It’s time to quiet your inner critic.
If you were to write down all the negative things you say or think about yourself, they would look like something a mean childhood bully might say.
“You messed up again.”
“You’re never going to get a raise.”
“You’re so unattractive.”
But these are the types of thoughts that a lot of people who struggle with negative self-talk actually have—every day, sometimes all day long. The National Science Foundation reports that 80 percent of our thoughts are negative, and 95 percent of our thoughts are repetitive. So we’re all guilty of having less-than-stellar thoughts about ourselves or being our own worst critics sometimes. It’s all too possible in today’s world where we regularly compare ourselves to others, which is easier than ever before thanks to 24/7 social media and internet access.
But what happens when these types of thoughts start dominating your life? What if you essentially never have a positive thought about yourself? Here’s what persistent negative self-talk looks like, how it can impact your mental health and life, and how to stop the cycle of endless self-criticism.
What Is Negative Self-Talk?
“Negative self-talk is a thought pattern wherein a person repeatedly engages in thinking negative thoughts about themselves,” says Los Angeles–based therapist Natalie Moore, LMFT. “It often manifests as an inner critic or inner dialogue that always has a comment or judgment to share.”
For example, say you mispronounce a word while giving a presentation at work. Moore says your negative self-talk in the moment might go something like this: “Wow, you really screwed that up. Now no one will take you seriously.”
If you were to flip this moment to positive self-talk—or even neutral self-talk—you might think instead: “It’s fine. Keep going. Everyone makes mistakes, and I bet no one even noticed anyway.”
“Negative self-talk sounds like a bully, pointing out your flaws and mistakes,” Moore says. “It tends to speak in absolutes, such as, ‘you always mess up,’ or ‘you can never get through a meeting without embarrassing yourself.’”
Where Does This Negative Habit Come From?
According to Moore, negative self-talk predominantly comes from your upbringing and prevailing messages you heard about your talents, ability, and worthiness. “If you had a parent, a teacher, or a coach who was particularly hard on you, or even worse, if you were bullied or abused, you could have internalized these negative statements,” she explains.
Another common source behind the habit of engaging in negative self-talk is witnessing, or having witnessed, other people around you put themselves down. “You could have also learned negative self-talk implicitly through modeling,” Moore says. “Maybe you saw a parent or authority figure beat themselves up for making a simple mistake like dropping the milk carton or getting a parking ticket. These subtle messages can get ingrained in your psyche as well.”
Why We Engage in Negative Self-Talk
Negative self-talk may seem like a nuisance to you today, but remember it developed as a habit for a reason, Moore explains. She says that the brain has a natural negativity bias for survival purposes.
“Humans naturally notice and remember negative experiences at a higher ratio than the positive ones because it helps us avoid sources of danger,” Moore says.
In other words, the negative self-talk is a part of you that’s trying to protect you.
“The negative self-talk is trying its very best to help you avoid modern-day threats, like getting dumped or getting fired,” Moore says. “The problem here is that negative self-talk is much like an alarm—it’s helpful in notifying you of a threat, but it’s useless in helping you disarm the threat.”
Moore adds that it can often have a detrimental effect. “Instead of helping you get through your work presentation without making a mistake, it can make you hyper-fixate on the mistake you made, elevating your anxiety, and making you more likely to make another mistake.”
What Are the Impacts of Unchecked Negative Self-Talk?
Moore says that letting chronic negative self-talk run haywire day after day, without doing anything about it, can lead to many different psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, relationship issues, and work burnout.
“It can make it more difficult to take the steps and risks needed to gain mastery over one’s goals,” she notes. So even though it’s a protective mechanism, it can actually keep you trapped in a cycle of negativity, low confidence, and avoiding challenges and changes you are definitely ready for and worthy of.
Strategies to Stop Negative Self-Talk
1. Offset it with positive—or just neutral—self-talk.
The opposite of negative self-talk is positive self-talk, of course, and Moore says the best way to counter those pessimistic thoughts is with positive and/or neutral statements about yourself. When you notice a self-deprecating thought, acknowledge it, and then try to note something positive or simply neutral to balance it out. “Find opportunities throughout your day to notice one or two things you’ve done well,” she says. “You can even give yourself a physical pat on the back.”
2. Try self-compassion.
Remember that a bad moment doesn’t mean you’re doomed to have a bad day; and a bad day isn't indicative of a bad life. “Sometimes, you’re just going to have a bad day,” Moore says. “You can’t always hold yourself to the standard you normally do. Take a moment and put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest and say, ‘this is a tough moment. I’m here for you. It’s all going to work out.’”
3. Acknowledge the critic and speak back to it with kindness.
Although it seems counterintuitive, sometimes, you need to look that inner critic right in the eye and be kind to it.
“When you hear the critical voice, try speaking to it with kindness,” Moore says. “You can say out loud or mentally, ‘Hey, inner critic. I know you’re here to help. I’m very aware of the mistake I made, and I’m already taking action to rectify it. Thanks for your input.’”
You might even express gratitude for it, saying, "Thank you for trying to protect me. I know your intentions are good, but this is no longer serving me, and I'm going to do things differently this time. I can take it from here."
4. Practice mindfulness.
Moore says that when negative thoughts get loud and overwhelming, bring awareness to your body and the five senses in order to get out of your head and feel grounded in the present moment.
“Feel your feet pressing down into the floor,” she suggests. “Notice the temperature of the air on your skin. Sense the breath coming in and out. Being conscious of body sensations in the moment can give you a nice break from the negative thoughts.”
5. Implement a self-care routine that serves you.
Self-care has had a lot of buzz in recent years, and for good reason. As Moore says, a solid self-care routine can go a long way to help break up the negative self-talk pattern. When you treat yourself with care and kindness, you're acting as if you already love yourself unconditionally.
“This sends a strong message to your subconscious mind that you are worthy of love and appreciation,” Moore says. “And your thoughts will begin to reflect that over time.”
6. Reach out to supportive people.
Moore says that sometimes, we need a little help from the outside until we’re ready to practice positive thinking. “Surround yourself with family, friends, colleagues, or a partner who see the good in you and regularly point out what they love about you," she says. "This can be a helpful bridge as you work toward your own positive self-appraisal.”
7. Work with a licensed mental health professional.
Still struggling to overcome negative self-talk? In this case, Moore advises seeking help from a mental health professional, since therapists are well-versed in helping people begin to see themselves in a more positive light. They'll be able to give you more concrete, science-backed strategies to work on to improve the quality of your self-talk, based on your unique circumstances and needs.
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