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How to Stop Negative Self-Talk

Negative self-talk -- not being good enough -- about our performance, image, and behaviors hurts our self-esteem. Learn how to stop self-destructive inner voice.

by Mary Coussons-Read, Ph.D.

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See if this scenario sounds familiar: My daughter started piano lessons this month, which she's wanted to do for a long time. She loves it, but practice time is fraught with tears and a great deal of self-flagellation on her part. She is, in many ways, so like me -- she is smart and works hard, but expects noting but perfection from herself. When she makes a mistake, she is really sort of mean to herself, and essentially punishes herself for "not being good enough."

As I reviewed our exchanges, I saw a pattern I still struggle with for myself -- negative self-talk that, somehow, I think will "motivate me" to do better rather than compassionate understanding of how difficult some things can be and that it takes a few times to get new things right.

Just like my daughter, I would say things to myself that I would never say to anybody else! I was hurtful and mean to myself for mistakes on the front, specifically, of weight control and diet. I beat myself up in a shameful way that chipped away at my self-esteem. It made no sense at all, and several years ago, I realized I had to change the pattern if I was going to be the person I wanted to be in terms of being healthy, so I started being nicer to myself. This is a battle I still fight and one I am helping my daughter (and of course several clients) to wage.

Here's the current battle plan, that has really helped me and several folks I've worked with shut down that negative "You can't do it -- you screwed up and are bad -- you need to just give it up" voice. I hope these are helpful to you, and remember, we cannot be good to others if we are not good to ourselves!!

Don't get me wrong -- of course it's important to hold yourself to a high standard and expect a lot of yourself, but beating yourself up when things do not go well can really chip away at your self-concept and confidence. The following exercise is one I use and have clients apply when they are feeling beleaguered, defeated, self-critical, or are in the middle of taking risks that result in failures. At such times, if natural to feel like we're not "on our game" but dwelling on the failures or the things that do not go well can be hard on self-esteem.

Recognizing negative self-talk and making choices to not engage in it can be of great help. This is classic "re-framing" of situations to accentuate the possibilities and focus on the positives, even of situations in which things go badly. The common thread in all of these is learning to recognize and redirect your mind away from the negative self-talk into something more constructive, or, at a minimum, to stop the negative input.

Listen to Your Inner Dialogue: Pay attention to what you say to yourself, either out loud or in your mind, and write it down. Journal when you have negative self-talk, making notes of not only what you are thinking and saying to yourself, but when you had the thoughts. This practice does a couple of things -- first, when you start to write stuff like this down, it can be a wake-up call for how mean and unreasonably critical you are doing to yourself, and you may start to soften your tone a bit. Second, writing it down and going back and re-reading it later can have the same effect. When you are no longer mad or embarrassed or upset, the venom you spewed at yourself may seem even more out of line and provide a basis for correction.

Stop Your Thoughts: Once you begin to recognize when you are talking down to yourself, you may want to try though stopping (this is a personal favorite of mine). When you notice yourself saying something negative in your mind, simply make a choice to stop your thought mid-stream by saying "NO" or "STOP" to yourself. Saying this aloud will be more powerful, although it may be embarrassing, but having to say it aloud will make you more aware of how many times you are stopping negative thoughts. If saying it aloud is impossible, writing it down can be helpful as well.

A Little Punishment: Another trick is to wear a rubber band on your wrist that you snap when you notice negative self-talk. It hurts, but is serves as a negative consequence that should help you reduce the negative self-talk and remind you that such talk is damaging to you.

Reframe Negative Statements: When you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk or complaining about something, try to re-frame the situation. Negative statements like "I can't handle this!" or "This is hopeless!" are really damaging because they increase your stress in a given situation and they stop you from searching for solutions. The next time you find yourself thinking this negatively, turn it into a question. Try "How can I handle this?" or "How can this work?" sound better and more hopeful and open up new possibilities?

Make a List: Finally, when you are feeling low and bad about yourself, stop and write down a list of all the things you do well. Focus on successes, large and small, as well as things you are good at. At times like this, try doing these exercises to remind yourself of your skills and abilities. Basically, you are going to make lists of your strengths, abilities and accomplishments, taking the time to think about them and actually write them down. Looking at the list it can make you say "Wow, I really am good!", and remind you that even when the going gets tough, you are still great (although perhaps not perfect).

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Life Coach Dr. Mary Coussons-Read Mary Coussons-Read, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and the founder of Powerful Mind Coaching, LLC. In addition to conducting ongoing research on the effects of stress on health in her role as a professor, Mary is a certified life coach and an experienced executive and academic coach. She has 16 years of experience as a teacher, researcher, leader, and coach, and specializes in working with corporate and personal clients to meet the emotional and behavioral demands of life and career changes. Mary's academic work is concentrated in mind/body health, and she has published over 30 peer-reviewed articles in behavioral and health science. A special focus of her coaching expertise is stress management and effective leadership communication, and her rich background allows Mary to help clients craft positive strategies for increasing professional and corporate effectiveness, and improving performance and work/life balance in the most challenging situations.

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