8 Ways to Overcome Negative Self-Talk (Plus, Why It’s So Toxic in the First Place)

negative self talk cat

You feel like you screwed up an important presentation at work. You think all of your mom friends have handled having their kids at home during the pandemic better than you have. You constantly beat yourself up for not fitting into your favorite jeans from ten years ago. Negative self-talk sucks, but it’s also super common. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t ways to fight back against your inner saboteur. Read on for eight ways to overcome negative self-talk—plus why it’s so dangerous in the first place.

What Is Negative Self-Talk?

Negative self-talk is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: Conversations you have with yourself that focus on the negative rather than the good things about you and your life. It’s any inner dialogue that hinders your ability to believe in yourself.

While it’s common to feel disappointed in yourself from time to time, negative self-talk often spirals into something way more sinister. Let’s say you got less-than-stellar feedback on a project at work. Thinking, Ugh, I did such a bad job on this, I’m no good at what I do, can quickly devolve into thoughts like, I shouldn’t have even gotten this job in the first place, I don’t deserve to work here and I’ll probably get fired.

It’s important to note that self-talk in general isn’t dangerous in and of itself. “It is definitely normal and very common to talk to yourself,” affirms psychologist Dr. Jeannette R. Bergfeld, of the Therapy Group of DC. Generally, we start talking to ourselves because we’re feeling some type of emotion, like we’re angry, nervous, frazzled, anxious or simply trying to focus. “Having a conversation with yourself can be a self-soothing tool to use when stressed or afraid,” psychologist Dr. Heather Stevenson says. “We do this when we talk ourselves through a scary or stressful experience by reassuring ourselves that everything will be OK or that we will get through whatever the issue is.”

3 Toxic Effects of Negative Self-Talk

1. You Might Feel More Anxious or Depressed

Dr. Stevenson notes that “talking to yourself can fall into unhelpful territory when the inner voice [that] I like to call ‘inner critic’ shows up. We all have this inner voice, the one that tells you you're making a mistake or belittles you in other ways. Getting caught up in the dialogue of the inner critic and believing everything that voice tells you can often lead to increased anxiety, depression and low self-worth. A lot of the work I do with clients is on identifying and separating themselves from that inner critic and learning when and how to not listen to that voice.”

2. You Might Get Stuck in a Loop of Negativity

Once you start talking down to yourself, it can be hard to stop. “Sometimes this can lead to unproductive rumination, where you just loop thoughts over and over again in your head without them really going anywhere or leading to any kind of conclusion,” explains Dr. Bergfeld. “If you notice this happening, try journaling about it or talking to a loved one or a therapist. Both writing and talking to a safe person are usually much more effective ways of organizing and making sense of our thoughts.”

3. You Might Miss Out on Opportunities

Constantly talking down to yourself warps your perception of your abilities. If you’ve conditioned your brain to see yourself as a failure, you’re less likely to take advantage of potentially amazing things that come your way. Let’s say you frequently tell yourself that you’re never going to find a partner. Eventually you’re going to believe you’re not worthy of love. When your friend tries to set you up with her new coworker, you turn down the offer because you assume you’ll screw it up. What if you had gone on the date and met the love of your life? Negative self-talk not only messes you up in the present, it also has the ability to impact your future.

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How to Overcome Negative Self-Talk

1. Avoid All-or-Nothing Thinking

Also known as black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing thinking is full of extremes and ignores the gray areas of life (spoiler alert: most of life exists in the gray). Mental Health America (MHA) gives the example of disappointing someone. Just because you let your girlfriend down today doesn’t mean you’re a horrible partner and she should break up with you. Failing once does not mean you are a failure. 

2. Think About How You Talk to Other People

Let’s say your friend feels like she’s really struggling to juggle work and being there for her kids. Would you tell her that she’s a failure who’s letting down both her coworkers and her children? No way. Why, then, would you say the same to yourself in a similar situation? It sounds kind of simplistic, but when negative thoughts creep into your mind, think about whether or not you’d speak to a friend or family member that way. Chances are, taking yourself out of the hot seat and imagining someone else in your place will help you realize how unnecessarily harsh you’re being.

3. Internalize Your Achievements and Strengths

Think about the last time you got positive feedback at work. You were probably really psyched for about three minutes, before moving on to the next project on your to-do list. In her book The Imposter Cure, clinical psychologist Dr. Jessamy Hibberd writes that when we don’t take the time to really celebrate our successes; it’s easy to forget how much we’ve already achieved. “When you internalize your achievements, this gives you a log of everything you have done, so you know your capabilities.” The more you become your own cheerleader, the less you’ll rely on external validation to feel good about yourself. 

4. Be Positive for 12 Seconds

According to NAMI and neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, your brain builds neuron connections in just 12 seconds. So, the next time you find yourself knee-deep in negativity, pause, close your eyes, take a deep breath and spend 12 seconds envisioning something positive. Maybe it’s a friend, a lover or a funny line from a movie. Need inspo? Do a Google image search for “puppies.” We’ll wait.

5. Remember That You Don’t Need Always Need to Be Positive

Sometimes, neutrality is even healthier. Take body neutrality, for example. The central concept? Let’s reject the idea of having to love or hate our bodies and instead just accept the fact that they’re there. Rather than celebrating the way our body looks, why don’t we focus on what our bodies can do? Body neutrality is about accepting your body as it is, with the goal of challenging the idea that the way you look drives your worth. The movement dictates that while you might not always love your body, you can still be happy and healthy.

6. Take Deep Breaths

When you feel negative or down, a simple series of deep breaths can help you recenter and focus. Negativity thrives on rapid thoughts and rushed actions; slowing down and breathing deeply opens you up to a more mindful, compassionate approach to the situation. (Ready to start? Try some square breathing.)

7. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Gratitude is a huge component of keeping a positive mental attitude. Even in the darkest of times, there are nuggets of good and reasons to be thankful. Try writing down at least one thing you are grateful for every day (invest in a journal specifically designed to help you do this). It doesn’t have to be monumental. It can be as small as, “I’m grateful for coffee,” or as big as, “I’m grateful that I just won $40 million in the lottery.”

8. Adjust Your Perspective

One powerful way to maintain a positive mental attitude—and overcome negative self-talk—is to replace pessimistic thoughts with positive ones. Consider your situation and imagine all the possible positive outcomes. You might want to skip book club because you don't feel like you have an expert analysis prepared, but what if you caught a subplot that everyone else missed? Or, at the very least, what if there's a new person there this week that you hit it off with immediately? Flipping the script can be challenging, but even attempting it can produce a more optimistic outlook.  

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sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...