Overcoming Negative Self-Talk

I have described how shame and self-blame are  natural consequences of childhood trauma. Negative self-talk is one way these feelings get carried into adulthood.

What do I mean by negative self-talk? Shame, that felt sense that one is innately bad, often shows up as a sort of running inner monologue detailing your shortcomings. Sometimes this process is referred to as “replaying old tapes”, meaning messages you received from others are now being played over and over in your own mind. Remember, the source of your shame came from outside of you, from those who neglected and/or abused you. As you start to become more aware of your inner critical voice you may in fact realize you are repeating what was said to you by your abusers! Stupid, ugly, worthless or fill in the blank with your inner insults: were these things you were called? If not this direct, they may certainly be what the abuse or neglect made you feel!

I have written before about one particular variant of negative self talk: body image critique.  One really pervasive form this inner critique can take is  “Fat Talk”.

Fat Talk describes all of the statements made in everyday conversation that reinforce the thin ideal and contribute to women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies. Examples of fat talk may include: “I’m so fat,” “Do I look fat in this?” “I need to lose 10 pounds” and “She’s too fat to be wearing that swimsuit.” Statements that are considered fat talk don’t necessarily have to be negative; they can seem positive yet also reinforce the need to be thin – “You look great! Have you lost weight?”

Negative self-talk can take other forms and focus on any or all aspects of your behavior, and perhaps most damaging, your very character or sense of self. Another common source of shame that leads to inner judgment is the expression of emotions. Trauma survivors have often learned to shut off or deny their normal range of feelings. Depending on your family, culture or even gender you may have internalized powerful messages about it not being acceptable to feel or express certain emotions. Anger, vulnerability and sadness, for example, may have been things you were punished for or told made you weak or bad. This really complicates healing as an adult. How many times do you find yourself judging yourself for the very things your therapist or support systems encourage as part of your healing? How do you respond to your own crying, for example?

As with type of change, the first step is becoming more aware. Try this experiment: tune in for a day to the internal conversations you have. Really focus on the specifics. It helps to write it down. What do you say to or about yourself? How much is positive or neutral? How much is negative? Would you speak to anyone else the way you do to yourself? Have you heard these messages from anyone outside of yourself? Are you able to be aware of internal conversation from other parts of you, if you have a dissociative disorder? Try listening instead of automatically tuning it out. I know it can be scary but it can also give you lots of insight.

Those with dissociative disorders like DID may hear this kind of inner judgment and criticism from different parts of themselves. I know, sometimes it is so extreme can feel really overwhelming. I get that the last thing you want to do is communicate with someone who seems to hate you! There is in my experience always more to understand about this than meets the eye.  And no better way to resolve this dynamic than to increase internal communication. It is of course crucial to keep working towards the understanding that no part of you is to blame for the abuse that was done to you.

With increased awareness of the specifics of your own negative self-talk comes choice. You can decide to work on changing the negatives to positives (or at least neutrals)! You can decide to adopt an attitude of compassion toward all parts of yourself. You can stop the internal name calling even if you do not yet believe differently. Simply stopping your use of shaming words directed at yourself can have a profound effect! Try it and see.

For more tips check out this great detailed article:  Negative Self-Talk: How We Can Stop It. I will highlight some bullet points here but it is worth reading in detail!

  • Say NO. Once you become aware of your negative self-talk, stop it. Say ‘No’, or ‘Stop’, or ‘Cancel’ to those thoughts. Do not allow yourself to make fun of your self or body or actions or appearance to yourself or other people. It is especially harmful to speak negatively about yourself to your children. You are passing down a legacy of low self-esteem that you do not want them to have and neither of you deserve.
  • Be Supportive, not condemning. “Take the same loving care you would with a child who is struggling to learn something new.”
  • Acknowledge that you are making positive changes to improve your life.
  • Treat yourself like a beloved friend.
  • Acknowledge the things you do well. (My note: this is really crucial! And no, I don not believe you if you say you do nothing well! No matter how small, focus on your accomplishments. Keep a running list to refer back to perhaps!)
  • Don’t yell at yourself for being negative. (That is the last thing you need! To engage in negative self-talk about your negative self-talk).

You get the idea! I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with negative self-talk and the ways you have learned to combat it!

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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28 Responses to Overcoming Negative Self-Talk

  1. katie says:

    how funny, i just wrote a post about this topic this week. for myself, i’ve linked it to my inner child work. but i really like the additional insights you’ve written here. the tips you’ve suggested are things that have worked for me as well. as i wrote in my post, i’ve also tried to cultivate an inner nurturing voice, to counter the inner critic. to imagine, as you suggest, what i would say to a good friend, and then try to treat myself this way.

    i think it is such a powerful healing issue. for to practice and learn to be our own best friend and support person frees us up in so many ways. helps us be less dependent on others or on other things outside of ourself for our self-esteem. and makes us less vulnerable to the abuses of others. because we no longer agree with them that there’s something wrong with us. we can see things more clearly~

    those are some of my thoughts on this. thank you for writing!

    • Hi katie-

      I love the synchronicity of the Blogosphere! I look forward to reading your thoughts at your site. I am nodding at the idea of an inner nurturing voice, I like how you put that.

      thanks for chiming in!

  2. Kerro says:

    One of the most powerful things I did to quiet the inner critic was to thank her for everything she’d done for me in my life to date, because without her I may not have been as motivated or driven as I was, and may not have achieved a whole lot of things. I thanked her and told her she’s still important to me, but for now I need her to rest for a while.

    That gave me space to start challenging the negative self talk. I’m still an expert at it, but slowly, day by day, getting better at challenging those thoughts and telling myself when I did well.

    Great blog post, thanks for sharing this.

    • Kerro-

      I love that approach! You reminded me that someone long ago shared with me that they would respond to their inner critic with “thanks for sharing” and then go on about their business. Both seem to speak to accepting what is without getting to thrown by it. I was also thinking about the need to honor/understand the purpose inner critics have played.

      Thanks for the great additional thoughts!

  3. Hi Kathleen!

    This is an excellent post! In my own process of healing (for me this work was especially effective after I was no longer dissociating) I learned to listen to those voices, and even ask questions in order to “go deeper” and find out what was beneath that statement, and beneath the next statement. This process set me free from many of my deep down beliefs about myself.

    I realized that the voices were based in things that my mother and other abusers had said, but I also realized that my own voice was underneath the first voice… almost reinforcing the first voice, because when it came right down to it, I believed that being fat or being dumb actually kept me safe. This was the real core work that “stuck” for me; I did this work when I was almost finished my therapy process, and for me it was not only confronting my belief system, but learning how to face it and learning how to live without it, through developing a new one. I learned that “talking back” to those negative belief voices, was like re-parenting myself and it worked! (and it still works! I still hear that negative self talk, just not as often and it isn’t as destructive any more)

    Love your blog! Darlene

    • Hi Darlene-

      I was hoping you’d chime in as I know from reading you that you have done much work with these issues! Thanks for sharing more of your experience and what worked for you with the readers here!

  4. Sayhealth says:

    Negative self-talk is something that I *really* struggle with. I actually found myself sitting in a DBT workshop, and the clinician was talking about being non-judgement toward ourselves and our thoughts/emotions, and literally my first thoughts were, “God. I SUCK at not judging. S***! See what I mean?!! Crap!!” That about sums it up. lol For me, I really needed my treatment providers to model how to combat this self-talk. This meant that in appointments, when I would vocalize the negative talk going on in my head, my clinicians – therapist, nutritionist, MD – would note it and respond to it. Eventually, I found myself beginning to repeat their responses on my own, then gradually I started adding my own.

    However, one thing that I think sometimes gets lost in articles about how to combat negative self-talk is what comes BEFORE combating it. For me, some of the hardest work in regard to combating negative self-talk was actually getting to a place where I felt like I deserved to combat it and where I wanted to combat it. I think the journey to that place is an incredibly important – and often VERY difficult – component of healing.

  5. Lily says:

    This is the perfect time for me to be reading about this topic and challenging myself to improving this aspect. It is definitely the part of me that is hardest to control when I am feeling low. I find it the loudest when I am in the throes of SI. I am still working on that, but it is so much harder than a “normal” situation where it is obvious that I am being too hard on myself instead of being supportive of myself. Thank you for this blog!

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  7. Just Be Real says:

    Very good and helpful post you have submitted. Informative. Appreciate you sharing. Blessings.

  8. Such a huge survivor issue and what a smart, helpful post. Thanks for allowing us to use this for The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse.

    For me, instead of using “out” or “stop” (that could get me yelling) I use my own little word that really works for me: “Deselect!” And I make a motion with my finger like I am depressing an invisible button. “Deselect the negative. I choose something else.”

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  10. Patty says:

    Hi Kathleen,
    I just recently found your posts on twitter. Your articles are really interesting to me. And provide some really good insight.

    I am a junior in college, and have experienced sexual assault like so many other women. I am always trying to not beat myself up for things, but it is hard to stop yourself from doing so. Even if I know I am doing it, it is hard to just say, “hold on, listen to yourself, you shouldn’t do this. You know you are better than this.” But as soon as that thought is over you go back to ” I can’t believe I just thought good of myself.”
    How do I actually stick to thinking better of myself. It sounds so easy in your article, but for me it is one of the hardest things to do.

    • Hi Patty-

      I am glad you found me on Twitter and came on over. Welcome!

      I get that it is hard! Yes, articles do make it sound easier than it is at times. Changing something this ingrained takes time and repeated practice.

      Every time you notice negative thoughts, stop, think something neutral or positive instead, you are creating a new reality. Try to be gentle and patient with yourself.

  11. Changing those negative thoughts starts with acceptance of that is what you were taught. After acceptance than you can decide what needs to be stopped or changed to something better. Any time that you take away something, you create a vacuum unless you fill it with something else, hopefully more healthy thoughts.

    Any time that I hear that critical inner voice today, I know that shame is coming to the surface to be healed. Thanks for your wonderful articles on healing from abuse.

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  18. David says:

    It’s easy to talk to ourselves in a negative way, the hard bit and the part which makes us successful, (whatever that is for you), is to talk to yourself in a positive way.

    Thanks for the post.

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