check. Refuse to judge your negative internal chatter, or yourself. 

12 Stay open-minded

Use your mindfulness skills to notice with an open mind. View your efforts to identify your negative self-talk as a challenge. It’s a puzzle you’re going to unravel. It may take a while, but it’ll be worth it. Your self-talk may or may not be realistic; you’re probably not sure yet.

Over time, you can see if you need to change it to something more helpful. Or you can simply choose to let it go, without worrying about it any further. 

13 What do you need to do?

Focus on what you’re going to do about your internal chatter, rather than on how you’re feeling about it.  

If you choose to challenge your self-talk, here are some pointers to help.

14 Write negative self-talk down

Focus on writing down what you hear yourself saying. Do this in a place that others won’t see it. Perhaps use a private notebook or document file. 

Note down the details separately for each difficult situation you’re thinking about. For example, who else was involved, when and where was it, and what was happening.

Describe the emotions you felt in a few words. 

a) Hold on to the first thought

Write down the first thought you had (or think you had) in that situation. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or exactly what you thought. Once you get the first thought, others will follow. They often cascade, one after the other.

For instance, you may have thought, “Why did she say that to me?” 

And then: 

She’s always rude to me in front of other people.

She hates me, because I made her look an idiot in that meeting.

Now she wants to make me look stupid.

See if you can do this in lots of different situations that upset you in some way.

b) Make educated guesses

But if you can’t grasp your thoughts, don’t be discouraged. Make educated guesses if you’re having trouble

What might you have thought? A lot of the time, this will work just as well.

c) After the first thoughts, ask:

And then what did I think? And then what?

What might I have thought next? And after that?

What have I said to myself in the past about this?

Am I still saying it now?

What do other people often say in similar situations?

d) Notice everything you say to yourself

Don’t be tempted to ignore any of your thoughts.

Even note down things like:

What did I do that for?

Who cares? Why bother?

Who do they think they are?

You may think these are throwaway comments that don’t mean much. But it’s often the negative thoughts that follow them, that are damaging.

e) Keep at it 

When you’ve done this once, do it again for any difficult situation that upsets you. 

This may sound like a lot of work, and to be honest, it is. But if you really want to improve your self-esteem or lift your low mood, it’s worth doing.

Identifying your self talk can show you how often you beat yourself up.

Soon, you’ll start to identify the instant that you begin saying these things to yourself. Then you can learn to either let these thoughts go or challenge them.

No matter which strategy you use, you’ll benefit from stopping negative self-talk in its tracks. 

What if you don’t change your negative self-talk?

If you let negative self-talk run rampant, you start to believe that there’s no hope for you. You really are hopeless, or stupid, or incompetent. Your mood plummets, and you don’t expect anything more than a grey and dreary life. 

But you’re worth more than that! You deserve better. 

So take the time to identify your negative self-talk, and find out if it’s sabotaging your life.

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