You know the voice in your head that applauds you for your victories and gives out when you screw up? That’s what we mean when we mention ‘self-talk’.
Sometimes we make ourselves feel miserable even when our situation isn’t that bad, simply by thinking in a negative, self-defeating way. It’s as though we’ve an internal voice inside our head that influences how we feel about every situation. This inner voice is our ‘self-talk’, and includes our conscious and unconscious thoughts.
Some of our self-talk is reasonable. When a voice in your head tells you to study the night before an exam, or tells you to be proud of an achievement, it can be seen as positive self-talk.
But talking to yourself in a negative or unrealistic way is never helpful; in fact it’s the opposite. It causes us to feel hurt, angry, frustrated, depressed or anxious. It can also make us behave negatively. For example, telling yourself you’re going to fail an exam could stop you from working as hard the night before. Check self-esteem for more.
Challenging negative self-talk
With practice, you can learn to notice your own negative self-talk as it happens, and consciously choose to think more positively. The automatic reactions you have to negative thoughts can cause you stress and make you less able to meet life’s challenges.
Learning to challenge negative thoughts takes time and practice, but it’s worth the effort. Once you start examining it, you’ll probably be surprised by how much of your thinking is inaccurate, exaggerated, or negative.
Whenever you find yourself feeling anxious, stop and think about how you’ve been talking to yourself. Find another way to think about your situation and you can focus positively on improving it. Check anxiety for more.
Once you get into the habit of challenging your negative self-talk you’ll find it easier to handle difficult situations, and as a result, feel less stressed and more self-confident. Writing down your negative self-talk as you learn to identify it helps you develop your skills. Initially it might feel like hard work, but the more often you do it the better you’ll feel.
These errors are irrational patterns of thinking that cause you to feel bad, and act in self-defeating ways. Whenever you find yourself feeling depressed or anxious, look for thinking errors that make you feel that way. Some common thinking errors and how to challenge them:
Error 1: Thinking in black and white
Seeing everything in terms of being good or bad. Either you’re great, or you’re a loser, so if you do something wrong then you’re completely bad.
Challenge: Avoid thinking about things in extremes. Most things aren’t black and white, they’re somewhere in between. Just because something isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it’s a write-off.
Error 2: Unfair comparisons
Making unfair comparisons between yourself and other people. The people you compare yourself with often have a specific advantage in some area. Making comparisons can leave you feeling inadequate.
Challenge: Recognise that comparing yourself isn’t helpful. Appreciate your own qualities on their own terms and remember everyone has their own problems.
Error 3: Filtering
Focusing on the negative aspects of your situation, while dismissing the positive ones.
Challenge: Realise there are always positives and negatives to every situation. Focusing only on the negative will give you a distorted view of reality.
Error 4: Personalising everything
Feeling responsible for everything that goes wrong around you, even when it’s not your fault or responsibility.
Challenge: Take a step back and remember you’re not to blame for things outside your control. The situation isn’t all about you.
Error 5: Mind-reading
Feeling like you know what other people are thinking and assuming they’re focused on your faults.
Challenge: You’ll simply never know what others are thinking, so playing that guessing game is a waste of time. Give yourself peace of mind by taking responsibility for your own thoughts alone.
Error 6: Catastrophising
Feeling like things are always headed for disaster and imagining that potential consequences will be worse than they are.
Challenge: Ask yourself what the worst thing that can happen is and what you’re so afraid of. Believe in your own abilities to get things right sometimes. Check self-esteem for more.
Error 7: Over-generalising
Exaggerating the number of mistakes and failures in your daily life. Thinking everyone around you is judging you for your mistakes.
Challenge: Stick to the facts. If something’s gone wrong, don’t take it as a sign that you’re an all-round failure. Just try to learn from it and move on.
Error 8: Labelling
Calling yourself or other people names. Instead of focusing on specific things that have gone wrong, you brand yourself or other people with negative labels like “stupid” or “ugly”.
Challenge: Try not to think in those terms. Using labels on yourself can break down your self-esteem, so stick firmly to the facts.
Sometimes things go wrong. You might have a picture in your head of the way you want something or someone to be, but it doesn’t always work out that way. If we’ve put a lot of stake in something, it’s easy to blame others when it doesn’t turn out like we’d hoped.
The problem with blaming others is that it increases your frustration levels, but doesn’t solve the problem. Avoid getting upset in all sorts of situations by learning to think flexibly. This means learning to prefer things to be a certain way, but accepting that this won’t always be the reality. Try to feel ok with things not being ok. Don’t give yourself or others too hard a time.
Edelman, S, Remond, L (2005) Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions. Foundation for Life Sciences.