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Banish Negative Self-Talk

by Christine Hill

Say you went on a first date yesterday. You feel like it went pretty well, but it’s been a day and you haven’t heard anything from him about a follow-up date. What are you thinking now?

“He’s probably not interested” might be your initial thought. But it might go further: “He was probably completely turned off.” That would be no surprise. Many of us keep going down that path, though: “I shouldn’t have worn that shirt. I look fat in that shirt. I’m gross.”

And pretty soon we wind up here: “All my dates go terribly. No one will ever love me.”

In the cognitive behavioral psychology world, we call these thoughts “self-talk.” It’s how we narrate and make sense of our lives, and it has a huge impact on our mood. It can even affect our outlook on life, and our ability to achieve goals. If you have a habit of negative self-talk you might find yourself suffering from a host of problems, especially:

- Depression
- A victim mentality
- Anxiety and over-worrying
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of motivation

Don’t Believe Your Own Lies

Cognitive behavioral therapy states that our thoughts aren’t necessarily reality. They’re merely our perception of reality, and sometimes they can fool us. For example, look at the picture below. It looks like the lines are slightly diagonal, doesn’t it? But they’re not! They’re perfectly straight. If you don’t believe me, measure it yourself. In the same way, our perception of the world can be totally wrong, leading to incorrect self-talk, until we’re in a downward spiral of despair.

Our feelings are largely determined by our thoughts. If you can catch the mistaken assumptions in your thoughts, and direct them to a more productive channel, you can change your feelings. And if you can change that, you can change your behavior, and thus your life. Our brains are amazingly adaptable organs, always changing, growing, and forming new connections. If you’re in a destructive pattern right now, that’s okay. It can change.

A Few More Examples of Harmful Self-Talk:

- “There’s no chance that girl wants to go out with me. I have nothing to offer. I’m worthless.”
“He doesn’t seem to want to talk to me. He must think that I’m boring and he’s uncomfortable being around me. I’m so awkward. I should never come to parties.”

- “I can’t write that book that I’ve been wanting to. I could never be as good an author as that person. I shouldn’t even try.”

- “She didn’t wave back. Why not? Is she mad at me? I haven’t done anything wrong! I’m mad at her!”

Three Steps for Correcting Harmful Self-Talk

Step 1: Recognize

When you are feeling depressed, angry, frustrated, anxious, upset, or self-conscious, it’s your warning signal. Consider it a bell telling you it’s time to examine your self-talk.

Step 2: Deconstruct

Reality check:
Ask yourself: do I know this is true? What’s my evidence? Is there a way that I can actually check what the truth is? Notice how much of your self-talk is exaggerated, negatively focused, or just plain wrong. It might be helpful to ask others what they’re actually thinking. Or, try the “reducto ad adsurdum” approach. Follow your train of thought clear to the end. Socrates loved to use this method to prove the falsehood of a premise by showing that its logical consequence is absurd or contradictory.

Look for alternatives: If you were being obnoxiously optimistic, how would you view the situation? Think of someone in your life who is very confident and successful. How would they view it? Exercise your brain a little bit with some flexible thinking.

Put it in perspective in the larger view: What’s the worst that could happen here? It’s not really the end of the world. Furthermore, if you’re going to wander down the “what’s the worst that could happen” trail, it’s only fair to wander down the “what’s the BEST that could happen” one too! Ask “am I exaggerating here?” Check the superlatives in your self-talk, words like “always,” “never,” and “the worst.”

Step 3: Replace with the Positive

Once you’ve realized that your self-talk is incorrect or harmful, replace it with something better.

Be goal-oriented: Again, this of that confident, successful friend. How would they handle disappointment? They’d probably see what they could learn from it and then try again! So focus on your overall goals, and direct your thoughts in that direction. Think of yourself as the agent here, not the object. Be proactive, not passive! Ask yourself: “Does this thought help me achieve my goals?” “Can I do something to solve this problem?” “Is there something I can learn from this?”

Practice gratitude: Instead of worrying about what you don’t have, focus on what you do. For example, “That presentation didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. But I’m grateful for my job, and for those who listened attentively, and for the chance to try again soon.”

Be a friend: What would you do if someone was talking to your friend the way that you talk to yourself? Odds are that you would defend her and make sure she knows that they’re lying. You’d give her reassurance: “Don’t listen to them, you look beautiful tonight.” So be a friend to yourself. You’re the only one who can defend yourself inside your own head.

Give harmful self-talk a name: When we name things, we can define and limit them. With a fun and self-aware name, you can demote your inner critic from a scary monster into a comical character. Brene Brown calls her inner critic “the gremlin.” You can also give familiar narratives a name. For example, my “my friends are superheroes” story can make me feel inadequate. But then the name of the story reminds me that I’m blowing things out of proportion.

Practice Positive Self-Talk

Think of it like this: You’re walking a path through vast grasslands. The previous path, worn and visible, doesn’t actually take you where you want to go. So you forge your own new path through the grass. At first, you’re trampling your way through and it can be tough. Even when you walk down the same path later, it’s hard to discern where you started the path. However, the more and more you tread that path, the more visible and defined it is. Soon, your newly-forged path is clear and easy. Positive self-talk takes practice, but once the new paths are forged, it will be natural.

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"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."
- Matthew 7:7-8

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