How to stop negative self-talk
Everyone has good as well as could-be-better days. No matter what you’re going through, however, negative self-talk won’t help. In fact, it can have some serious consequences. Meanwhile, being nicer to yourself has some powerful health benefits. So stop being hard on yourself and learn to overcome negative self-talk with these tips from counsellors and life coaches.
See yourself more accurately
Parts of your brain are hardwired to scan for problems, meaning they’ll latch onto your weaknesses and magnify them, says Amy Johnson, PhD, psychologist, life coach and author of The Little Book of Big Change. “The thing that your mind is fixating on and seeing as this imperfection and horrible flaw, that’s pretty biased,” she says. Once you recognise that your mind isn’t telling the truth, you can let criticisms and negative self-talk become background noise instead of a disruptive roar.
Focus on your good traits
“It’s hard to forget pain, but it’s easy to forget what makes us happy,” says life coach Irina Popa-Erwin. To remind yourself of your best qualities, she recommends looking in the mirror and finding three things you like about yourself every day for three months. “At the beginning you might not believe it – you’re just saying it because you gave yourself that assignment,” she says. “At the end of three months, you’ll actually embrace them because of the repetition that you keep telling yourself.”
Know what to blame on your mood
Just as you should give yourself time to cool off before sending an angry email, learn to ignore self-loathing and negative self-talk when you’re feeling generally down. “Imperfections and flaws tend to change day to day and by our mood,” Johnson says. “When we’re in a bad mood, we think we have all kinds of problems. When we’re in a good mood, all of a sudden those problems don’t seem so big.” Once you’ve had a chance to cheer up, you’ll probably find that the failings you saw before aren’t worth dwelling on.
Ask yourself why you care
Do you want toned arms for your own benefit or because you’re worried about what other people think about your appearance? Popa-Erwin says understanding your real values and dreams will help you be more content when your shortcomings don’t stack up to others’ expectations (or what you think they expect). “I tell people to find what they want. Not based on what society says, not based on what their circle of friends has,” she says. “That will be different standards.” If your priority is spending time with family, don’t sweat the fact that you can’t spend hours at the gym.
Understand your inner critic has good intentions
“Never criticise the voices inside you that criticise you,” says Melissa Sandfort, IFSCP, founder of A Thousand Paths life coaching. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Instead of resenting your negative thoughts, appreciate their helpful purposes, she says. After all, beating yourself up over eating too many cookies is your mind’s way of trying to get your body healthier. Understand why you’re having those thoughts, but don’t believe them when they say you’re inadequate.
Learn to accept – not love – your flaws
If you try persuading yourself you love your imperfections, your inner lie detector will go crazy. “To convince yourself it’s a good thing can be sort of annoying,” Johnson says. “You know you’re giving yourself a pep talk, and it falls short.” Instead of forcing a positive spin on your weaknesses, give yourself perspective, and remind yourself they seem worse to you than they really are.
Recognise what you’re beating yourself up over
Then decide what steps you’ll make to better yourself, Popa-Erwin says. The key is to pick steps you’re willing to take, not ones you feel obligated to take. “If you say what you’re willing to do, then you’re already a step forward and will feel much better because you see progress,” she says. Then build a long-term plan to work at it, checking your progress every few months to remind yourself how far you’ve come.
Recognise your accomplishments
Maybe your presentation at work didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, but that single shortcoming doesn’t define you. Remind yourself of everything else you’ve accomplished and that disappointment won’t seem like such a big deal anymore. “There is not one person on this earth who didn’t accomplish something,” Popa-Erwin says. “It could be saying ‘hi’ to someone, smiling at someone, helping a friend in need, or listening.” Reminding yourself often of these little wins can change your mindset and help you embrace the bright side of your failures, she says.
Address your vulnerabilities
Criticising your flaws with negative self-talk is usually self-defence. Painful past experiences leave you vulnerable, with your mind trying to prevent that shame, anger, or lack of control again by criticising you when you make those same mistakes again. But often, the flaw really isn’t as big of a deal as your mind makes it out to be, Sandfort says. Figuring out why you started to hate that weaknesses can put it back in perspective.
“Go to your vulnerable parts and witness the pain they’ve been carrying, and then they can let go of it and not be as vulnerable as in the past,” Sandfort says. Once you’ve accepted your past, your mind won’t have to work so hard to protect you from letting it happen again and you’ll react less strongly.