Negative Self-Talk

Headshot of Abby Langer, RD in a Green shirt and dark background, talking about body checking

Abby is passionate about all aspects of nutrition, from physiology to teaching to cooking. Her approach to nutrition is permissive and relaxed, and she is a true believer in living your best life without dieting. Abby’s counseling and writings focus on body respect and intuitive-style eating. She has written in depth about debunking fad diets and nutrition myths. You can learn more about her here.

We all have what I call our ‘tape’ – things that we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Some of these things may be good: you may tell yourself that you’re a good person; that you’re intelligent, fun, and a good friend.

Where Does Negative Self-Talk Come From? (credit: Abby Langer, RD)

But what happens when your tape is full of negative judgments about yourself? This is what we call, ‘negative self talk.’ You may not even realize what you’re saying when you say it, or how often it happens. You may tell yourself these things silently, in your head, or, out loud.

However it happens, negative self-talk can undermine our happiness and our health goals.

Some experts believe that negative self-talk is our brain’s way of keeping us safe. When ancient humans made mistakes, this sometimes cost them their lives! We evolved to reprimand ourselves after making a mistake, in order to not make that same mistake again, thus maintaining our safety in the world. 

However, because of this evolutionary adaptive response, we now use this mechanism even when we don’t need it.

Enter: Negative Self-Talk.

Kristin Neff, PhD and founder of the Center for Mindful Self Compassion, says that negative self-talk is simply an anxiety response which is triggered by a situation that we deem to be unsafe.

Think about these situations:

You’re walking into a party where you believe you’ll be judged for your size or your outfit. This is a situation that your brain categorizes as ‘unsafe.’ This leads to feelings of fear and anxiety. You tell yourself that you aren’t good enough to be at the party, that everyone else looks better, that your outfit sucks, and that you should just go home.

If you think about the truth factor of these negative thoughts, you’ll most likely understand that they aren’t true at all.

Of course you belong at the party. You’re worthy of being there just like everyone else.

The size of your body doesn’t matter to people. They just want to see YOU.

Negative self-talk is not about intelligence or truth. It’s about things we falsely believe to be true about ourselves. It’s about emotion.

When we tell ourselves something about ourselves day after day, year after year, it becomes our truth…even when in reality, it’s not true at all. 

Even though it may seem innocuous, negative self-talk can have a dire effect on our health and well-being, not to mention our ability to live our best life.

Stress, missed opportunities, anxiety, depression.

In the short-term, negative self-talk may act as a motivator to complete tasks. However, research shows that in the long-term, it is not effective and may actually cause the opposite effect, in particular in terms of weight loss.

How do we stop our negative self-talk?

Getting rid of negative self-talk is a process that takes time. Remember that although the opposite of ‘negative’ is ‘positive,’ we do not have to completely flip our feelings and self-talk into positives every single time. This may be equally as toxic as the negativity, especially when we aren’t convinced of its truth.

Aim for neutrality as a goal with your self-talk. If that neutrality can be worked into positivity, that’s great. If not, being neutral is absolutely acceptable.

Here are some steps you can take to get started…

Identify when you’re doing it: AKA What is your tape saying?

Many of us say horrible, negative things to ourselves for decades, multiple times a day, without even realizing that we’re doing it. 

Try to catch yourself when you say something negative to yourself about yourself. Write the thought down.

For example, let’s say your negative thought is that everyone at the party will laugh at the way you look.

Challenge your negative thought.

Once you have your negative thought written down, challenge it. What proof exists that supports this thought? Write down what you come up with (if anything). 

Using our example, do you really believe that everyone at the party will laugh at the way you look? Do you have any proof that this will happen? 

Would you say this exact thought to a friend or someone who you love? You most likely would not. Why are you saying it to yourself, and how is that making you feel? 

Is this thought helpful?

Reframe the negative thought.

Using self-compassion, how can you reframe the thought so that it’s not negative or hurtful in any way? 

If you heard your friend saying this thought to themselves, what would you tell them?

It may also help to think of what people who care about you would say to you at this time.

Nobody at the party is going to laugh at the way I look. Everyone is too focused on how THEY look, on having fun, and on everything else going on around them. Plus, I was invited to this party because people want me there. They aren’t there to judge me, they just want to see me.

Practice positive thoughts.

We so often focus on what we don’t like about ourselves. Flipping that around to find things that you like can help shift your mindset away from the negative.

For some people, after years of negative self-talk, finding even one positive thing about themselves can be challenging. If you’re in this situation, know that it’s okay to find something you feel neutral about – again, not everything has to be positive!

Reflecting on former achievements, wins, and accolades can help with this exercise.

Step into gratitude.

Recognizing the good things in our life – however small – can take the focus off the negative and start a thought pattern that’s more helpful.

What are you grateful for? Start a daily gratitude journal that you complete each night, or simply stop to reflect on the day and what was positive about it.

Use the Way app’s Mindful Shifts Pathway

Learn and reinforce these self-talk practices.

Negative self-talk can be detrimental to our mental and physical health, but with time and practice, we can flip it around to something a lot more helpful.