I’ll never forget one of the first training sessions I went through for my brand-new, fresh-out-of-college management consulting job. We were sitting in a small room of about 20 new consultants, and the person conducting the training passed out a list of “negative voices” we might have heard in our heads. We were instructed to circle all of the ones that sounded familiar to us. He asked, “OK, who has 3 circled?” and all those who had 3 or more raised their hands (which, in hindsight, is a terribly isolating and uncomfortable strategy, but oh well). This continued … “who has 4? Who has 5?” I don’t remember the exact number, but let’s say everyone else’s hand was down by about 6, and mine went on until 18. It was very dramatic!
That was honestly the first time I realized that the voice in my head can be extremely negative if I’m not cautious about controlling it. That experience started my lifelong journey to be kinder to myself, and to learn how to change my “comfortable” negative self-talk into something that might not be as natural, but ultimately feels a lot better. I’ll be honest … it’s a journey that’s ongoing, and while I have improved so dramatically, there is still room to get even better. But it’s been so much fun to work on it and see how my entire outlook on life has gotten more positive with each year! If you experience negative self-talk, I hope these tips help you, too.
What is negative self-talk?
A rare few of you are thinking, “negative voice in your head? I don’t get it! I always think I’m amazing!” Unfortunately, though, most of us have self-critical thoughts, like “I’m the worst procrastinator… I’ll never get this done in time,” “(S)he’s probably thinking that these pants are so last season,” or “Ugh … my stomach looks so round in this top!” The funny thing is, that when we’re observing other people, it’s natural to call out the positives (“wow! Look at her beautiful hair!”), but when we’re thinking about ourselves, many of us call out the negatives.
There are a lot of psychological theories on why negative self-talk exists. Some think it’s a protective mechanism (“if I think this negative thought about myself first, I’m padding the blow so it won’t hurt as badly if someone else says that to me”), and others think it stems from thousands of years ago, when latching onto negative thoughts helped our survival (“there’s a pretty flower, but there’s also a lion wanting to eat me! Ah! I’ll focus on the lion and run away!”).
Regardless of the reason, it does exist for most of us, and it’s not only annoying, but also seriously detrimental. If you let your instinctive negative self-talk shape your vision of yourself, you’ll be less confident, less likely to take risks that could help you achieve your goals, and less fun to be around (for yourself and for others). So let’s work on changing it!
How to change your self-talk
(If you’ve been a one-to-one client of mine, there’s a great chance I’ve held you accountable to many of these strategies! Consider this a reminder to recommit to them!)
As I mentioned, changing your self-talk is a journey that can take months, or even years. But here are a few steps you can work on immediately to start changing your own self-talk.
- Become aware of your self-talk. Many of us have become so accustomed to having our negative voice chime in every hour of the day, that we hardly even notice it anymore. When I ask most clients when their negative voice speaks loudest, they generally find it hard to answer, but they know it’s there. Simply recognizing when negative self-talk occurs is a huge first step in the journey to overcome it. I recommend doing this exercise for an entire day: take out a post-it note and put a tally on it every time you have self-doubt or “hear” a self-critical thought. You may be surprised to find how hard it is to catch yourself in the act, and surprised to see how often the voice pops up!
- Recognize that your negative self-talk is judgmental and, often, false. Most of the things we self-criticize are biased, judgmental, and often false. Is your negative voice dramatic? She probably says something like “you’re the dumbest person in the world,” which is simply untrue. Is your negative voice harsh? Would you say the same thing to a best friend or daughter? If not, why would you speak that way to yourself? It can help to “dive in” and really explore what you’re saying. Are you truly the dumbest person in the world, and will everyone truly be looking at the way your top hugs your muffin top? Very, very likely, the answer is no.
- Name the negative voice in your head. Again, we’re working on becoming hyper-aware of the negative voice, but now we’re also disassociating that voice with our true selves. Our deepest self is full of self-love, but negativity, societal norms, and comparison get in the way. It might sound a little wacky, but I’ve had great success with clients giving a name to their negative voice, and calling out the name every time a negative thought pops up. For example, “oh, Gertrude, go away!” or “Shut up, Beatrice!” What name could you assign to your negative voice? Try calling her out every time she speaks, for an entire week, and remember, it’s not you talking, it’s her!
- Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. For at least one whole day, I challenge you to take the exercise in Step #1 one step further. For each time you say something negative to yourself, your challenge is to say something positive in reverse. The psychological theory behind this is that we believe what we repeatedly hear, and if the balance of what we hear is negative, we’ll start to think more poorly of ourselves. But if we balance the negative with positives, our self-confidence can start to rise again. So as soon as you say “ugh, your thighs are so huge they almost don’t fit in your pants,” say right back, “dang, girl, your work at the gym is really making you strong and fierce!” or “you’re having an amazing hair day!” Even if you have to “fake it till you make it,” keep trying. It will pay off!
- Practice intentional positive self-talk. One of my most common exercises with clients is to have them intentionally say one positive thing in mirror each morning, ideally out loud, and ideally while making eye contact with themselves. This is incredibly hard for many people to do, but is so important. By intentionally saying one positive thing per day, we’re retraining our brains to generate positive thoughts as well.
- Incorporate affirmations into your morning routine. I highly recommend saying affirmations as a way to bolster your positive self-talk. For more on how to write affirmations, see this blog post.
- Work with a coach or therapist. I love working on positive self-talk with clients and have helped hundreds of clients with their self-talk. It’s so rewarding for me, because I can see such a dramatic change in their overall outlook on life with such a seemingly simple change. For more on working with me, start here. And if I’m not the right fit, find a coach, a therapist, or another trusted advisor that can coach you to better self-talk. You deserve it!
Now it’s your turn … Do you think you have negative self-talk? What is a strategy you use to reverse it?