Quitting Negative Self-Talk

I Had No Idea

A few years ago I noticed that sometimes I talk to myself. Out loud. Not under my breath either – in full voice! I can have a running commentary with myself about what I’m doing in the kitchen like “Nope, those cookies aren’t quite done yet. Back in they go.” Or I remind myself what task I need to turn to next. Or when I’m facing a project that seems daunting or uninspiring, I’ll say, “Come on, you got this.” Or “You can do this. Let’s go!” Frankly, I didn’t realize how often I engaged in self-talk, especially when home by myself.

What I had not realized was that quite frequently that self-talk was highly negative and I could be rather severe in my self-criticism. When I messed something up in the kitchen or in dealing with an interpersonal relationship, my self-talk had morphed into “Ugh. I’m such an idiot.” Or “Merideth, what is your problem?!?!” Actually, I was not the one to notice this habit. My partner, JL, gently pointed this out. He knows that words matter, as is evident in his writing ability (part of how and why I fell in love with him). I actually had not realized my habit of speaking so harshly to myself—talking to myself in a way that I would never in a million years talk to anyone else, especially someone I loved and cared about. 

About a year after we started dating, we were in my kitchen when I engaged in this negative self-talk—speaking out loud without really realizing it. He took my hands in his, looked me in the eye, and said, “You should be kinder to yourself.” (Can you tell why I love this man so fiercely?). He was right, and it is something I still have to work diligently on. However, I find it is worth the effort. If we cannot be kind and compassionate with ourselves, what makes us think we can extend the same kindness and compassion to others?

You might say that talking badly to yourself is not that big of a deal. What does it matter? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” right? Empirical research indicates it can bring more harm to us than we might expect. For instance, negative self-talk can lead to depression, anxiety, and withdrawal from social situations and opportunities. Not good! Talking horribly to ourselves can be a slippery slope to a deep, dark hole of negative emotion and outlook on the world. The story we tell ourselves also becomes part of our identity. Do you want your identity to become that of someone who is dumb, lazy, incompetent, or foolish? Definitely not.

Where Does Negative Self-Talk Come From?

This negative self-talk often stems from two sources. First, it is triggered by our inner critic. Our inner critic is the voice inside our minds that criticizes us. This self-criticism can be helpful if it motivates us to strive harder or persevere for a limited period of time or well-defined hardship. It can be a source of strength and discipline when we need a jolt to help us across the finish line on a project or pursuit. However, if our inner critic voices its opinion too often or with aggression, it wears on us. It becomes counterproductive.

Second, negative self-talk can stem from prior or current abuse we have experienced at the hands — or rather, words — of others. Violent or abusive relationships, whether they occurred in our childhood with our parents or they occurred as an adult in our interactions with a romantic partner, abusive boss, or other toxic relationship, often lead to negative self-talk. Those who engage in negative self-talk often do so out of guilt or shame related to how others have treated them in the past. This form of negative self-talk frequently mimics the verbiage we have received from authoritarian parents or abusive partners. Their words may have led to us feeling like we did something bad (i.e., we feel guilty) or that we are bad at our core (i.e., we feel ashamed). We talk badly to ourselves when we run on auto-pilot and the voice of an abuser rings on our ears. Our harsh words to ourselves often echo those of others who were overly harsh with us in the past. Much of the time we’re not even aware that we’re treating ourselves badly – that we are speaking much more poorly to ourselves than a friend would treat us. 


Thus, if you find that you are being harsh with yourself, stop and ask yourself what a close friend would say to you. It is probably not, “Oh, my gosh. That was such a stupid thing to do!” or “You screwed things up again. What is wrong with you?!?!.” Nope. A loving friend would speak kindly to you, so why shouldn’t you speak kindly to yourself? When you find yourself engaging in unkind or harsh self-talk, stop and take notice of that. Then give yourself a do-over and combine it with acknowledgment of what you are feeling. Something like, “I’m frustrated with myself for not doing a better job on that household renovation project over the weekend. However, I’m new at this and so I’m not going to do everything perfectly right away. This is a great learning opportunity and the next time I hang drywall the result will be better. I can do this. It just takes practice.”

If you find you struggle with taming your inner critic on a regular and especially frequent basis, you should consider taking self-compassion a step further. You should be proactively kind and encouraging to yourself. Best-selling author and speaker Mel Robbins writes about this in her new book, “The High 5 Habit.” Many of us spend considerable time, energy, and attention encouraging or uplifting those around us, and especially those close to us. Why shouldn’t we do the same for ourselves?  The fact is, we should! To retrain your brain to be kind to yourself and to encourage yourself rather than tear yourself down, give yourself a high-five in the mirror every morning. 

That probably sounds silly but thousands of people across the globe are engaging in this habit. In other words, start your day with some encouragement to yourself, just like you would with a roommate, partner, kids, or coworker. Do not wait to be kind to yourself when you do something you regret or that you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped. Start the day with self-compassion and encouragement. Doing so will put you in a better mood and according to research, a better mood helps us think more broadly about what is possible in our world. Researchers refer to this as expanding the thought-action repertoire. In other words, when our mood and emotions are more positive, we tend to see our thoughts and actions as more feasible, doable, and potentially successful. This is just the opposite of talking badly to ourselves which fosters negative emotion and narrows the thought-action repertoire. A positive view of what’s possible expands the potential behaviors we engage in and helps us take more (calculated) risks, be more creative and get more crap done.

Bottom line: Be kind to yourself and tame that inner critic. Start each day with a high five to yourself. Remember, whatever problem, struggle or dilemma lies before you – YOU GOT THIS!

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Merideth Thompson

Merideth Thompson, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and speaker, who empowers young women with the skills they need to live a happy, productive life. It is her goal to demystify dense academic studies and data for everyday people so that they can make informed decisions for themselves. 


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