They aren’t shouting words of encouragement, however. They are hurling insults at the kicker:
“Do you REALLY think you can do this? You sure made a fool of yourself last time you came out here.”
“You don’t have it in you. Who do you think you are kidding?”
The kicker looks over at them. A couple of the girls exchange disgusted glances and roll their eyes.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Yet this is the way some of us have to face the challenges in our own lives. We have an annoying, and even cruel, inner voice mocking us. This is called Negative Self Talk.
Lasting Damage of Negative Thinking
Now I know that for some people negative reinforcement does help them to succeed, as they push to prove it wrong. Right now, I’m writing to those who are like me — who flourish when given positive reinforcement.
The innermost part of us that makes us who we are is sometimes described as our inner child, spirit, or essence. That part of us is crushed by these negative remarks. It is normal for people to have an occasional negative comment directed at themselves, such as when they realize they have goofed up. For others of us, however, it can sound like a continuous play, looping internal soundtrack. This is the equivalent of internal child abuse.
This negative self talk is very damaging. It lowers self-esteem. It causes us to shut down emotionally, leading to depression. It makes it hard to reach out to others and form healthy relationships. It knocks down our confidence, hurting our ability to succeed. It also can make us more critical or unkind to others, as our inner child lashes out.
I can’t remember a time when the negative thoughts weren’t there. They have fed my insecurity and psyched me out from trying things. I certainly am not claiming to have mastered them, but I have been working on strategies to quiet them more. In the past few years, I have progressed from a very low place of self-hatred and self-destruction, to being able to see the good in myself. I still have a ways to go, as these thoughts can become so ingrained that they are hard to yank out of the subconscious.
Redirect Thoughts, Words and Actions
What is working for me is practicing new ways of thinking, speaking to myself, and doing things. Making these new, positive thoughts a habit takes time, and consistent redirecting of thoughts. This is what I try to do:
- The first thing is to start catching yourself when you have a negative thought. Acknowledge it without emotion, as though it is just a comment about the weather. Try to pause the soundtrack rather than letting it play on. See if you can keep getting it to stop for longer periods of time.
- When you catch yourself thinking a negative thought, make yourself replace it with 3 positive thoughts. (After a couple times in a row, I found it too time-consuming to keep doing this, and would try to stop the negative thought before it would finish being formed.)
- Since my negative thoughts were also sometimes aimed at others, I added the exercise with those as well. It was amazing how differently I thought about people when I had to come up with 3 positive thoughts about them!
- This one I find especially hard because it feels silly or forced at first. It can be very effective, so just give it a chance. Look yourself in the eye, using a mirror, and say “I love you.” Do this every day. It may be very uncomfortable for some to do this, even just looking yourself in the eye. It took me a few days to not feel ridiculous and then longer to believe it.
- Say something positive out loud to yourself. Again, you may feel silly at first, but there is something very powerful about saying the words out loud rather than just thinking them.
- When you are around other people, think of — and say — positive comments. It can be about them, something going on around you, or something happy you have remembered. This doesn’t mean you should be insincere or never share concerns. Just see if you can have more daily interactions that involve humor, encouragement and cheerfulness.
- Take care of yourself. When you board an airplane, you are instructed in case of an emergency to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. You need to breathe. To be at your best for others, you have to take proper care of yourself. It may seem easier to love and care for others. It may even seem like the “right thing to do.” What happens when you burn out? Take a little time each day to take care of your own needs too. Everyone has things that help them feel grounded, relaxed, energized, and happy. Whether it is having quiet time over coffee in the morning, going for a run, or working on a craft project, do something each day that nourishes your spirit.
- Write down positive things. Just like saying things out loud, writing things down adds to their power. That’s why we are told to write down our goals and resolutions. A lot of people find a Gratitude Journal very effective, where each day they write something for which they are grateful.
- Try doing things you want to do, but that you are afraid you may fail. Do things you may not be good at. Do things that take you outside your comfort zone. The more you see that you can still do, even if not perfectly, the more you will build self-confidence. Yes, you might not do it perfectly, but you may have a great time anyway.
- Reward yourself for progress. It isn’t childish to be rewarded for doing well. Positive reinforcement in the form of an activity you enjoy, or an item that is special, can help you stay motivated.
If you have trouble remembering to do these exercises, a tangible reminder is helpful. This can be anything from wearing a bracelet, hanging a note on your computer screen, or a task notification on your phone.
The more you do these exercises, the better you will get at quickly shutting down the negative self talk and focusing on the positive instead. As you progress, the negative loop will stop filling your mind continuously.
Your mind will have time to focus in other things. You will prove to yourself that you are brave enough to try things. The positive energy you bring to encounters with others will make them more receptive and welcoming. You will learn to talk to yourself as you would a friend, with encouragement and warmth, instead of ridicule and abuse.
How could turning around your negative self talk change your life for the better?