4 steps to Shifting Negative Self-Talk

Negative self-talk is a common experience. Have you ever noticed how hard you are on yourself? We are often much harder on ourselves than we are on other people and hold ourselves to incredibly high standards. When we fall short of those standards or feel shameful about an event, the result is often negative self-talk. These could be thoughts like “You’re so stupid”, “You never do anything right”, “You are unworthy of people’s love” and many other possibilities. While this is a common experience, there are steps we can take to work toward shifting negative self-talk and practicing self-compassion. Below I’ve outlined 4 steps to take if this is something you struggle with.

  1. Pause and reflect 


When a situation arises, and you recognize being hard on yourself, the first thing you should do is be still. Just pause and breathe. Then, review the situation either in your head or in a journal. Sometimes writing down what we went through is helpful for us to start thinking more clearly. However, we do not always have the time or access to do this in the moment. Start by asking yourself the following questions as you pause and evaluate what happened slowly and specifically:


What happened? What were the circumstances that led to you having negative thoughts about yourself?


  1. Acknowledge the thought 


What are the actual words you are saying to yourself?


As a counselor, one thing that I have noticed as a pattern working with people who struggle with negative self-talk is that often they are not completely aware of what it is exactly they are saying to themselves. They just know they are hard on ourselves. One of the best ways we can work toward shifting our negative thoughts is recognizing exactly what we are saying to ourselves. Then, we can ask ourselves further questions about the thoughts. How often is this happening, and in what kind of situations?


  1. Identify your feelings


Often, our first reaction when we realize what we are saying to or about ourselves can be to further beat ourselves up. Beating ourselves up doesn’t lead to moving forward, instead it often keeps us stalled. It’s okay to be disappointed that you spoke to yourself that way. If we try and move on before we do this, we’re moving on too quickly and starting a process of invalidating ourselves without even realizing it.


Ask yourself how you feel about the situation or the thought. Be honest. Sometimes we need a little help putting language to the way we feel. One tool I frequently use is a “Feelings Wheel”. This gives so many different options to help you really determine what it is you’re feeling about this particular situation. Do your best to not invalidate yourself in this process. The feeling is the feeling. It’s just an experience, not an identity. It’s just where you are right in this moment. To change how we think and feel we need to be honest with where we are in the moment. If you’re having a hard time validating yourself or telling yourself it’s okay, pretend you have a friend who is feeling this way. How would you help them? Would you tell them it’s okay?


  1. Flip your thoughts


This step may be tough. You may think that this thought is “true” at this moment. Again, this is a great time to consider how you would help a friend rationalize the situation or how you would encourage them to see it.


To help, ask yourself questions like this: Was this an honest mistake? Did other things happen earlier in your day that may have led to your current frame of mind and this situation? What else might be going on? Really think through the evidence for whether your thought about yourself is true or false.


A quick example:


  1. SituationI texted a friend to see if they want to hang out. They haven’t texted me back in 2 days. I must have done something wrong. (During your journal time I would encourage you to really go into detail and the specifics do you can determine what lead to you feeling this way)
  2. Negative thoughtI’m a bad friend. No one wants to hang out with me.
  3. Feelingdisrespected, insignificant, rejected, confused, disappointed, lonely
  4. Flip the thought – This situation does not determine whether or not I am a bad friend. There are a lot of variables I do not know that could have impacted whether or not this friend texted back that have nothing to do with me and my position as a friend. I have many examples of how I am a good friend even if there some examples where I haven’t been the perfect friend, it doesn’t mean I’m a bad friend. New thought: I’m upset that my friend didn’t text me back but there are many reasons why this may not be personal and it definitely does not mean that I am a bad friend. Hopefully we’ll be able to connect soon so I can understand better.


My hope is that you realize that you are not only in experiencing negative thoughts but that there are steps you can take to move toward healing. One thing to note is that these things take time and intentionality. Just doing this once does not mean you have completely overcome ever feeling this way again. If you do, great! In my experience, the thoughts we have are built up over the course of our lives and so if you have been saying something to yourself for 20, 30, 40 or more years it is going to take time to transform your automatic thoughts. The hope is that you start to recognize the thought more quickly and have an easier time flipping to the new thought full of self-compassion. That is the goal we are working toward, and I firmly believe this is something we are all capable of if we take the time to put this into practice.


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