Written by therapist Amanda Brandimore
Imagine you are running late for work. You slept through your alarm, meaning you didn’t have time to shower or brush your teeth. You had just enough time to throw on some professional clothes, grab a granola bar, and rush out the door. You’re not so rushed that you throw all caution to the wind and leave the door wide open for burglars to wander in. But in your haste to get going, you don’t realize you forgot your car keys on the kitchen counter until you’ve locked the door behind you. If you’re like me, your first thought might not be the kindest. “What an idiot! How could I have been so careless? I should have made sure I had my keys before locking the door,” or maybe, “If I weren’t so irresponsible, I wouldn’t have stayed up so late last night, which means I wouldn’t have overslept my alarm, and I wouldn’t be in this mess at all. What is wrong with me?”
Positive vs negative self talk
We all have an internal dialogue, ways we talk to ourselves about what we think or feel or about what’s going on around us. Sometimes we may not even notice it, but that dialogue between those inner voices can stand out to us when facing a tough decision or mixed emotions. One part of us might feel one way, but another part of us might feel differently, and they duke it out inside our heads. Many of us generally have a pretty positive dialogue with ourselves in which we are able to be kind, compassionate, and respectful to ourselves. This is called positive self-talk.
Some of us aren’t as able to tap into that self-love and tend to talk to ourselves in a condescending or critical tone. This we call negative self-talk. Whether you’re more prone to positive self-talk or never have a kind word for yourself, everyone is more susceptible to negative self-talk when stressed or overwhelmed. In the scenario I had you imagine, you were in a heightened state of stress, running late for work, and made even later by a small mistake that you made. That part of you that wants to be professional, wants to be on time, wants to avoid a reprimand at work, feels out of control, and doesn’t know how to handle the level of anxiety it’s now experiencing. Enter another voice, your protector, who doesn’t like how helpless your vulnerable part feels, and they’ll do anything to fix it. Often, the only way a protector can think to fix it is to criticize that vulnerable part and shame it so that it will remember how bad it feels and avoid that mistake or situation in the future.
Increasing positive self talk
The problem is, as good as that protector’s motives are, they don’t know that shaming their vulnerable part will only end up making them feel more overwhelmed and less capable in the future. When we only hear negative things about ourselves, we believe negative things about ourselves. But when we are met with compassion and understanding, we can begin to believe good things about ourselves. So, if, like me, you don’t like how critical you can be with yourself, you might be wondering, what do I do to fix it? Here are a few tips for increasing your positive self-talk.
The first step to changing any habit or behavior is to notice. Become more aware of your internal dialogue. What are you saying to yourself? How often are you saying it? What types of situations bring out the critical voice?
Once you get better at catching yourself in your negative self-talk, you are more able to name what is happening in the moment. Acknowledge the different voices at play. What are they feeling? What are they trying to accomplish? What might they need to hear to feel calmer?
Reframe your thinking
The trouble with negative self-talk is that it seems like the truth in the moment, but it actually isn’t the most accurate way of seeing things. When that protector feels threatened and needs to fix the problem, its ability to process varied and nuanced information is lessened. It ends up only being able to process the information that supports how it feels, which is that you are a loser who can’t get anything right. It’s almost like you have a mental filter that only lets in the evidence that proves you’re a loser: you stayed up too late, you overslept, you locked your keys inside. But what doesn’t get through that filter are all of the other mornings that you successfully woke up on time, grabbed your keys on your way out, and arrived on time to work. So once you have noticed and acknowledged the negative self-talk, it is important to update that thinking to include all of the data, not just the negative stuff. In other words, we need to replace our negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Instead of, “I’m such an idiot. How could I be so careless?” I might say, “Wow, I feel so annoyed with myself that I locked my keys in the house. It wasn’t my brightest moment, but everybody makes mistakes.”
All good things take time
Sometimes, when we are so used to thinking negatively about ourselves, it can be hard at first to come up with more positive self-talk. That’s ok and to be expected! You can’t be instantly good at a skill you’ve never practiced. Try this: imagine your best friend, or your sibling, or somebody you care about was in your situation and was feeling pretty crappy about themselves. What would you say to encourage them?
Following these steps is not easy, and it is not a quick fix. Words are formative, and it takes time to form new habits and ways of thinking. But the more you practice, the easier it will become, and before long, you’ll notice the critical voice doesn’t come as strongly or as often. And as that happens, you’ll be rewiring your brain. Treating yourself with compassion and kindness sends yourself the message that you are worthwhile, capable, and lovable. You deserve to be treated with respect.
If you feel like you could use some help with this process, or if your negative self-talk feels particularly resistant to change, therapy might be a good fit for you. Reach out to the front desk if you haven’t yet found a therapist. We would love to walk with you on this journey!