What would you do if you were in a relationship with someone who constantly criticized, second-guessed or belittled all of your choices, behaviors and decisions?
Hopefully, you would leave immediately, or at least take major issue with being the victim of emotional abuse.
But what if … that critical person was you?
Negative self-talk is one of the most common issues that I help clients work through in my practice as a therapist. It’s one of the most critical factors that exacerbates low self-esteem and keeps clients unmotivated to achieving their goals or living the kind of lives for which they hope and dream.
Negative self-talk is connected to a wide range of mental health conditions. Everything from generalized anxiety disorder to social anxiety disorder and major depression often come with internalized thoughts of worthlessness or negative self-evaluation. Most of the time, people don’t even know the extent of their negative self-talk, which is the first step in changing this crippling behavior.
One of the most challenging parts of changing negative self-talk is engaging in ongoing, intentional self-monitoring — to examine when, where, and why these self-judging thoughts arise. The first step in changing negative self-talk is simply becoming more aware of it as it happens. This is, in essence, the practice of mindfulness.
In my experience as a therapist, this can be quite difficult, as it can take some time to tune into yourself. What has once long-been an automatic process has to become more noticeable, and it’s worth the effort.
In the early stages of working with a therapist, she/he may ask you to engage in routine self-monitoring. Most often this includes tracking of some sort.
Depending on your needs and preferences, this will likely include the use of a digital log or notebook, or even an app to help you track your moods and thoughts. Even if you decide not to work with a therapist, you can still journal your thoughts and later review them for themes and patterns. This will help you create some distance from the negative thoughts, so you can work to avoid internalizing them so much.
As you tune further into your thoughts and emotions, you will also likely find that the two often go hand-in-hand — they’re often interdependent forces. For some, thoughts are more noticeable and come first into awareness which can trigger physical reactions such as tension in areas of the body or stomach distress. Others may experience the opposite: their thoughts may be more difficult to discern, but following some challenging day or event they may be more likely to notice physical discomfort as a manifestation of their distress.
Either way, a therapist can help you decode these messages, and stay accountable as you use this new level of awareness to make some powerful changes.
Making the Necessary Changes
I always like to say that making changes to one’s thought patterns is a simple, but not easy task. Many therapists who work with anxiety and depressive conditions help clients with a variety of tools and strategies to alter thought patterns. Many of those therapists, use an approach rooted in Cognitive Therapy or Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which aims to help provide concrete and practical tools to mental health issues. It is one of most the most well-researched forms of therapy for these kinds of symptoms, but is by no means is the end all be all in therapeutic treatment. In fact, most therapists use a blend of theories and methodologies depending on their preferences, training and what the client brings to them.
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when trying to change their thought patterns is telling themselves to “JUST STOP!” So-called “thought stopping” was once considered a popular intervention for worry, rumination and obsessive thinking but it’s no longer considered the most effective way to move forward. And of course, it’s easier said than done.
Instead, many therapists now use tools based on rational thinking to help clients move from distorted, disruptive thinking to balanced, healthier thinking. Common tools include psychoeducation on distorted thinking types and why they exist, lessons on the power of changing one’s language, disputing irrational beliefs with facts that disprove them, reframing thoughts, and so on.
A Note about Affirmations
Affirmations (a form of mantras) have their roots in the Positive Psychology movement. Affirmations are ubiquitous on social media and can be helpful to many.
The use of affirmations is ultimately a matter of personal preference. If you find that affirmations of self-love work for you, then go for it. If you find it too difficult stomach at first, that’s not uncommon — so don’t allow yourself to get fully turned off. Even if you face resistance at first, it’s worth experimenting with different methods to see what works for you, keeping in mind that it can take some time to believe in those kind of statements, especially when you’re used to a different way of speaking to and about yourself.
The bottom line? Be patient and go with what works. Perhaps at some point later affirmations can be one of many tools in your tool box to help keep you on a healthier path.
Developing a healthy relationship with one’s self is one of our biggest challenges that we face in our time on earth. There are a lot of competing forces and influences such as family, friends, society (and media) that can alter and distort our perceptions. Sometimes we will internalize these messages — sometimes we will notice it, and other times we won’t. But doing this very personal work of changing the self-talk you bring to the table is incredibly rewarding, and necessary to become our most authentic, balanced selves.