How To Eliminate Negative Self Talk

Updated April 12, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Negative self-talk seems to be the norm. From your best friend to your neighbor down the street, to the characters on your favorite TV show, self-deprecation is usually seen as a way to be down-to-earth, relatable, and funny. Unfortunately, however, a little quirk like self-deprecation can go a lot deeper than a casual remark, and may actually be doing damage.

What Is Self-Deprecation?

Is Negative Self Talk Holding You Back?

Self-deprecating remarks run the gamut. Some are tossed out in an offhand way to a coworker, while others are far more emotionally charged, spewed out in a moment of anger or humiliation. Regardless of the exact circumstances surrounding the remark, though, self-deprecation remains the same: it means speaking (or thinking) poorly of oneself.

There are numerous instances in which calling attention to one's mistake is used as a form of humor. In the workplace, for instance, if you've dropped a customer's drink, you might grimace and sarcastically mutter, "I'm great at my job." With a partner, whose birthday you've inadvertently missed, you might implore them for forgiveness, citing being "the absolute worst" as both a form of apology and an excuse for your forgetfulness. The term "self-deprecation" might not have a negative thinking connotation, but it is a form of negative self-talk. It is often accompanied by humor, or an appeal, but is just another way of speaking negatively about oneself.

Why Negative Self Talk Matters

Negative self-talk matters because even if it begins as a means of being humorous or drawing lighthearted attention to your mistakes, you will begin to believe the words you say about yourself. Over time and with consistency, negative self-talk may not merely be a means of being humorous with your family, friends, and coworkers, but can morph into a legitimate set of opinions you have about yourself.

Speaking and thinking of yourself negatively, in turn, can lead to decreased self-esteem, which can actually lead to a host of disorders and problematic behaviors. People with poor self-esteem are less likely to eat well, exercise, and seek help for physical and mental health issues. People with poor self-esteem are also less likely to advocate for themselves in abusive relationships-romantic or otherwise-and may even be less likely to succeed at work, as perpetual negative self-talk and self-esteem may give you the impression that you aren't worth that raise, or that promotion.

What Happens During Negative Self Talk
Often, negative self-talk begins as a way to joke around with friends, family, or coworkers. It usually isn't deliberately harmful to yourself and is more often than not done casually, and without a lot of thought or effort put in. Increasingly, though-particularly if your self-deprecating comments get a lot of laughs-you might find that becomes your primary form of humor and self-talk. 

"Ugh, you idiot," is a line not unfamiliar to most of us. Calling ourselves out in this way when we make a mistake usually goes unnoticed because many of us do the same thing; we make a mistake, and our immediate response is to criticize and even mock the mistake, before taking steps to rectify it. While it may seem harmless-particularly if mistakes are few and far between-your brain does not recognize this instance as an infrequent expression of frustration: it takes it as law.

There are several studies demonstrating the importance of how you think about and speak to yourself. One study found that people with anorexia moved their bodies as though they had far more weight than they did: they moved sideways to get through spaces where they had plenty of room to walk forward. Another study found that women who routinely wore large hats continued to duck under doorways, even when they were no longer wearing a hat necessitating such a movement. The way in which we perceive and speak to ourselves plays a significant role in how we speak, behave, and move about in the world.

Perpetually engaging in negative self-talk not only encourages you to begin believing negative things about yourself; it actually raises stress levels, increases blood pressure, and decreases performance levels.

Negative Self Talk And Love

Negative self-talk will also impact your love life, as continual negative self-talk will wreak havoc on your self-esteem and your sense of worth. The first, perhaps most significant way, is in terms of worth; you are less likely to take risks and go after what you want if you experience bouts of negative self-talk and have low self-esteem. That might mean that you don't pursue the romantic relationship you were hoping for or that you give up on a relationship that is experiencing issues.

Negative self-talk can also harm existing romantic relationships, as it can be very difficult and overwhelming to see your loved one speak and think so little of themselves. The partners of individuals with low self-esteem are often a source of constant reassurance, which places a great burden on a partner. That burden of reassuring your self-worth can cause resentment to build. If this resentment is not expressed and eventually remedied or addressed, this might lead to a negative relationship or the possibility of relationship termination.

Poor self-esteem can also be problematic in romantic relationships because it can make emotional, mental, and physical abuse seem normal or at least warranted. Unfortunately, many abusive individuals thrive with partners who have poor self-esteem, because their behavior is accepted without issue, or goes unquestioned, despite it being abusive, cruel, or neglectful.

How To Improve Self-Talk
Is Negative Self Talk Holding You Back?

There are several avenues to creating healthier, more effective self-talk. The first has been proven again and again to be effective, though it may initially feel awkward. Instead of using "I" during self-talk (i.e. "I'm such a fool!"), use your name, and speak as though speaking to another person (i.e. "Hilary, you're such a fool!") Studies found that people were far less likely to treat and speak to themselves poorly if they used second and third-person pronouns instead of the first-person "I." Although researchers weren't entirely certain why this is the case, many have theorized that people are far less willing to behave unkindly toward others than they are willing to behave toward themselves.

Recognizing self-talk as a whole can help decrease unhealthy habits. Humans as a whole are running an on-going commentary on a daily basis, literally from minute-to-minute, though much of this commentary is unconscious. Taking steps to recognize your own internal narration can help you identify any consistent patterns you might have in speaking negatively toward yourself. As you are washing dishes, for instance, you might watch TV or listen to music. While doing this, take note of what you are thinking as you wash. If a dish drops, you might notice anger toward yourself arise. If your dishes are particularly dirty, you might find yourself thinking, "I'm so gross." Being able to stop and recognize these behaviors can improve self-talk patterns.

The final step in reducing or eliminating negative self-talk is replacing negative speech with either neutral or positive speech. It might feel disingenuous to replace negativity with positivity immediately, so it might be useful to first move from negative to neutral. If you find yourself speeding, for instance, you might be tempted to say, "I'm such an idiot! I'm going to get pulled over!" When you notice yourself moving toward that speech, you can replace it with, "Okay, you were going too fast. Time to back off the gas pedal a bit." Neutrality removes the rancor from your tone and allows you to bring yourself into the present.

Improving Self Talk

Although beginning the journey to improve self-talk might at first feel strange, like rolling marbles around in your mouth, your mind can be re-trained to either take stock of what's happening (i.e. "You dropped a customer's food. Time to replace it.), or to speak in a kinder way (i.e. "You dropped a customer's food, and that's okay! It happens. Let's go make a new plate.) Both have shown immense promise in improving mood, improving self-esteem, and even improving your life's outcome. People who implement positive or neutral self-talk have been shown to express greater levels of contentment in relationships, in work, and in general, as well as reporting lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

The journey to improving self-talk is not an overnight one and might take several months and outside help to fully implement. Happily, the effects are far-reaching and long-lasting and can provide greater contentment in your existing state, as well as improving possible outcomes for areas of your life you'd like to improve, including your work standing, your home life, and even your romantic life. Negative self-talk, such as "I'm hard to love," can be immensely damaging to your psyche and well-being. Positive and even neutral self-talk ("I'm a great person to love." Or "I'm a person worthy of love.") can improve every aspect of your life.

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