Let’s be real: even at the best of times, the inner monologues that take over our heads and hearts can be damaging, or even debilitating. We live in a world that can make it hard to love oneself unabashedly. Understatement, right?

In addition to those ancient destructive patterns dating back to early childhood that many of us work continually to release, the very reality of our present-day experience as humans on a struggling planet is enough to send anyone into a downward spiral all on its own.

Fact: it’s hard being human. The good news is that regardless of what you may be dealing with (much of which cannot be controlled), you do have agency when it comes to deciding how you’ll react. And that’s what matters most.

What is negative self-talk?

Much mental and emotional suffering stems from the way we talk to ourselves, based on the narratives we’ve decided are true. Clinical psychologist Nick Wignall says it well: “Our lives are like a story constantly unfolding in front of us. And we are constantly narrating the events of this story to ourselves as they unfold.”

And, he says, the way we talk to ourselves about the events in our lives is subject to the same laws of learning and habit formation that physical behaviors are. In other words: we can learn to talk to ourselves in new ways just as we can learn to dance or unlock a door.

How to recognize your negative self-talk

Even if we understand that the things we instinctively tell ourselves are not entirely true, the habit of saying them is the problem. Behavior is the most addictive habit of all.

So, it’s important to understand that understanding isn’t quite enough; it’s learning to break these habit-forming narratives (which occur on par with physical reflexes) that really matters. 

Some of the most common forms of negative self-talk include the following:

1. Mind-reading

This is when you immediately understand what others are thinking without any evidence. For instance, you might you hear that one of your coworkers got a promotion and take it to mean that you were explicitly discarded and devalued in the process of their being chosen. Or a friend that fails to answer a call must be avoiding you. Our immediate reaction often misses the mark, especially when taking things personally is at its core.

2. Catastrophizing

Personally, I’m really talented at this one. This is when you immediately assume the worst will happen. Maybe your friend is late to meet you for coffee and your mind immediately runs over all the ways your day is now sure to be a disaster: you won’t have enough time to catch up, you’ll be late to pick your kid up, the store will be closed by the time you get there, your partner will be frustrated that you didn’t get groceries, etc. Or—your stomach ache must be a sign that you have cancer. Regardless of the track, it can be a whirlwind of panic.

3. Filtering 

This is when you hone in on the negative aspects of a given situation while ignoring (filtering out) any positive aspects. For instance, you might be on the receiving end of a lot of appreciation and praise from a romantic partner, but one fight or moment of criticism has the power to blot everything else out, prompting you to focus on your many faults and perhaps even the reasons you are undeserving of love. In a work or school context, this can also manifest as perfectionism and harsh self-criticism.

4. Overgeneralization

This is the habit of telling yourself that a particular negative event is sure to continue happening indefinitely. For example, you might go on a bad date and tell yourself that you’ll never find love. Or—you might go on a good date and tell yourself it’s bound to fail at some point, just like all the others. At one point, I actually realized I was doing the latter, but it took me a while longer to realize just how much it was affecting my whole way of being in the world. 

How to start stopping it

I know that putting a stop to deeply ingrained negative self-talk is way easier said than done, and on top of that, it can’t be rushed. Nonetheless, here are a few concrete strategies you might try:

Acknowledge

The first step is always acknowledging the pattern and understanding where it comes from in the first place. Sometimes it can be easier to identify negative self-talk in others first—you might try this as an exercise. It can be heavy work, but it’s a step you really can’t skip.

Take a step back

Often, we treat others more compassionately than we treat ourselves. If you can, distance yourself for a moment (or three) and ask yourself how you’d treat a close friend or family member. Then, see if you can afford yourself the same level of care.

Reroute your narrative

When I realized that I was addicted to negative narratives around finding love, I finally had to make a conscious decision to stop myself each time and amend my inner statement from “it’s bound to go wrong,” to “there’s really no reason this won’t go right.” And you know what? It really didn’t ring any less true. I swear this type of behavioral switch can change everything, right down to your body chemistry.

Validate your feelings

Rather than immediately analyzing your self-talk and trying to ‘fix’ or ‘solve’ it like a math problem, try to simply observe and feel your feelings. Going through something rather than around it is the best way to come to a deeper, more compassionate understanding of yourself. 

When it comes down to it, some measure of self-criticism is actually healthy. Learning to be critical of yourself can teach you to better understand your own mistakes and blind spots, ultimately equipping you to become a better version of yourself.

But healthy self-critiques are conscious and deliberate rather than habitual narratives that flood in overwhelmingly. You likely have all the tools you need to start this self-work, be it a pencil and journal, good friends (or a therapist) to talk to, or a weekly time slot dedicated to thinking things through. You got this. And remember, there’s no hurry. This is your life’s work.

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