Talking to yourself is completely normal. But if your inner monologue says unkind things about you, points out your flaws, and tells you that nothing is going to work out, you’ve probably fallen into the habit of negative self-talk. In this guide, you’ll learn strategies for overcoming it.
- What is negative self-talk?
- How to stop negative self-talk
- What causes negative self-talk?
- What are the effects of negative self-talk?
Negative self-talk is an inner monologue that reinforces unhelpful, negative attitudes and beliefs about yourself. It can leave you feeling low, demotivated, or worthless.
- “I’m too stupid to study math.”
- “I’ve lost my car keys again. Why do I always mess up?”
- “The barista messed up my order. Why do people never listen to me?”
Negative self-talk can have a serious impact on your mental health and life in general.
It can help to think of negative self-talk as a bad habit. With persistence, you can stop doing it and learn to speak to yourself more kindly. Here are some techniques to help you deal with your unhelpful thoughts and change the language you use when you talk to yourself.
You can think of your negative inner voice as your “inner critic,”. Learning to challenge it can help you minimize or even stop negative self-talk.
The first step to challenging the critic is to recognize it. The next time you talk to yourself in a way that makes you feel bad, ask yourself, “Is this my inner critic talking?”
If you aren’t sure, watch for these signs that may suggest your inner critic has appeared:
- It uses dramatic, all-or-nothing language, such as “Always” and “Never”
- It uses lots of judgmental language such as “Should” or “Ought to”
- It sounds like a person who criticized you in the past, like a bully, unpleasant boss, or critical parent; for example, it might use similar words or phrases
- It is good at leaping to conclusions on the basis of no or very little evidence
- It doesn’t offer solutions; it’s only good at putting you down
It can be helpful to note down your negative self-talk, for example, in a journal or by making notes on your phone, along with how it makes you feel. Writing your thoughts down can make it easier to identify and challenge them.
This strategy can make it easier to spot, and detach yourself from, unhelpful thoughts such as negative self-talk. Some people like to pick a nickname that makes their inner critic seem less scary or credible. The next time you hear your critic start talking, try saying, “Oh, there [nickname] goes again, talking nonsense as usual.”
Once you’ve identified your inner critic, you can challenge it. By asking a few questions, you may be able to spot the flaws in your critic’s logic. This exercise can make your negative self-talk feel less convincing.
It can help to ask yourself these questions:
- Is my inner critic jumping to a conclusion quickly and making a negative statement without weighing up the evidence?
- Is my inner critic just repeating what other people have said to me in the past?
- What evidence is there that my inner critic is wrong?
- Is my inner critic taking everything too personally?
- Your inner critic says, “I’ll never learn how to drive. I’m just no good at it!” In fact, you’ve mastered lots of other skills previously, and your instructor has said you are making progress, so this comment goes against the available evidence.
- Your inner critic says, “My friend hasn’t texted me, and it’s been six hours since I sent her a message. She’s sick of me and doesn’t like me anymore. I can never keep friends. I hate myself.” The reality is that your friend is very busy or stressed out, and your inner critic is taking the situation too personally.
Remember that not every thought is true. A thought can be extremely compelling and trigger strong emotions, but that doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
You may notice that your inner critic makes a lot of thinking errors. In the field of psychology, these mistakes are called “cognitive distortions.”
If you become familiar with common cognitive distortions, it can be easier to understand and minimize your negative self-talk. It can feel empowering to know exactly what your inner critic is doing, and it can be reassuring to know that many other people have the same problem.
Here are 4 common types of cognitive distortions:
1. Personalizing: Taking every setback or difficult situation personally.
Example: “It’s terrible that my partner failed his driving test. If I’d insisted on taking him out to practice more on the weekends instead of going into work, he would have passed.”
2. Filtering: Focusing on unpleasant or difficult aspects of a situation and ignoring everything else.
Example: You get four A grades and one C on your exams, and all you can think about is the C.
3. Catastrophizing: Immediately leaping to the worst-case scenario when something goes wrong.
Example: After making a minor mistake, you think, “Great, now my boss will know I’m totally useless. I’ll lose my job, I won’t be able to pay my rent, and then I’ll be homeless.”
4. Polarizing: Seeing things in all-or-nothing terms. Everything is either “good” or “bad.” Example: You get well with your sister. But one evening, she forgets to call as promised. You think, “She hates me! She doesn’t care. She never did.”
To learn more about cognitive distortions, check out this list from PsychCentral.
After identifying your inner critic and its faulty thinking patterns, the next step is to replace your harsh self-talk with thoughts that are balanced, realistic, and compassionate. This technique is used in talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
You don’t have to pretend that everything is great, deny your real feelings, or convince yourself that you are always happy. Your goal is to acknowledge the reality of your situation without needlessly putting yourself down or making unhelpful, sweeping generalizations.
Negative self-talk: “I’ve burned the cakes for the party. Everyone will be so disappointed. I can’t do anything right!”
Realistic, positive self-talk: “This is an example of catastrophizing. It’s a shame that the cakes didn’t work out. The guests might be a little disappointed, but it’s not really a big deal. I’ve made some other nice snacks for the party, and I can always pick up some cake from the store.”
It can also help to reword your negative self-talk by using neutral, non-judgmental language.
- “I hate my legs. They are too short and chunky” could become “I’d prefer to have longer, slimmer legs.”
- “I’m so lazy. I never seem to get all my chores done” could become “I would like to be more productive and have a cleaner home.”
Keep your expectations realistic. These techniques may seem simple, but reframing your thoughts requires practice and reflection before it becomes automatic. It’s also important to know that you won’t be able to get rid of negative self-talk completely; even positive thinkers put themselves down occasionally.
You don’t have to engage with your inner critic every time it speaks, but try to make a habit of challenging it.
Many people naturally speak kindly to their friends yet show themselves very little compassion. If you can get into the habit of pretending that you are your own best friend, it might become easier to work through your negative self-talk.
The next time you use negative self-talk, pause for a moment and ask yourself, “Would I ever say this to a friend?” If the answer is “No,” ask yourself, “What would be a more compassionate, useful thing to say?”
For example, imagine you apply for a job you really want. Unfortunately, the interview didn’t go very well. If you’re prone to negative self-talk, you might say to yourself, “Well, you won’t get a job now! You’ve always been rubbish at interviews. You’ll never have the career you want. You’re useless.”
But if your friend were in the same situation, you wouldn’t be so unkind. Instead, you’d remind your friend that they are a capable person who can cope with setbacks. You’d probably say something like, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Interviews are difficult. I know it’s frustrating. Have you found any other jobs to apply for?”
Mindfulness can help you take a more compassionate, non-judgmental attitude towards yourself which could, in turn, help you overcome negative self-talk.
Research has found a link between gratitude and self-compassion. Cultivating gratitude could help you feel more kindly towards yourself and reduce your negative self-talk.
At the end of each day, try to name at least 3 things you are grateful for. According to one study, writing a daily gratitude list can significantly increase your overall happiness and reduce negativity within a fortnight.
Putting events in perspective can defuse negative self-talk. When you start beating yourself up for making a mistake, pause and ask yourself, “Will this even matter a day/week/month/year from now? Is my reaction to this situation out of proportion?”
For example, let’s say you accidentally call a coworker by your best friend’s name when you’re chatting at lunch. You think, “How could I have done that?! This is so embarrassing!” In this kind of scenario, it can help to remind yourself that most people don’t care so much about your mistakes, and they’ll probably forget within a few hours.
Your inner critic probably makes a lot of logical errors that might sound ridiculous when you articulate them. Some people find that speaking in a silly voice makes their self-critical thoughts feel less threatening.
If you have tried to change your self-talk and challenge your inner critic but feel as though you aren’t making much progress, consider seeing a therapist. Negative self-talk can be a symptom of a mental health problem such as depression that requires treatment.
We recommend BetterHelp for online therapy, since they offer unlimited messaging and a weekly session, and is much cheaper than going to an actual therapist's office. They are also cheaper than Talkspace for what you get. You can learn more about BetterHelp here.
Negative self-talk can be caused by:
- Unrealistic expectations. For example, if you hold yourself to unrealistic standards about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do, you will inevitably fall short, which can trigger negative self-talk.
- Your upbringing. For example, if your parents were critical and negative, you may have copied their behavior as a child. If someone has criticized you in the past, you may have internalized their opinions. Your inner monologue may even resemble their voice.
- Mental health problems. Negative self-talk is associated with various mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.
- Genetic factors. Some psychological research suggests that due to genetic differences, some people are naturally inclined toward negative rather than positive thinking. These differences may influence someone’s susceptibility to negative self-talk. However, it’s important to note that genes aren’t destiny. You can choose to work on eliminating negative self-talk.
Negative self-talk has toxic effects; it can damage your mental health, relationships, and job prospects.
Specifically, it can cause or worsen:
- Anxiety. It’s difficult to feel relaxed when you have a critical voice in your head, and negative self-talk can feed into your fears. For example, it might convince you that you aren’t capable of doing your job, which can make you feel stressed.
- Procrastination. If you are frequently self-critical, you might delay starting tasks in case you mess them up.
- Reduced resilience in times of stress. If you can’t encourage and support yourself through difficult times, stressful situations may feel overwhelming.
- Relationship issues. For example, if you constantly look for reassurance from other people, this may put a strain on your relationships.
- Limited thinking. If you are focused on what you can’t do, you might miss valuable opportunities at work and in your personal life.
- Depression. Beating yourself up, rumination, refusing to acknowledge your positive traits, and frequent self-criticism are classic signs of depression.
- Chronic low self-confidence. If you repeatedly tell yourself that you can’t do things or that you will always fail, it can be hard to feel confident in your abilities.