🎯 What Is Negative Self-Talk?
Negative self-talk is a type of thinking that takes the form of unhelpful or overly-negative speech. While it can be verbalized out-loud into external speech, most negative self-talk is silent and internal. When negative self-talk becomes habitual and chronic, it is a major source of low moods, emotional pain, and a key driver of many limiting beliefs.
👀 Examples of Negative Self-Talk
- Self-Doubt. Self-doubt is the habit of constantly doubting or questioning your decisions, abilities, or worth: I’m just not smart enough to compete with these guys. or I’m too much of a worrier to ever find a healthy relationship.
- Catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is an extreme form of worry that involves constantly predicting the worst-case scenario: That was a disaster… I’ll never get that promotion now. or I don’t like any of the people at your company… This party is going to be awful.
- Self-Criticism. Self-criticism is a form of negative self-talk characterized by frequent and extreme negative judgments of oneself: I’m a terrible person for thinking like that. or I’m always so lazy… No wonder I never finish anything!
- Rumination. Rumination is a form of negative self-talk that involves unhelpfully dwelling on past mistakes or injustices: I never should have made that comment during the meeting… Now everyone’s gonna think I’m an idiot. or She’s hated me ever since we were kids… Why does she always have to be so mean to me? It’s not fair!
😬 Problems Associated with Negative Self-Talk
- Low Self-Esteem. When you’re in the habit of telling yourself that you’re not good enough or worthwhile, eventually you start to believe it.
- Depression. Frequent negative self-talk, especially rumination and self-criticism, can initiate, maintain, and exacerbate symptoms of depression like low moods, hopelessness, and isolation.
- Anxiety. If you’re constantly talking to yourself about negative outcomes in the future, you will constantly feel like negative things are about to happen. In other words, chronic worry leads to chronic anxiety.
- Procrastination. Much of the fear and emotional discomfort that drives procrastination and avoidance begins with negative self-talk about yourself and your ability to get things done.
🌀 Origins and Causes of Negative Self-Talk
- Early Modeling. Often the habit of negative self-talk begins as children when we imitate negative self-talk that we hear verbalized by our parents or primary caregivers.
- Trauma Coping. Negative self-talk can also begin as a coping mechanism for managing a traumatic event and its aftereffects. For example, catastrophizing can be a way to feel more in control after a traumatic experience where you felt helpless.
- The Illusion of Productivity. Because self-criticism and other types of “tough” self-talk are associated with hard work and achievement, we can mistakenly “learn” that negative self-talk is at least partially responsible for our success or productivity.
- Habit. Whatever its origins, negative self-talk can be maintained and even strengthened through sheer force of habit—the more you do something the easier it becomes in the future.
- Illusion of Control. Many forms of negative self-talk, especially worry and catastrophizing, are maintained because they give a brief feeling of control.
- Secondary Gain. Secondary gain means your negative self-talk provides some secondary benefit that reinforces it. For example, maybe when you engage in negative self-talk out loud, other people tend to offer you support and compassion.
💡 Key Insights About Negative Self-Talk
- Most difficult moods and emotions are caused by the habit of negative self-talk. Thoughts cause emotions. And negative self-talk is one of the biggest causes of unnecessarily painful or long-lasting emotions. If you feel anxious all the time, it’s because you’re worrying all the time. If you feel angry all the time, it’s because you’re ruminating all the time. If you want to change how you feel, start by looking carefully at how you think and talk to yourself.
- It’s important to distinguish automatic vs deliberate negative self-talk. Sometimes thoughts simply pop into our minds—these are called automatic thoughts, and because you don’t have control over them, you shouldn’t hold yourself accountable for them or try to influence them. But many thoughts are things we initiate—these are called deliberate thoughts and they are under your control. For example: A worry pops into mind and is not something you can control. But worrying means elaborating on an initial worry and is something you can control.
- The problem with negative self-talk is that it’s unhelpful, not that it’s negative. Negative thinking is not necessarily bad, and in fact, it’s often good and helpful to think in a negative way—much of problem-solving and planning, for example, involves negative thinking. Negative self-talk is problematic because it tends to be both irrational and ultimately unhelpful.
- The existence of a thought doesn’t make its content true. Don’t take your own thoughts too seriously. Just like comments from other people, feel free to accept and think more about the ones that are helpful and disregard the ones that are not.
- Just because your mind talks doesn’t mean you have to talk back. Our minds chatter constantly. But you’re under no obligation to engage with your thoughts. Not every thought needs to be a conversation.
🛠️ Tips and Tools for Dealing with Negative Self-Talk
- Name your negative self-talk. When you name and personify your negative self-talk, it helps to create distance between you and your thoughts, which then makes it easier to respond to them in a helpful way (like letting them go instead of elaborating on them). So when you find yourself caught in a pattern of self-doubt, you might say something like: Oh look, there’s Doubting Debby again… It feels silly but it really can be quite effective.
- Identify the function of your negative self-talk. If you consistently find yourself engaging in a particular kind of negative self-talk, it’s probably addressing some inner need. And if you can address that need in a healthier way, you can put the negative self-talk out of a job. For example: Maybe your catastrophizing is addressing your need for control; if you replaced the habit of catastrophizing with doing something simple but genuinely productive (answering customer emails, for example) that might lead to enough of a sense of control that you need the catastrophizing less and less.
- Validate your negative self-talk. Instead of immediately trying to get rid of or disprove your negative self-talk, try validating it instead. For example: If you find yourself overthinking an upcoming decision, instead of criticizing yourself for self-doubt, try validating it by saying something like… Okay, this self-doubt isn’t helpful, but it makes sense that I would be doubting myself here a little because it’s a new area I’m not used to making decisions about.
- Cognitive Restructuring. If your negative self-talk tends to be highly irrational or extreme in nature, try gently rephrasing your negative self-talk into a more balanced or realistic version. For example: Instead of I’m such a screw-up! try I did screw that up, but I’m not a screw up. Or, instead of I’ll never find someone who loves me try I’m worried that I’ll never find someone who loves me. Remember, the point of cognitive restructuring isn’t to be more positive; the goal is to be more accurate and balanced.
- Mindfulness Training. Mindfulness training helps you to be more aware of your negative self-talk and to detach from it and let it go instead of elaborating and dwelling on it, and as a result, strengthening it and its negative effects.
- Change your inner tone of voice. Just like how other people say things can impact us just as much as what they say, so too with our own self-talk… If you find that your inner tone of voice tends to be harsh, mean, or maybe condescending, consider leaving the content alone but just say it to yourself in a gentler tone.
💬 Quotes About Negative Self-Talk
- Words matter. And the words that matter most are the ones you say to yourself. — David Taylor-Klaus
- The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts. — Marcus Aurelius
- Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that—thoughts. — Allan Lokos
- For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. — William Shakespeare
- Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them. — Eckhart Tolle
🔬 Selected Research on Negative Self-Talk
- Self-Talk as a Regulatory Mechanism: How You Do It Matters. “Small shifts in the language people use to refer to the self during introspection consequentially influence their ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress, even for vulnerable individuals.”
- The Efficacy of Metacognitive Therapy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. A meta-analysis showing that metacognitive therapy, which addresses negative self-talk as a core focus, is highly effective across a range of disorders, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It also showed that metacognitive therapy might be superior to cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and comparable for anxiety disorders.
- Positive self-statements: power for some, peril for others. Interestingly, this study found that positive self-statements can actually have a negative impact on individuals with low self-esteem, suggesting that negative self-talk cannot be simply addressed by replacing it with positive affirmations.
- The Self-Talk Scale: Development, Factor Analysis, and Validation. Among other things, this study found that “people who report higher levels of social assessing and critical self-talk also report lower self-esteem and more frequent automatic negative self-statements.”
📚 Recommended Reading for Negative Self-Talk
- Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith (Book). Good overview of how insights and techniques from acceptance and commitment therapy can help with negative self-talk.
- The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Paterson (Book). While the book is explicitly about external communication, Paterson’s model of assertive communication is an excellent model for how to train healthier self-talk internally.
- Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross (Book)