Articles Psychology

Is Your Self-talk Holding You Back?

Self-talk is something almost all of us do. It’s that commentary or conversation you have with yourself silently in your own head or occasionally out loud. It’s you, talking to you. Self-talk is critical to how you think, especially about yourself, but also about the world around you and the relationships you have. It’s rather like a coach in your mind, either spurring you on or holding you back.

Self-talk can be positive or negative, it could also be neutral. When it comes to most people the default setting is negative. Negative self-talk is a bit like having a friend criticizing you all day long, pointing out all of your mistakes and telling you that you’ll never be good enough. Now, most of us would ditch that friend pretty quickly (note, if you have a friend like this please go ahead and ditch them). But what if that ‘friend’ is your own internal self-talk, following you around all day with nothing nice to say? The reason that we should think of this voice as a friend is firstly, because that internal voice could and should be a friend to us, and secondly, because if we think of that internal voice as a friend it makes it more obvious what we should expect from it and what we should be aiming for when we try to change it.

Negative Self-talkWhat a Friend Would Say
“Why did you say that? That was such a stupid thing to say!”“Don’t worry, we all say stupid things sometimes, and no-one took that much notice.”
“Why are you so ugly, you stupid, ugly ****!”“You look great in that, that’s such a good colour on you!”
“You’ll never get that job, you shouldn’t even bother trying, it’s pointless.“Go for that job, you’ve got great skills for it.”

Examples of negative self-talk are things we say to ourselves that berate us “Why did you say that? That was such a stupid thing to say!”, things that are critical “Why are you so ugly, you stupid, ugly ****!” and things that are negative “You’ll never get that job, you shouldn’t even bother trying, it’s pointless.” A friend wouldn’t say these things, and we would never speak to one of our friends like this. A friend would say instead, “Don’t worry, we all say stupid things sometimes, and no-one took that much notice.” or “You look great in that, that’s such a good colour on you!” and “Go for that job, you’ve got great skills for it.” Imagine if your own internal dialogue was more like this, what kind of difference would this make? When you’re having a difficult time or you hit a wall, you want a friend inside your head encouraging you and helping you navigate choppy waters.

If your internal voice is negative then what you’ve actually got is a double-hit, the first is the difficult thing that happened, and the second is you berating yourself about the difficult thing. I’ll give you an example of how this might go and how unhelpful it would be. Anna has worked really hard on an essay and is hoping for a high grade. When she picks up her essay, she hasn’t done as well as she thought she would and has only just passed. Anna now is in a difficult situation, she feels disappointed and might also feel confused and frustrated. If Anna also is in the habit of negative self-talk then her internal conversation is going to go something like this “Oh no, how did you manage to get such a bad grade?” “You are so stupid.” “You should have worked harder, you’re an idiot!” and then “I hate myself.” Now at this point we know for sure that Anna isn’t feeling any better, we can assume she’s feeling worse. If Anna was talking to a friend instead, her friend might start by saying something comforting “Oh that’s a shame, I know you worked really hard on that essay.” and then suggesting “Maybe you could ask for some feedback.” and encouraging “You did pass, maybe you can work more on the structure rather than the content for the next one.” Anna’s conclusion is that she’s stupid and didn’t work hard enough. This is how someone might feel when they’re feeling disappointed and are in the habit of berating themselves for any short-falls. Neither of these conclusions is helpful and both actually block Anna from succeeding in the future. Anna isn’t stupid and thinking this isn’t going to help her with her next essay. Anna also doesn’t need to work harder, as she did work hard on the essay. Anna could ask for feedback as a kindly friend might point out, so that she can figure out precisely where she needs to improve and what to focus on next time. Anna could also re-read her essay and think about which elements she would like to improve, for example, is it the structure or the content that could be most improved? The dialogue offered here by Anna’s ‘friend’ was much more supportive and helpful than the response from Anna’s self-talk, they allowed Anna the opportunity to feeling her disappointment in a sympathetic context and then think about how to move forward and learn from the experience. It’s worth noting that problem-solving for future strategy can be really helpful, but only once you’ve come to terms with the feelings of disappointment and are ready to move on from those. The idea here is that you can use this information to help you next time, but only if you soothe the emotions first.

As we have seen from Anna’s scenario, responding to ourselves in a kind and thoughtful way to difficult situations is infinitely more helpful than criticizing and berating. The first will give you the opportunity to learn and problem-solve for similar future events and the second will leave you feeling awful and hopeless with no benefits whatsoever. Now I’ve convinced you that positive (or even neutral) self-talk is by far the superior option and a worthy goal, I will explain how to change negative self-talk into a more neutral or positive voice.

Negative self-talk is a habit, it’s something that you probably didn’t pay that much attention to until you read this, or something that you feel is just ‘the way you are’ or even something you deserve. Most people’s self-talk is negative by default. This is probably due to lots of internalized messages which are absorbed into your mindset when you’re not paying attention. They probably went in when you were quite young and you didn’t know to catch them and throw them out. People also have what’s called a negativity bias, which means we pay more attention to negative things than positive or neutral things. All together this is why your head is filled with negative and often harsh responses. But you can change this and the first step to changing it is to notice it. As you’ve been reading I hope you have recognized some of the negative things you say to yourself, perhaps some of these examples have resonated with you, perhaps they gave you a broad sense of familiarity. Either way, if this is something that you do try the following steps to change your negative self-talk into something more positive and helpful.

3 Steps to Change Your Self-talk
Step 1 | Pay Attention
Step 2 | Challenge and Reframe
Step 3 | Repeat

Step 1 | Pay Attention

I want you to spend the next week or so paying attention. Notice when you have a negative “I’ll never be able to do that.” or a critical “I’m too stupid to do that.” thought. Actually, you could tune in to anything that begins “I’ll never…” or “I’m too…” those will usually be unhelpful. Get a sense over the coming days of how negative your thoughts about yourself are and how often you are using negative self-talk. Whilst you do this, I challenge you to find a single example when this way of thinking and talking to yourself has provided you with any positive outcome, either by making you feel better or by making you more likely to succeed in the future. You won’t find one.

Step 2 | Challenge & Reframe

The next step, once you’re aware that you are engaging in negative self-talk, is to challenge it. That means noticing that it is unpleasant and unhelpful, and rephrasing it to something pleasant and helpful (or at least one of those if you can’t manage both). If this is too difficult at first then you can change it into something neutral. In order to help you change the thought, I want you to imagine you are talking to a friend. What would you say to a friend in this situation? Unless you are an utterly awful friend, I think at this point you will be able to reframe the thought into something that is either more pleasant or more helpful, ideally both. It’s a good idea to try pleasant first and then helpful. You need to feel better first, then problem-solve. Recognize and sympathize with the emotions first as a good friend would do, saying to yourself things like “I am really disappointed.” and “This is a difficult time for me.” Once you are feeling more calmly then you can engage with ideas about how to solve the problem or what you could do differently next time.

Step 3 | Repeat

This process of paying attention, challenging and reframing your internal dialogue needs to be repeated and you need to do it for long enough to form a new habit. We’re certainly talking weeks and months, rather than hours or days here. But it will be worth it. Try and go through this process as often as you can, catching more and more of the negative thoughts and turning them into something positive or neutral. You will benefit fairly quickly from these exercises, but to truly make this positive self-talk a new habit, you will need to persevere. Even once it has become your new default internal dialogue, you will occasionally be challenged. A particular circumstance or situation will arise and you will need to go back to this technique once more, but on the whole if you persevere, you will be able to turn this around and make the supportive and helpful ‘friend’ your default setting. Making this progress should give you a sense of competence and control as well as a huge resilience for life’s challenges and those human mistakes and failures that are inevitable for all of us.