We’ve all had down days — the days when we just didn’t feel like we could do anything right, couldn’t catch a break, or really, felt like failures after a big loss.
Failure is a common human experience, and the negativity and harm it can impart on your sense of self worth can happen. Everyone feels like a failure once in a while.
But when you start feeling bad often, though, it can be a red flag. In fact, negative self talk can be a red flag.
Hearing an internal dialogue with yourself that puts you down, devalues you to yourself, or makes things feel hopeless is called negative self talk. On occasion, this harsh form of criticism may be constructive, but when it becomes a pattern and impedes your progress, it’s a problem.
In order to stop negative self talk, you need to know how — much like anything else. Here’s how to stop negative self talk — and keep it from harming your life.
If you’ve ever told yourself that you were destined to fail, you were not good enough to deserve something, or that you lacked the talent to persevere in the face of a challenge, you’ve engaged in negative self talk.
Negative self talk is a negative way of considering the world around you in an internal monologue. Negative self talk reinforces fears, negative beliefs and attitudes. It’s the voice that tells you you can’t, or that you don’t deserve something. It demonstrates itself through recurring patterns of feeling worthless, or demotivated.
In short, it pretty much stinks.
This negative internal monologue is actually just one particular version of what could be labeled as negative thoughts — which can form an intrusive and unwelcome pattern of thinking that people can fall into.
Negative thoughts are characterized by a focus on negative outcomes, and can be defined by a consequence-based filtering of past and potential events.
Negative thinking has wide-reaching implications for your mental health. In fact, negative thoughts — when they become a pattern — can turn into depressed or anxious thinking.
You might, for instance, assume someone has a negative view of you when they’re actually neutral, or perhaps you begin to believe things about yourself that aren’t true. If someone dislikes you, it must be for this or that reason. (And in truth, that someone may not dislike you at all.)
Left unregulated, negative thoughts and ruminations can begin to affect your outlook on life; everything is filtered through the worst possible outcomes, until you’ve lost all motivation and joy.
Negative self talk is really a form of cognitive distortion or emotional reasoning — reasoning done through a filter of emotions rather than logic. Emotional reactions aren’t just unreliable; they can lead you astray, away from the truth — and the life you want.
Over time, this impairment of reality can morph into mood disorders like anxiety and depression; evidence has shown that negative thinking contributes to the onset of adult depression. Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and even obsessive-compulsive disorder have all been linked to negative thinking.
Point being: Negative thinking is training your brain for the worst mental health fate. And you don’t deserve that, no matter what your inner monologue is telling you.
If negative self talk is the debilitating distortion of reality by convincing yourself that you’re worthless or undeserving, then positive self talk is just the opposite.
Positive self talk can take many forms. It’s constructive, motivational, and reinforcing or reassuring. Positive self talk is encouraging rather than discouraging, and there’s evidence to suggest that when utilized in place of negative self talk, it can help athletes focus their attention, call up muscle memory, and reinforce self efficacy as part of a process of creating a state of ideal performance.
That’s pretty powerful, when you think about it: knowing that you can put yourself into a bedridden state or overcome your own limitations, all based on how you talk to yourself about what’s going on.
The benefits of positive self talk can last — much like the side effects of negative self talk. Positive self talk is thought to potentially have a link to immune health, reduced risk of heart disease, lower depression rates, increased life span and better coping skills during traumatic events.
Back to what you came for: How to stop that terrible, negative self talk.
Stopping negative self talk isn’t about winning an argument with yourself — or at least, it isn’t entirely. The difference between controlling that negative inner monologue and letting it control you isn’t a test of strength or willpower; it’s a question of your willingness to question yourself.
You are not the worst — the negative voice is. Understanding this is key. You are not those negative thoughts.
Negative self talk does several things in its cognitive distortions: It magnifies the negatives while hiding the positives, it accepts blame on your behalf, and it anticipates the worst and forces you to see everything as either good or bad, with no middle ground.
Know that these are characteristics of negative self talk — rather than reality.
Understanding how to put a stop to negative self talk, then, is about learning to question those statements. Then you can see them differently.
For example, are you really to blame for that broken glass, or do accidents happen? Does your friend really hate you, or are they busy with a project they mentioned two days ago? Is your partner going to break up with you, or did they just not want to watch the TV show you wanted to binge?
Rather than letting that negative voice beat you up, start taking control of the conversation. Checking in on yourself, learning to laugh things off and identifying the topics and situations in which you’re more vulnerable to negative self talk is about learning to anticipate that voice, so you can call bullshit when you need to.
While we’re all for practicing positive self talk on your own time, if symptoms of depression or anxiety are setting in, it may be time to reach out for help.
Clinical depression is characterized by many of the same feelings that negative self talk can cause, and in an ongoing pattern it can be a sign that the negative self talk has gotten out of hand.
Negative self talk can be part of several types of depression like seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or persistent depressive disorder.
A mental health professional may suggest you treat these symptoms with therapy, medication or both.
One common version is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which have been shown effective and safe in treating anxiety disorder and depression.
If the voice in your head is sounding like one of the worst negative people in your life, and it's starting to increase your stress levels and degrade your happiness, it's time to get help.
Speaking with a mental health professional or healthcare provider about what you're struggling with is the best way to address the problem.
A healthcare provider may suggest therapy, medication or lifestyle changes, and whether you find a couch to sit on or consider online counseling offerings, it's the smartest decision you'll make.
Attending therapy on a regular basis is a great way to have a supportive person in the room as you learn to be that positive influence for yourself.
In the short term, your therapist can help you put a positive spin on the issues that trouble you. In the long term, therapy can help you and your inner monologue design your own positive outlook. That shared vision is what you deserve. Start looking for it today.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.