The Toxic Effects of Negative Self-Talk

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We all have an inner critic. At times this little voice can actually be helpful and keep us motivated toward goals—like when this critic reminds us that what we’re about to eat isn’t healthy or what we’re about to do may not be wise. However, this little voice can often be more harmful than helpful, particularly when it gets into the realm of excessive negativity. This is known as negative self-talk, and it can really bring us down.

What Is Negative Self-Talk?

Negative self-talk can take many forms. It can sound grounded (“I’m not good at this, so I should avoid attempting it for my own personal safety,” for example) or it can sound downright mean (“I can never do anything right!”). It may take on the feel of being a realistic appraisal of a situation (“I just got a “C” on this test. I guess I’m not good at math.”), only to devolve into a fear-based fantasy (“I’ll probably fail this class and never be able to go to a good college.”).

The Toll of Negative Self-Talk

Negative self-talk can affect us in some pretty damaging ways. Studies have linked negative self-talk with higher levels of stress and lower levels of self-esteem. This can lead to decreased motivation as well as greater feelings of helplessness. This type of critical inner dialogue has even been linked to depression, so it’s definitely something to fix.

  • Limited thinking. You tell yourself you can’t do something, and the more you hear it, the more you believe it.
  • Perfectionism. You begin to really believe that “great” isn’t as good as “perfect,” and that perfection is actually attainable. (In contrast, mere high achievers tend to do better than their perfectionistic counterparts because they generally less stressed and are happy with a job well-done rather than picking it apart and zeroing in on what could have been better.
  • Feelings of depression. Some research has shown that negative self-talk can lead to an exacerbation of feelings of depression. If left unchecked, this could be quite damaging.
  • Relationship challenges. Whether the constant self-criticism makes you seem needy and insecure or you turn your negative self-talk into more general negative habits that bother others, a lack of communication and even a “playful” amount of criticism can take a toll.​

    How to Minimize Negative Self-Talk 

    There are different ways to reduce the self-talk in your daily life.

    Catch Your Critic 
    Learn to notice when you’re being self-critical so you can begin to stop. For example, notice when you say things to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a good friend or a child.

    Remember That Thoughts and Feelings Aren’t Always Reality
    Thinking negative things about yourself may feel like astute observations, but your thoughts and feelings about yourself can definitely not be considered accurate information. Your thoughts can be skewed like everyone else’s, subject to biases and the influence of your moods.

    Give Your Inner Critic a Nickname
    There was once a Saturday Night Live character known as “Debbie Downer.” She would find the negative in any situation. If your inner critic has this dubious skill as well, you can tell yourself, “Debbie Downer is doing her thing again.”

    Contain Your Negativity
    If you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk, it helps to contain the damage that a critical inner voice can cause by only allowing it to criticize certain things in your life, or be negative for only an hour in your day. This puts a limit on how much negativity can come from the situation.

    Change Negativity to Neutrality
    When engaging in negative self-talk, you may be able to catch yourself, but it can sometimes be difficult to force yourself to stop a train of thought in its tracks. It’s often far easier to change the intensity of your language. “I can’t stand this” becomes, “This is challenging.” “I hate…” becomes, “I don’t like…” and even, “I don’t prefer…” When your self-talk uses more gentle language, much of its negative power is muted as well.

    Replace the Bad With Some Good
    This is one of the best routes to combatting negative self-talk: replacing it with something better. Take a negative thought and change it to something encouraging that’s also accurate. Repeat until you find yourself needing to do it less and less often. This works well with most bad habits: replacing unhealthy food with healthy food, for example, and it’s a great way to develop a more positive way of thinking about yourself and about life.

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