More times than not, we can be either our own worst enemy or our biggest cheerleader. The way we talk to ourselves can impact every facet of our lives – from the way we think to the way we perceive the world. Studies even show that our thoughts also have a physical impact on our body and health.
When you experience the effects of negative thoughts – such as thoughts that create the emotional states of fear, anger, anxiety, guilt, shame, or regret, a few physical reactions and changes occur.
- The muscles in your body actually become weaker.
- Your stress levels go up.
- You experience changes in your biochemistry and hormone levels, and you may even suffer from physical symptoms.
As a result, continuous internalized negativity can result in bouts of depression and leave you feeling less satisfied with life.
In contrast, when you experience positive thoughts, the brain is inundated with endorphins, which help you relax and leave you feeling more alert and centered. In addition, these endorphins and internal positivity can increase your experience of pleasure and reduce the sensation of physical pain. Thus, ongoing positivity and a healthy mindset can leave you feeling more confident, optimistic, motivated and content overall.
But for some people, shifting their negative thoughts to positive ones is easier said than done. For some, breaking a lifelong habit of seeing the bad in everything, or justifying that their negativity isn’t “being a pessimist,” but is merely their approach to “being a realist.” But in reality, all they’re doing is mentally sabotaging themselves and setting themselves up for a negative experience and mindset.
So how do you know if you’re in a negative self-talk cycle?
Start by learning how to notice when you’re being self-critical or caught up in negative self-talk so you can begin to stop.
Begin to listen to how you talk to yourself and how you talk to others. Do you focus on the negative and assume the worst? Are you constantly tearing yourself down? Do you think in terms of “always or never?” Do you assume you know what others are thinking without checking it out? Every time you catch yourself thinking a negative thought, say the words silently or out loud, “scratch that” and then shift your thought or comment into a positive thought instead.
Once you acknowledge that there is a pattern of negativity in your perception and thoughts, there are a number of ways to help shift your mindset to one that is healthy and helpful.
Accept that thoughts and feelings aren’t always realistic or factual. Thinking negative things about yourself may feel like astute observations, but your thoughts and feelings about yourself can definitely be considered inaccurate. Just like everyone else’s, your thoughts can be skewed and subject to biases and the influence of your moods.
Treat your inner critic as a character. There was once a Saturday Night Live character known as “Debbie Downer.” She would find the negative in any situation. If your inner critic has this dubious skill as well, you can tell yourself, “Debbie Downer is doing her thing again.”
When you think of your inner critic as a force outside of yourself and even give it a goofy nickname, it’s not only easier to realize how absurd some of your critical thoughts can be.
Don’t aim for a mindset of sunshine and rainbows, but rather neutrality. When engaging in negative self-talk, you may be able to catch yourself, but it can sometimes be difficult to force yourself to feel happy and positive and can even make you feel more down. Instead, work on changing the intensity of your language from one of negativity to one that is more neutral. “I can’t stand this” becomes, “This is challenging.” “I hate…” becomes, “I don’t like…” or even, “I don’t prefer…” When your self-talk uses gentle language, much of its negative power becomes muted as well.
Like all new habits, change takes time and effort. One of the best routes to combating negative self-talk is focusing on your intention to replace it with something better. As you work on the steps above, balance your negative thoughts with something encouraging or positive that’s accurate. If you find yourself saying “I can’t stand how overweight I am” follow it by saying something positive “I do love how my hair look” or “I’m excited to try a new daily walking routine.” If you catch yourself commenting “My job is stupid,” balance it with something like, “I enjoy being able to leave early on Fridays though,” or “I’m excited for the pension I’ll get when I retire.”
Repeat this process until you find yourself needing to do it less and less often. This works well with most bad habits and is a great way to develop a more positive way of thinking about yourself and about life.