Thousands of thoughts run through our head every day.
Just consider your own internal dialogues all day long – about your own actions, about others’ behaviors, about the world as a whole, about what has happened in the past, about what is yet to happen. The way we talk to ourselves can be positive, negative, or neutral. Or even a mix of all of those. Self-talk is often a mostly automatic and even unconscious process. These dialogues can turn very unpleasant – such as beating yourself up in the face of perceived “failure”.
Needless to say, the way we talk to ourselves can give rise to many different emotions. For example, if you tell yourself that if you don’t do well on tomorrow’s presentation at work, then you’ll never get promoted. Or if you feel like a conversation with a friend felt awkward and you find yourself wondering if they now think less of you. Both of these examples of self-talk can result in feelings of anxiety or hopelessness. The key about making self-talk more constructive is learning to be more gentle and compassionate in the ways we talk to ourselves.
Cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapists work with their clients to change negative self-talk into more rational responses. The goal is that if we can start recognizing our own automatic negative thoughts and then turn them around, we can feel better about ourselves and the world around us. Much research has been done to back this up as an effective form of therapy, especially for anxiety and depressive disorders.
There are different categories of negative self-talk, and if you work with a cognitive or cognitive-behavioral therapist, you will get to know them intimately. Below are some examples of negative self-talk (also called “cognitive distortions”) and more gentle alternatives. Note that these are simple examples for illustrative purposes.
1. Should statements:
- Negative Self-Talk: I should be able to deal with stressful situations better.
- Better: I know how to deal with stress and I am having a hard time right now.
2 . Disqualifying the positive:
- Negative Self-Talk: I hate my life, it always is so difficult.
- Better: There are some things going on right now that are difficult and also some things that are actually going right.
3. Emotional reasoning:
- Negative Self-Talk: I don't feel good right now, so it feels like I can't handle anything.
- Better: I feel like I can't handle things right now and I know I can.
- Negative Self-Talk: If I don't do well on this work presentation, my boss will think poorly of me, I'll never get that promotion, and eventually I'll be jobless and homeless.
- Better: Nobody's perfect. I'll do my best on the presentation and know that less than perfect is not the end of the world.
If negative self-talk is ingrained in the way you think, and is regularly
impacting your mood and relationships, you might consider working with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional. Also look for a future installment on this blog about how to foster more self-compassion.