Turn Down Negative Self-Talk

By Joanne Barker
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

“I might as well face it, I’ll always be fat.” When Franco Beneduce hears a client say something like this, he knows he has his work cut out for him.

Beneduce is a certified life coach and group facilitator in San Francisco. As he coaches people on weight loss, body image, and successful life strategies, he sees how their self-talk — the conversations people have in their heads — either supports or undermines their progress toward their goals.

If you are a negative self-talker, you may not even be aware of it. Thinking the worst can be second nature after years of doing it. But it can be influencing how you live life and keeping you from getting the best out of it. Here’s how to cut back on negative self-talk.

It’s Not All in Your Head

Self-talk isn’t just mindless chatter. It has a way of creating its own reality. Telling yourself you can do something can help it happen. Telling yourself you can’t do something can make that come true. Tell yourself you’ll never lose weight and it can be like eating a whole bag of chips. Tell yourself it’s too hard to find another job and you’ll likely watch TV instead of updating your resume.

“Self-talk dictates how you relate to yourself and how you show up for other people,” says Beneduce. Let’s say you think you have nothing interesting to say. If you keep telling yourself that, other people are going to see you that way, too.

In fact, people who think negatively tend to be less outgoing and have weaker social networks than positive thinkers. Multiple studies link positive emotions with more satisfying relationships, more romance, and lower rates of divorce.

Avoid a Downward Spiral

Negative self-talk can be a runaway train. Your mind goes around in circles replaying a negative event or your own shortcomings. “People who ruminate dwell on negative feelings,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California in Riverside. You may think that you’re getting in touch with your true feelings, but bad feelings have a way of getting worse the more attention you give them.

The more you focus on negative events or shortcomings, the harder it is to put them behind you. Research shows that happy people do put bad days behind them. In a survey of 231 college students, those with a positive outlook were more likely to look back on negative events and report how much better things are for them now.

Talk Yourself Out of It

If negative self-talk came with an off switch, you could just flip it. But it doesn’t. It takes a plan and some work to tone it down. Here are four ways to make it happen:

  • Distance yourself. You can’t banish negative self-talk forever, but you can take a step back from it. When you notice negative self-talk occurring, Beneduce says address it like you would an opinionated third party. You might say, “Thanks for sharing,” or “It’s interesting you feel that way” and move on.
  • Distract yourself. “Over-thinking involves focusing on a train of thought that goes around and around,” Lyubomirsky says. “You can stop that train of thought by focusing on something else.” Try playing basketball, doing a crossword puzzle, or any other activity that fully engages your mind.
  • Call them on it. Give your negative thoughts the third-degree and they could crumble. You might ask yourself, “Is that really true?” or “Is there another way to look at this situation?” You may also look for benefits. If you missed that job promotion, are there any lessons for the future you can take from the situation? Or could another opportunity come out of it?
  • Save them for later. Set aside a time of day for negative self-talk. If you hear yourself doubting, blaming, or comparing yourself to others at another time of day, tell yourself you will come back to the conversation later. When the appointed time arrives, your negative thoughts may have lost most of their oomph.

Make It Positive

Beneduce admits he’s not immune to negative self-talk. When he works with large groups, he knows everyone will be watching him. If he’s on, the day will go well, but if he’s off, he flops. So going in, he tells himself, “I am confident. I have the skills I need. I am going to trust myself.” Sometimes he’ll write three words on a piece of paper to reinforce it. Throughout the day, he glances at them: “Fun. Smart. Effective.” And that is what he projects.

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