For today’s Monday Matters post I want to discuss something which I’m currently really struggling with, and that is negative self-talk. I’ve been taught various strategies in different therapy sessions throughout the years but applying them when you’re really struggling is easier said than done. Also, during periods of better mood, the techniques tend to be forgotten about as the amount of negativity is much less. So, here’s some examples of different types of negative self talk, an outline of how it damages us mentally and three key ways to challenge and reframe it.
What is negative self talk?
Before you can begin to challenge your negative self-talk you need to know exactly what it is so you can label it as such as soon as it pops into your head or out of your mouth. Basically, we have lots of thoughts running through our minds all of the time such as ‘I wonder if there’s anything good on TV tonight?’, ‘I haven’t done any watercolouring this week, perhaps I’ll have a go at some tomorrow’ or ‘I feel a bit rough today so I’m going to take it easy’. These kinds of self-talk and reflection are perfectly normal and help you to make decisions and get on with things in your life. However, when the self-talk becomes harsh and self critical, such as ‘I can’t believe I did that, I’m such as idiot’, this is when it becomes a problem and can be really damaging in all kinds of ways.
The main forms of negative self-talk (AKA cognitive distortions)
The following are some of the main forms of negative self-talk. In psychology, they’re known as cognitive distortions because they’re inaccurate, exaggerated, irrational and negatively biased.
Overgeneralisation – this is where we draw conclusions about things in life or the future based on things that have happened (often once) in the past e.g. all men are liars, we’re bound to get stuck in traffic, bad things always happen to me, I’ll never be able to do that, I always fail.
Catastrophising – very closely related to the above, this is where we imagine and believe the worst will happen and completely blow things out of all proportion, for example, during a period of depression, saying that you will never get better and will spend the rest of your life miserable, or following the end of a romantic relationship, stating that you’re unlovable and will never find anyone else.
Mental filter – this is when we experience positive and negative things but only focus on the bad stuff and filter out anything good. So, for example you might have had a day out at the park, enjoyed a picnic in the sunshine, strolled around the lake, feed the ducks and swans and admired the cute, fluffy little cygnets before getting an ice cream from the café. But, on return home, you might say that you had an awful time because you were stupid enough to drip ice cream on your t-shirt and that you got burnt because you failed to re-apply your sunscreen.
Predicting the future (AKA fortune telling) -this is where we predict what is going to happen based on little or no evidence, for example, we might say things like: ‘I just know I’m not going to get the job’, ‘I’m not going to the party because I’ll have an awful time’.
Mind reading – here, you assume what others are thinking, often in a negative way. So, for example, you might decide that your friend hates your clothes because she didn’t say how nice your new dress looked, or you might conclude that your husband is sick of you because you keep getting upset all the time.
Black and white thinking – this one involves thinking in extremes rather than anything in-between or in a ‘shade of grey’. It commonly involves the use of the words ‘always’ or ‘never’. Some examples that I’ve said recently are: ‘I always mess things up’, ‘I’ll never get better’ and ‘I’m a complete mess’.
Labelling – these are things that you say about yourself either in your head or out loud which are wholly negative and unhelpful e.g. ‘I’m a fat pig’, ‘I’m useless’, ‘I’m such a failure’ etc.
Shoulds and musts – this involves putting undue pressure on yourself and creating unreasonable expectations which become impossible to keep. For example, you might say ‘I should be a better wife’, ‘I must tidy up all of this mess’, ‘I should exercise more’, I must make sure I’m on time for my appointment’. Using ‘I need to…’ isn’t particularly helpful either e.g. ‘I need to lose weight’, ‘I need to be a better mum’, I need to get that work done’. I’ve written an in depth blog post on this previously as it’s something we covered in my compassion group classes.
The consequences of a tendency towards negative self-talk
As well as causing high levels of stress for both the individual and their close family and friends, negative self-talk has a number of negative consequences including:
- lack of self belief
- poor levels of resilience
- diminished ability to make positive changes in your life
- reduced self-confidence
- decreased motivation
- feelings of worthlessness
- feelings of hopelessness
- likelihood of depression and anxiety being exacerbated
Personally, I find that negative self-talk goes hand-in-hand with depression and feelings of anxiety which only serves to make things worse.
3 ways to tackle your negative self-talk
In order to remedy our tendency to negative self-talk we need to recognise when we’re involved in it and actively challenge our words. Here are three ideas on how to do this:
Recognise it, write it down and challenge it
There are a number of psychological studies that have looked into developing awareness of self-talk and the key findings suggest that those individuals who wrote down their own personal examples in some form of log book showed greater insight into the specific content of their self-talk and the consequences of its used. They were also able to start challenging their initial thoughts in order to create more balanced conclusions.
Recognising and challenging your self-talk takes time and commitment but is really worthwhile doing. The following example is my own and I hope, by sharing it, you can see how the process works (you may need to click and enlarge it to see properly). When challenging the evidence, I find it helpful to think about what a good friend or my lovely husband might say in response to what I said.
Take it to court
This is a great technique, which I used in my chart above and feel is really helpful for cross examining your self talk. It commonly used in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and involves metaphorically take the thought or belief to court and place it in the dock. You then find evidence for and against the thought or belief, considering the factual evidence and not opinions. Working for the defence, you try to prove that the accused (your thought or belief) is truthful and correct by providing evidence that shows that your thought or belief is 100% totally true. You can see examples in column 4 of my chart. Then, working for the prosecution, you look for evidence that this thought or belief is not true 100% of the time. For this, you need to select good quality evidence that would hold up in court. Finally, the judge summarises all of the evidence and composes a final statement which is realistic, rational and balanced. This should then help you to see alternative ways of thinking and enable you to undermine your extreme and unhelpful though. You can find worksheets to go with this technique at Getselfhelp.co.uk.
Find more positive alternatives
When you catch yourself saying negative things, try to come up with more positive alternatives or different ways of looking at the situation. Again, think about what a good friend or your partner would say to counteract your thought or belief. Here are some examples which might help:
|Negative self-talk||Positive self-talk|
|I hate feeling like this||It’s okay to feel like this, my feelings are valid|
|I’m never going to get better||This is temporary and I have the ability to get through it. I’m taking things one step at a time.|
|I hate my body||I’m grateful for everything my body can do, I’m healthy and strong and my body is beautiful.|
|My life is awful||There are so many good things in my life right now.|
|I’m getting everything wrong||Everyone make mistakes and we all have days that are better than others.|
|I need to do some exercise||I would like to do a little more exercise so I can feel more toned.|
|I can’t do it||It’s going to be hard work but I can do it|
|I’m so stupid||I made a mistake, so what, everyone makes them!|
You might not need to complete these exercises all of the time but when you find yourself dealing with feelings associated with anger, depression or anxiety, try to make time to stop and become more aware of your thoughts. Then you can start to reflect on them, challenge your views and find alternative ways of looking at things. Hopefully, after developing the skills associated with thought investigation and thought challenging, you’ll find it easier to put the ideas into practice and conquer your negative self-talk and start being nicer towards yourself.
Thanks for reading and good luck!