Why Negative Self-talk is so Damaging (and how to change it!)

Negative Self-talk

If you’ve ever made a mistake and then ruminated on it for days, you already know what negative self-talk is. It is known to most of us, and yet it can be incredibly damaging to our ability to advance in life. It can feel like we don’t know how to control it, stop it or overcome it. Fortunately, awareness of it is the first step towards knowing how to stop negative self-talk. For more information, examples and effects of negative self-talk, as well as how to stop it, keep reading.

What Is Negative Self-Talk?

I will never be good enough. I’m not smart enough, skinny enough, confident enough. I’m an idiot, people don’t like me, nobody cares about what I think, I will never amount to anything at all.

Sound familiar?

You are not alone.

Negative self-talk is a complex, habitual mental behavior that can evolve over time from a realistic appraisal of a situation to a spiraling, irrational and fear-induced paranoia. In a nutshell, negative self-talk is understood as any internal monologue you have with yourself that discourages you from believing in yourself or trying to reach your potential.

We are all in constant communication with at least one person all day long: ourselves. Psychologists call this “self-talk,” or our internal monologue. Additionally, we all doubt, fear, worry and stress. These are normal human emotions and experiences that can have reasonable explanations. When our internal monologue transforms from reasonable concerns to a constant barrage of degrading comments, you stunt your emotional and mental growth and, instead, fuel a self-destructive mindset that keeps you from being at peace with yourself.

A little self-criticism can be a good thing: we all need a reality check from time to time, to remind ourselves to be humble and to try and do better the next time. However, there is a difference between, “I did not pass this test; I should study my mistakes and try to improve,” and “I did not pass this test; I am a failure, why did I even bother? I’ll probably never be good at anything.” The first is a realistic account of an unfortunate life event, while the second is your inner critic belittling yourself and diminishing your drive or ability to improve.

To know how to stop negative self-talk, it can be helpful to identify negative self-talk examples, features and effects.

Negative Self-Talk Examples

There are many facets of negative self-talk and interacting mental behaviors. Though the following list of negative self-talk examples is not exhaustive, it details its most common features.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is the habit of applying one experience to all other experiences, even in the future. When you overgeneralize, you frequently view any negative experience that happens as an inevitable pattern of mistakes, caused by you.

 

  • After we give a public speech or announcement: “That speech was awful, which figures: I am terrible at public speaking. I always make mistakes when public speaking and I will never be good at it no matter what I do.”

 

“Should” Statements & Comparison

“Should” statements are understood as a cognitive distortion, or a common negative thinking pattern, that make you feel more hopeless about your situation and diminish your sense of self-esteem. “Should” statements can also often be linked to comparing oneself to others, and the feeling that if they can do it, you should be able to do it, too.

 

  • After missing a question on an exam, we tell ourselves: “I should have known the answer to that question. I’m stupid and terrible at this.”

 

Mind Reading, Assumptions & Irrational Fear

“Minding reading” is understood by psychologists as a failure of the imagination: we try to imagine (or assume) what someone else is thinking, but in a way that only accepts the biased, inaccurate and worst possible scenario.

  • When telling a story to our spouse, significant other or friend, we notice a bored expression on their face and we think: “I must be incredibly boring. He is bored by the story, he wishes I would stop talking. He is mad at me.”

Magnification of our Flaws

Magnification is when we amplify our errors, mistakes or flaws.

  • After we meet someone new and accidentally mispronounce their name, we think to ourselves: “Great. Now I’ve made a horrible first impression and they already don’t like me. Every encounter with them after this is going to be awkward and painful.”

Minimization of our Strengths

Minimization involves being dismissive of our positive qualities and strengths. This keeps us feeling inferior: when we do not allow ourselves to take pride in our accomplishments, we surrender to a self-destructive mindset that is intent on making us feel lesser, or like a failure.

  • After we receive praise at work from our boss, we go home to tell our spouse or significant other. He/she is proud and thinks we did a good job; even still, we say to ourselves, “My spouse would be able to accomplish what I did, it’s not that hard. In fact, he’s doing better than me at his job. Compared to him, I’m failing.”

Effects of Negative Self-Talk

Many of the effects of negative self-talk can also be its cause: what psychologists’ call negative mental habits and cognitive distortions can be a vicious cycle that affect one another. To further complicate the situation, many mental illnesses (or symptoms of, such as negative self-talk) are the result of numerous, interacting genetic and environmental factors that are not always easily identifiable, nor treatable.

A second caveat to keep in mind when understanding the effects of negative self-talk is that it is not an intellectual problem: many people are aware of their own detrimental thinking, which can actually contribute to the problem: “Ugh, what’s wrong with me? Why am I like this? Why can’t I just be normal?” Awareness of negative self-talk is better than unawareness, but it is only the first step towards learning how to overcome negative self-talk.

Depression

Research has shown that prolonged negative self-talk leads to an intensification of feelings of depression. When you limit your thinking (i.e. the only solution is that you have failed because you are a failure), you begin to believe the thought after enough repetition. Your inner critic values punishment over reward, which means that you do not spend enough energy determining how to improve. Rather, you’re stuck on the error, which — if negative self-talk regarding various errors is repeated consistently enough over time — contributes to your larger self-concept about who you are and what you’re capable of.

Anxiety

Negative self-talk can increase feelings of anxiety, and especially social anxiety. Likewise, those who experience social anxiety commonly experience negative self-talk within social situations. Research suggests that those who frequently engage in negative self-talk have higher levels of daily stress. This is largely due to the fact that they’ve created a reality in which they cannot reach any goals they’ve set for themselves, which can contribute to generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety.

Low Self-Esteem

Continuous negative self-talk can contribute to low self-worth, or low self-esteem. Low self-esteem can lead to decreased motivation and increased feelings of helplessness, which is also linked to depression.

Damaged Relationships

Negative self-talk can cause us to lash out at people who are close to us. When we believe others think the worst of us, that we are failures and can’t do anything right, or don’t give ourselves credit where credit is due, it doesn’t take much for a disagreement, fight or even the end of a relationship to occur. Constant self-criticism contributes to increased neediness and insecurity in romantic relationships, which can contribute to other relationship issues, such as poor communication, lack of trust or lack of empathy.

How To Stop Negative Self-Talk

There are many, many online articles regarding negative self-talk and how to change it. The topic is not new, and many people have many different ideas regarding how to overcome negative self-talk. Some claim it’s as easy as just thinking positive or focusing on positive thoughts. If you’re familiar at all with the debilitating effects of negative self-talk, you’ve probably laughed at the notion of positive thinking, and for good reason. Negative self-talk is a habitual mental behavior that most likely will never be completely and entirely eradicated.

And that’s part of the solution.

Give yourself acceptance for its presence, occasionally. And give yourself acceptance for trying and failing.

Really, it’s up to you to figure out what works for you: there is no magical formula to eradicate negative self-talk. However, there are a couple things you can work on to diminish the debilitating effects of negative self-talk.

Awareness & Intention

Negative self-talk can arise from comparisons to others. Do you find you’re constantly viewing yourself in comparison to others’ perceived accomplishments posted on social media?

The first step in knowing how to stop negative self-talk is to be aware of it. Learn to notice when you’re being unrealistically critical of yourself, whether it’s when you’re browsing through Instagram or chit-chatting with coworkers. If you can recognize it, you can challenge it.

The second part of becoming aware of negative self-talk is intentionally engaging in behaviors that don’t encourage it. For instance, consider activities that you don’t believe you are a failure at: do you enjoy running, swimming, dancing, singing, cooking, drawing or playing music? Is there an activity that you do with relative ease or that you have a strong interest in? Understand the things that are going to make you feel good about yourself, and consciously engage in those activities.

Challenge Your Thoughts

  • Test Your Reality: “Do I have evidence that supports this thought? Do I have evidence against it?”
  • Consider the Alternatives: “How can I look at this situation differently?”
  • Put Into Perspective: “Will this matter in five years?”
  • Goal-Oriented Thinking: “How can I solve this problem? What can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

Don’t Expect Perfection & Find Humor

This is a common piece of advice that can be relatively difficult to follow in reality. Perfectionism and the need to meet insanely high standards is common in individuals who’ve experienced depression, anxiety, negative self-talk or low self-esteem issues. If you’re not sure how to stop negative self-talk, try finding humor in your mistakes, errors or imperfections. Embrace the things you did wrong with open arms, laugh at them and allow yourself to be imperfect.

We’re all human, right?

Change The Way You Think About Failure

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous suggestion: if you learn to allow yourself to be imperfect, failure no longer seems as scary, embarrassing or problematic as we can make it out to be. Though it may sound cliché, try to view failure as an opportunity for growth. Failure is an experience you encounter when certain expectations weren’t met, or when you weren’t entirely prepared. It is not an end-all, be-all cessation of progress, but, rather, a reminder to alter your expectations, give room for error and fail better next time.

Though it can feel like an uphill battle trying to determine how to stop negative self-talk, it’s a process that gets easier over time. In sum, it can be helpful to know that negative self-talk is more common than you think and that you are not alone.

This post was written by Kara Roberts, blogger and content writer for Sincerely Silver. We specialize in creating custom made jewelry in sterling silver, gold and rose gold and have been featured in a number of publications, including Glamour. For gift ideas and personalized jewelry creations, check out our blog!