We’ve all been there — all it takes is one bad workout or a mistake at work, and then the negative self-talk begins.
How you react to a stressful situation – and how you talk to yourself afterward – can impact your mental health and well-being.
Like Alexa or Siri, your brain is always listening and using even your inner monologue to inform your mental algorithm.
Practice positive self-talk and you’ll build a healthier mindset; rely on negative self-talk too much, and you’ll end up stuck in a pattern that can be hard to break.
“Negative self-talk is a normal part of our human experience,” explains Dr. Natasha Manning-Gibbs, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist.
“When we’re stressed or experiencing negative emotions, we’re more likely to activate negative self-talk. Many negative thoughts occur so automatically that you may not even realize that you’re having them, but it is important to know that your thoughts can linger long enough to impact your mood and influence your behavior,” she explains.
That means berating yourself at the gym (or after a meal) will backfire.
But swapping smack talk for pep talks may impact your performance on a physiological level – and improve your mental game, too.
Read on to learn about the causes of negative self-talk, plus strategies and tips to break the cycle.
Causes of Negative Self-Talk
What’s the harm in negative self-talk? According to therapist Jaclyn Borgia, LPC, it’s like that old adage, “you are what you eat.”
“Negative self-talk, like any self-talk, creates connections in the brain,” says Borgia. “By speaking to yourself in a certain manner, you are feeding the brain information, telling it how to operate and perceive the world. With negative self-talk, you are actively wiring your brain to believe that you are what you think.”
So why do we do it? Plenty of reasons.
Our past experiences: If you pay attention to your tone or word choice, says Borgia, you might notice it sounds like your caregivers’ or parents’ voices. It can also sound like a childhood bully, frenemy, or even a teacher.
“One reason we speak to ourselves in any manner is because we were shown how to by the people who raised us, modeling for us how to treat the self and others,” she says.
Cultural and societal pressures: Maybe you grew up hearing — and seeing on social media on a daily basis — that women are supposed to take up less space or that men have to be physically imposing.
When your struggle relates to your body, “it frequently is a result of cultural and societal messages about ‘how we should look,’” says Michela Dalsing, MS, LMHC, NCC, LCPC. “It can also come from medical professionals using outdated measurements of wellness such as the BMI, which doesn’t account for body composition.”
Lack of awareness: Negativity is so pervasive that sometimes we don’t even notice what we’re saying, says Dalsing.
“We’re just making a passing statement like, ‘Oh, I’m such an idiot,’ for missing something that you thought should be obvious,” she says.
Your brain’s “virtual assistant” is always listening to these seemingly “harmless” statements, rooting them deeper into your personal lexicon.
Outdated mindsets: “No pain, no gain” and “burn it to earn it” mindsets used to be the norm. The health esteem movement is working to replace that negative motivation, but it can be deeply ingrained, especially with weight loss and eating habits.
Make no mistake: This never works, says Manning-Gibbs.
“Negative self-talk is counterintuitive if your goal is to develop a healthy relationship with food,” she says. “Our thoughts trigger our feelings and behaviors; therefore, if you want to feel motivated to address your food issues, it would be beneficial to develop thoughts/beliefs that align with positive feelings and behaviors.”
And on that note, let’s talk strategies to help you turn your inner critic into your own hype (wo)man.
Strategies to Overcome Negative Self-Talk
Identify and challenge negative thoughts. Therapist Caroline Grace Brown, LMSW, DBT, REBT, has her clients write down each negative or critical self-thought for a whole day. Then together they root out the core belief that feeds those thoughts.
The self-critical thinking is an attempt at ‘fixing’ this untrue thing we believe about ourselves (e.g., that we must be impressive to be deserving of acceptance and belonging).”
Take note of your triggers, too. Certain people or situations can be fuel for the flames of negativity.
“Think about what immediately preceded the negative self-talk, the environment, who you’re surrounded by or if you’re alone, your mood, if you’re tired or hungry, etc.,” suggests Brown.
This will help you notice which patterns may need to change, especially if you’re prone to emotional eating.
Remember your inner self-critic is telling stories, not truths. Noticing this self-talk helps clients understand it’s not “in any way helpful to them meeting their goals,” adds Brown.
To help distinguish reality from negative self-talk, “I’ll also have the client give their internal self-critic a name separate from their own.”
Stop yourself when you catch yourself. Once you’ve learned to recognize your negative thoughts and patterns, you can do something about them.
“Catching your negative thoughts or distortions can help you to slow them down by literally saying ‘stop’ to yourself,” suggests Manning-Gibbs. This is especially helpful at mealtimes or when you think of foods as “good” or “bad.”
Practice self-compassion. “We can’t bully ourselves into being a better version of ourselves,” says Brown, despite the common belief that harsh words work better than self-compassion. “We’re far more motivated by self-love than self-hatred.” (If this feels hard, we’ll share some tips below!)
Use positive affirmations – or start with neutrality. “Over time, repeated negative self-talk can turn into a belief system,” says Brown.
But so can positive self-talk! Once you can spot negative thoughts, flip the script and say something nice. If that’s too much right now, start with something neutral.
6 Tips on How to Stop Negative Self-Talk
1. Ask yourself, “Would I say this to someone else?“ Would I say this in front of my children? If the answer is “no,” then shift toward language you would use in front of others. This is especially helpful for body image and eating habits.
2. Practice positivity. Habits take time. Before workouts and meals, say something nice or neutral to yourself. “I’ve come a long way with my push-ups.” “This food is warm and filling, and I’m grateful I can provide for myself.”
3. Press pause. When you catch yourself being less than kind, use Manning-Gibbs’ “stop” technique. Then start over and say something nice to yourself or think about something else.
4. Give yourself second chances. Emotional eating happens. Don’t dwell on it or beat yourself up. Instead, focus on a fresh start. Identify your “why” and aim to do better tomorrow.
(And nourish yourself, even after overdoing it. Don’t restrict as a reflexive punishment.)
5. Leave the room. A change of scenery can help break cycles of negativity. When you’re stuck on why a pair of pants don’t fit or you’re criticizing how much you ate, give your brain a new environment – and something else to focus on.
6. Talk to someone. A therapist or dietitian can help you shift your mindset and cultivate a more positive relationship with your body and food. And in the moment, sharing your struggles with a trusted friend can also help. They’ll never talk to you the way your inner critic does!
Commit this to memory: Your brain is always listening, so “feed” it positive self-talk whenever you can.
When you catch yourself saying something less-than-kind to yourself, pause and reframe it.
Building a healthier mindset takes time, so be patient and give yourself grace. You deserve health and happiness, and that includes a more positive relationship with your body and the food that fuels your life.
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