NEGATIVE SELF-TALK: WHAT TO STOP SAYING TO YOURSELF
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” – John Milton
As human beings, we are as much in dialogue with ourselves as we are with other people — except, in the case of self-talk, thoughts cross our mind like wave after wave crashing against the shore of our beings at a speed that no other kind of communication can match up to. Experts estimate that the mind thinks several thousand thoughts in an hour, though there are varied opinions about the exact amount. This dialogue within ourselves differs from dialogue with others in terms of the extent to which it can affect us. While conversations with other people do have the potential to affect our thoughts, feelings and even behaviors, there are a select few which do and several that don’t. Our own internal dialogue, however, invariably affects our feelings and actions in ways that we often don’t realise.
Although most of us are not always aware of it, we are constantly assessing and reassessing the world around us, and respond to it based on our perceptions which have been shaped by what we’ve been taught, past experiences and even by our genes. This internal voice in our minds that helps us determine our perceptions – the dialogue that we have with ourselves on a regular basis – is what psychologists call ‘self-talk’, and it includes thoughts that we have consciously, as well as our unconscious assumptions or beliefs.
Negative self-talk is the expression of thoughts or feelings which are counter-productive and have the effect of demotivating us. It is caused by a variety of factors including
a) Experiences in the growing up years of the individual that have a large impact on mind conditioning and the thinking process of an individual, and
b) Depressing and traumatic life incidents, and the cognitive distortions they cause in the thinking patterns of an individual.
Some common examples of negative self-talk are:
• “I am not good enough.”
• “It doesn’t matter what I say.”
• “It’s important that everyone likes me.”
• “I can’t do it.”
• “I am unlovable.”
• “I can’t change anything.”
• “I must be perfect to be worthy”
• “Nothing I do will make a difference.”
• “I am a failure.”
Negative self-talk has several adverse effects on health including an increase in stress levels, anxiety and panic attacks, feelings of worry, fear and disappointment, aggression, lower levels of energy, loneliness and depression. Low self-esteem is also a major fallout of negative self-talk, and those with low self-esteem have a tendency to externalise their negative feelings about themselves, causing problems in relationships, work performance, and lead to high risks of alcohol and drug abuse. In fact, research shows that generalised negative thinking can result in high blood pressure even when one is not currently experiencing negative thoughts.
In sum: How we speak to ourselves matters.
Everybody engages in self-talk, but here’s an interesting fact: according to research, up to 95% of all of our thoughts are a repetition of what we said to ourselves the previous day (and the day before that). Out of this, on average 80% are negative thoughts. While this may seem surprising, evolutionarily speaking this makes sense. Attending to negative stimuli in order to detect threat or danger was critical for survival for our cave-dwelling ancestors. As a result, our brains have been wired to attend and respond to negative experiences in a deeper way than it does to positive experiences.
Negative thoughts come in all forms, shapes and sizes, and what makes it difficult to get rid of is that it is deeply personal. Such thoughts do not arise out of thin air ̶ they are in some way connected to past experiences that have made an impact on our minds. These thoughts tend to surface often and get perpetuated by other incidents that support it ̶ rather, support our perspective on it, which in turn affects our experience of the situation.
The good news is that although our brain is naturally predisposed towards focusing on negative thoughts more than positive ones, it is also the most intelligent and adaptable mechanism we possess. We can thus train ourselves to think new and different thoughts.
There are three main aspects to controlling negative thinking:
1. Acknowledge it for what it is. Negative thoughts often go unnoticed because they are so ingrained in our perceptions that we don’t even know we are engaging in it.
First and foremost, it is important for us to become aware when we indulge in negative self-talk, and identify the areas that require modification, whether it is work-related, family-related, related to relationship or any other area.
2. Challenge its validity. Our thoughts are often on auto-pilot mode, which means that we generally don’t stop to question them, but that’s how a great deal of negative self-talk goes by unfiltered. An effective way to test the accuracy of one’s perceptions might be to ask oneself some challenging questions, such as
“Is this perception realistic?”
“What is the evidence for and against my thinking?”
This helps check whether the present view is realistic and reasonable, which in turn helps one discover other ways of viewing the situation.
3. Replace it with healthy positive thoughts. Changing negative self-talk involves putting things into a balanced perspective. Starting off by merely substituting negative statements with positive statements is not necessarily effective unless one can genuinely believe in them. Instead, we can begin by trying to see things in a more balanced perspective, and ask ourselves questions such as
“Is this situation as bad as I am making out to be?”,
“Will this matter in five years’ time?”
the answers to which would give insight into what is really happening.
One could then progress into statements such as,
“I have the power to create change in my life”
“I am enough”
“I am safe”
“All that I seek is already within me”
During your journey to transform negative self-talk into something healthier, bear in mind:
• Thoughts are not facts. Don’t believe everything you think ̶ question your thoughts before you accept their validity.
• Principle of Affinity: Like attracts like. Negative thoughts maintain and reinforce other negative thoughts. Positive thoughts maintain and reinforce other positive thoughts.
• Be mindful. Through mindful awareness, you will be able to observe your thoughts, create a space around them and see them for what they are: passing mental events.
Thoughts are like water in the ocean: sometimes turbulent, sometimes calm, gushing and flowing, fluid and adaptable. It has within it the potential to hold life but can be dangerous if you don’t know your way around the currents.