4 Ways to Beat Negative Self-Talk
What does the inside of your head sound like when something goes wrong?
When you have a rotten day, or make a dumb mistake, or realize that something you’ve hoped for just isn’t going to work out? Do you take it lightly and shrug it off, telling yourself, “It could have happened to anyone,” or do you even try to cheer yourself up, saying something like, “Don’t worry about it, you did the best you could under the circumstances.”
Or, by contrast, do you revisit the unhappy event with a more critical eye, lambasting yourself with internal remarks about the other choices you could have made, or picking on yourself for having longstanding problems of the same kind?
If that sounds like you—and to many people, it probably does—you might be falling victim to negative self-talk. These inner expressions of self-criticism can range from gentle (“Wow, I really screwed that up”) to severe (“Once again, I can’t do anything right”).
To some degree, it’s human nature to look at oneself critically, and even to judge yourself unfairly by jumping to broad or unwarranted conclusions. During depressed moods, negative or destructive self-talk can become persistent, even to the point of making it difficult to function. Imagine hearing a picky, critical voice in your mind all day, harshly evaluating even your tiniest actions and wearing down your mood and your self-confidence.
These remorseless attacks on the self can overwhelm almost anyone with their incessant negativity. People who criticize themselves this way may have more trouble doing their jobs, completing simple tasks, or even enjoying themselves with friends or loved ones. (There are also some cases in which this kind of doggedly critical internal commentary can motivate people to achieve, although, at the same time, it is likely to create significant feelings of shame and to damage one’s self-confidence, as well.)
The bottom line about negative self-talk is that it comes from a harmful habit of mind—and, like most habits, can be changed. To do this, the first, simplest step might also be the hardest: you’ll need to take the time to notice when you’re talking to yourself this way.
Direct your attention to your own thoughts, so you can spot the critical voice the moment it arises. Slow down your inclination to react immediately to your thoughts and notice what they are, first. Taking the time to recognize the way you think, and the way you respond to the various people and events you encounter, can offer important insights. You may realize that some of your thoughts are accurate and true, but that others are less so.
In fact, not everything that occurs to you is likely to be an accurate apprehension of the world around you. Learning to stand back from your reactions in this way can help you notice the kind of situations that provoke the most negative self-talk. (In the past, I’ve referred to this habit of gaining distance on yourself as decentering.)
Take note of your reactions and identify those that could be the most self-critical, the least based on reality, or the most harmful. What do you habitually tell yourself, and why?
Once you’ve developed the skill of listening to yourself—without judging yourself for these self-defeating mental habits—try to notice how you refer to yourself, inside your mind. Do you say things like, “I’ll never get this done,” or “Other people are better at this than me.” Crucially, are you using the first-person pronouns “I” and “me”?
Research from the University of Michigan, published in 2020 in Clinical Psychological Science, suggests that talking to oneself with second- and third-person pronouns, rather than using “I,” “me,” and one’s own name, can assist in self-control and help people pursue their goals. By using these pronouns, the study’s authors suggest, you can promote psychological distance between yourself and the critical internal remarks you tend to make.
There’s more, of course—the most challenging step to take. When you’ve learned to stand back from your inner voice, and not to automatically accept it as an accurate perception of the way you fit into the world, you will need to make other changes, too.
This “voice” you hear, you may realize, isn’t really “you.” It’s a bad habit that only sounds like a voice, and reacts to stimuli in an unpleasantly familiar way. What it says is not based on fact but in something more like an angry editorial that only you can hear. Maybe it even sounds like someone else you know—someone close to you, or from your past, who hasn’t treated you with respect or kindness. When you recognize this, you may be able to separate this inner critic from your real self.
Some people choose to do this by giving internal criticism a name. A friend once told me she thought of it as “the mean little voice” inside her mind; in another case, a former patient (and a comic book fan) came to think of his most critical thoughts as a “bad guy,” and gave it the name of the most powerful supervillain he could think of.
By labeling their voices this way, these individuals were doing their best to push the criticisms away and to shore up the psychological distance between their own best selves and the negative mental habits they’d developed.
The best way to fight a critical inner voice, then, is to learn to speak to yourself in a new way. How would you talk to a close friend who came to you with thoughts and feelings like the ones you have? It’s not hard to imagine having access to your feelings of compassion in a case like that; it’s much more difficult to apply that same compassion to yourself.
And don’t be shy about mustering evidence against this critical inner voice, too. If you have a habit of labeling yourself with words like “always,” “never,” or “the worst,” remember that these black-and-white statements can never be fully true. Without working too hard, you should be able to generate some evidence to prove that your “always” or “never” self-statements aren’t accurate.
Remember also that it’s altogether too easy to recall memories and anecdotes that are emotionally consistent with the mood you’re in, which means when you’re feeling low, you’ll be more likely to notice your mistakes and troubles than your strengths and good decisions.
At those times, it’ll be easier to bring up memories of sad moments in the past, or problems that felt as though they couldn’t be solved. This might make it seem as though the criticisms with which you’re currently burdening yourself have more of a basis in fact than they actually do.
Lastly, and perhaps most broadly, realize that perhaps all this internal attention is doing you more harm than good. Redirecting your focus to something outside of yourself could be an essential skill in quelling negative self-talk.
Focusing on the world at large, and on other people, can help you become “more patient, self-compassionate, and open to self-improvement.” You may be better able to silence your inner critic by becoming more deeply engaged with something outside yourself—something like a new interest, a relationship, a hobby, or the time you spend with friends.
These outlets and supports can help you remember that the world outside of your own mind is bigger, more interesting, more neutral, and less negative than any mean little voice you might hear.