Self-Talk Is Powerful Part 1: Negative Self-Talk


When our mind speaks, we give it all our attention…Even if we’ve heard [it] ten thousand times and all it does is make us miserable, we still readily become fixated by it. Russ Harris

We all have it – a running commentary going on in our heads. It’s like an internal podcast that never ends, calling attention to everything wrong in our lives: our job, our hair, where we live. The weather is too hot; our friends never call. And a litany of other ways that life in general fails us. Russ Harris, in his book The Reality Slap, calls these tales of woe NGEs: Not Good Enough. Everyone has a fistful of their own versions.

Now, I’m not saying that we should just accept things that are less than satisfying and do nothing to improve them. Logically, if we can change something for the better, we should change it. However, there is a world of difference between constructively addressing a lack that can be filled and destructively tearing something or someone down.

Let’s talk about the latter, destructively tearing someone down, specifically ourselves. Negative self-judgments are a particularly damaging kind of NGE where we slap ourselves with censorious labels like fat, stupid, lazy, slow, useless, loser, ugly, unworthy, imposter, and bad (as in bad parent/mate/son/daughter/friend, etc.)

Where negative self-talk comes from

In some cases, negative self-judgments are echoes from our early years. Perhaps you habitually chastise yourself for being stupid when you don’t get something right. Where do those words come from? Whose voice are you hearing? A parent? A relative? A sibling? A teacher? Does your negative self-talk find its roots in what you were frequently told as a child?

Negative self-talk can also be the result of our childhood attempts to make sense of a dysfunctional environment. Lacking the emotional maturity to judge the situation accurately, we may have assumed that we were to blame. Our young minds may have reasoned that if we could only give enough of ourselves to keep everyone happy, we could win the love and attention we craved. If we could just be perfect enough, we could prevent a parent from relapsing into addiction or depression, etc.

Sometimes, self-talk is behaviour that we have learned to imitate. We can soak up negative beliefs, expressions, and viewpoints from family or from our culture. In Australian culture, many things are downplayed or understated. That’s not in itself a bad thing; it underpins our famously laid-back, chilled approach. But there’s a flip side. For example, when asked how we are or how our day is going, a common response will be something like, “not too bad” or “it could be worse.” To the average Aussie, things could always be better, or in other words, they’re not good enough.

How negative self-talk affects us

The negative criticisms we have received and the explanations we concocted when we were young can take root so deeply in us that as adults, we accept it as truth. And we continue to perpetuate that ‘truth’ in our own negative self-talk, stuck in self-defeating cycles of perfectionism and people-pleasing.

Negative self-judgments are deeply debilitating. They strip us of confidence and undermine courage, paralyzing us with fear of failure. We end up playing small so that we don’t rock the boat or draw attention to ourselves. On the other side of the coin, we over-perform in perfectionistic attempts to prove our worthiness. It’s very difficult to live any kind of full, satisfying life, to have any sense of joy and peace, when your mind is bogged down in the mire of NGEs.

A word of compassion

In discussing the origins of negative self-talk, we are not attempting to assign blame or render judgment on others in our history. Indeed, few people deliberately try to hurt their children. The truth is that many parents also suffered bad experiences as children and on becoming parents themselves, could only work with what they had. It is helpful to realize that they did the best they could under the circumstances.

Rather than finding fault, the point of looking for clues in the past is to allow us to move forward. In this case, knowledge is freedom. When we begin to understand that our negative self-judgments are not historical reality, we can loosen their grip on us. When we can see them for what they really are – just patterns of faulty thinking, both ours and others’ – we give ourselves a choice. We can choose to think differently.

Choosing differently

Here are three ways to get you moving in the right direction. Do try them, despite any resistance you might feel.

1. Reparenting

In her book, Boundary Boss, Terri Cole introduces the concept of reparenting. She describes it as the opportunity to become to ourselves the kind of caring, nurturing parent we wished we had. To help you start this process, here is a simple but powerful exercise borrowed from Terri’s book:

Get a picture of yourself as a child and keep it in a spot where you can see it often (such as the wallpaper on your phone). Every time you look at the photo, practice feeling compassion for sweet little you and everything she experienced as a child. Let go of judgment. Beam yourself with pure love. That child is you. She is perfect, and she deserves your love and compassion.

A friend who tried this exercise said she began to understand how she repeats the way her mother treated her. Her mother was never satisfied, never grateful, despite my friend doing all she could to please her mother. “There was never any praise for my efforts,” she told me. “I now realize that I do that to myself. Nothing I do is ever good enough for me and I never give myself any praise. Reparenting is a whole new concept for me, but I know now that I can become the advocate for me that I wished my mother had been.”

2. Drop the Struggle

Some of us have bought very deeply into our negative self-judgments. As far as we are concerned, these self-judgments are the truth and nothing but the truth. Consequently, it is a real challenge to let go of them and choose to think differently.

Rather than arguing with ourselves over the truthfulness of our self-judgments, Russ Harris recommends dropping the struggle altogether. It’s a fruitless exercise. Instead, Harris suggests that we ask ourselves if our self-talk is helpful. Do the things we say to ourselves bring us closer to living the kind of life we truly want?

If you are unsure about what kind of life you want for yourself, read The Making of You: Creating a Personal Mission Statement.

3. Self-compassion

Don’t think for a minute I’m suggesting that addressing long-established, ingrained negative self-talk is simply a matter of recognizing and dumping faulty thought patterns and doing a few psychological exercises. Far from it! It is an arduous process that is likely to bring up all kinds of painful emotions like grief, mourning, anger, and resentment. While the process requires a lot of work, it also requires a lot of self-compassion.

For many of us, self-compassion is a foreign concept. It feels like an admission of weakness, like we are being a wuss and should just suck it up and carry on. Where then do we start? Psychologist Kristin Neff says: “Unlike self-criticism, which asks if you’re good enough, self-compassion asks, ‘What’s good for you?’”

So, what’s good for you right now? 

Here are a few suggestions: 

  • Going for a walk, especially outside in nature 
  • Taking a soothing warm bath
  • Taking a nap or getting more sleep
  • Eating nourishing foods
  • Allowing yourself some “me” time 

Take the time to think about what you need more of and what you need less of.

Self-compassion is a learned skill and, like all new skills, takes time and practice. Cut yourself some slack to just be, to breathe, to slow down. Remember, too, that self-compassion doesn’t necessarily involve big, dramatic actions. It is also the small acts of kindness to yourself that you build into your day, every day.

And finally…

Processing emotional wounds can be painful, at times very painful. Which begs the question, if it’s going to hurt, why even go there? Because on the other side of the pain, there’s healing. The possibility of a rich and satisfying life beckons. It’s worth it. You are worth it!

Recommended watching:  Why we all need to practice emotional first aid by psychologist Guy Winch.

This discussion is Part 1 of a 2-part series on the power of self-talk. See Part 2 to read about the power of positive self-talk.

Picture by ME!



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