Is There a Bias Against Negative Self-Talk?
How the positive-thinking movement may go too far.
Posted Jul 06, 2019
This post is not going to argue that negative self-talk is always a good thing. Far from it. Many forms of negative self-talk fit classic cognitive distortions, such as all-or-nothing thinking, magnification, and overgeneralization, as in “It’s all my fault,” “I’m so bad at that,” and “I always find a way to screw it up” (Kane, 2018). Studies reveal that negative self-talk is correlated with depression or poor mental health.
But many authors, including some psychotherapists, have contended that negative self-talk is always a bad thing. I’ve read that negative self-talk is your “enemy” and “never [sic] in your interest,” that it has “zero value” and “no utility whatsoever,” and that “all [you’re] doing is mentally sabotaging [yourself]” (Canfield, 2017; Firestone, 2019; Vilhauer, 2016; Winch, 2019).
These extreme descriptions of negative self-talk technically fit the same cognitive distortions of all-or-nothing thinking, magnification, and overgeneralization. This wouldn’t be the first time that psychotherapists or life coaches use cognitive distortions to try to help clients avoid cognitive distortions (Stalder, 2016).
But just like a therapist might encourage a depressed client to see that the client doesn’t “always” screw up, negative self-talk may not always be harmful to our psyche. There is room between always good and always bad. Negative self-talk may sometimes serve a purpose or at least be neutral in its effects, at least for some individuals. For example, self-criticism is a normal part of mental health in some Asian cultures.
In particular, just because negative self-talk correlates with depression does not mean that negative self-talk causes depression. It could go the other direction, in which depression (or the source of depression) causes the negative self-talk. In this regard, negative self-talk can be a sign that we need support. Negative self-talk can even constitute the seeking of support, specifically to get others to contradict the negative things we’re saying about ourselves (Barth, 2019).
The research is not all correlational. There are some true experiments that show self-talk has direct effects on mental health, but the research is based on averages. Statistically, even in those cases, there can be individuals or contexts that don’t fit the typical pattern. For example, “I’ve always been bad at math” is negative self-talk, but is a culturally accepted excuse in the U.S. to save face after failing a math exam (Wai, 2012) (not that being culturally accepted makes it valid).
According to the growth-mindset research, it is not academically helpful to view ourselves as always bad at something, but this research is also based on averages only. In particular, for students with a documented cognitive disability since childhood, the effects of openly acknowledging it may not be all negative and may even be helpful (not that these students should give up—they can often improve with effort and training) (Aro, 2017).
I understand that saying “I’ve always been bad at math” because of a neurophysiological condition may be a far cry from “I’m so stupid.” But popular press authors don’t often draw such careful distinctions.
In general, after saying, “I’ve always been this [negative] way,” it can sometimes feel disparaging and presumptuous to be told by a self-help author that we’re wrong when the author doesn’t know our background. To be told we are harming ourselves can feel even more disparaging. There is a risk here for the positive-thinking movement to slide into victim blaming.
Going Too Far
Some proponents of the positive-thinking movement resolutely claim that “happiness is a choice” and that we just have to choose to have a positive attitude (Gregoire, 2013), though the science on happiness says it’s more than that. Facebook posts say things like, “There is no such thing as a bad day, just bad moments that we choose to carry around all day long.” Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson said that a large part of poverty is “a state of mind,” to which someone tweeted that she would tell her landlord that she paid her rent with positive thinking (Stalder, 2018).
Some clinical psychologists have pushed back against the positive-thinking movement. Barbara Held referred to it as the “tyranny of the positive attitude in America” in which those who emotionally suffer end up feeling worse after being blamed for not choosing a better attitude (Held, 2002). Sandra Lee Dennis, the author of Love and the Mystery of Betrayal, wrote that positive-thinking slogans are “insidious half-truths” that can demoralize us when we “most need validation” (Dennis, 2014). The Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in 2000 held a panel titled “The (Overlooked) Virtues of Negativity.”
As for the student who claims always being bad at math, such a self-statement in front of a teacher or classmates after failing a math exam may represent a lesser of evils. There’s a good chance the self-statement can lead to lower self-esteem and effort in the long term, but in the moment of embarrassment or shame, it might be worse for some students not to have a quick (culturally accepted) comeback.
In my experience as a statistics and math instructor, most students who talk negatively about their math ability in front of me are concurrently working hard and getting extra help to do better. For some students, however, the negative self-talk does accompany a giving up. My typical response is to be encouraging and to tell them that most students in the U.S. are better at math than they realize.
In Fairness to Therapists
In fairness to the therapists and authors who make all-or-nothing claims against negative self-talk, some of them justify their statements by narrowly defining negative self-talk as self-talk that hurts us through “self-destructive mindsets” or “beating ourselves up” (Vilhauer, 2016; Winch, 2019). Fair enough.
On the other hand, how helpful can such a perspective be? It’s too easy to argue that negative self-talk is a bad thing when it’s defined as self-destructive. This perspective becomes a tautology, where self-destructive behavior is obviously self-destructive. Many self-help authors barely articulate the evils of negative self-talk before jumping right to the suggestions to stop it.
However, some who argue that negative self-talk is bad for us do take a more balanced approach. They say negative self-talk is more harmful than helpful in the big picture. Sounds fair. Many trained therapists can successfully walk the line between validating their clients and undermining their clients’ negative self-talk.
Overall, the positive-thinking movement is well-intentioned and helpful. If you benefit from a positive-thinking approach, that’s truly great—I’m not trying to talk you out of it. But it can sometimes go too far for some people and often slips into some of the same cognitive distortions that therapists are trying to prevent. It can overlook individual differences in background and circumstances.
I believe a uniformly rational approach that acknowledges the complexity and exceptions might help supportive therapists reach even more clients than they already do. Avoiding all-or-nothing claims against negative self-talk can help avoid the irony of criticizing ourselves because we criticize ourselves.
Lisa Aro, “When Math Just Doesn’t Add Up: Understanding Dyscalculia,” ADDitude, September 21, 2017, https://www.additudemag.com/dyscalculia/.
F. Diane Barth, “Are You Self-Critical?,” Psychology Today, June 22, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-couch/201906/are-you-self-critical.
Jack Canfield, “5 Tips to Stop Negative Self-Talk Once and For All,” Jack Canfield: Maximizing Your Potential (blog), 2017, https://www.jackcanfield.com/blog/negative-self-talk/.
Sandra Lee Dennis, “Betrayal: Did You Choose Your Reality?,” Sandra Lee Dennis: Finding Heart in the Dark (blog), Sep 26, 2014, https://www.sandraleedennis.com/2014/09/26/choose-reality/.
Lisa Firestone, “5 Things to Do When Your Inner Critic Takes Over,” Psychology Today, May 2, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201905/5-things-do-when-your-inner-critic-takes-over.
Carolyn Gregoire, “This Is Scientific Proof That Happiness Is a Choice,” HuffPost, December 13, 2013, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/scientific-proof-that-you_n_4384433.
Barbara S. Held, “The Tyranny of the Positive Attitude in America: Observation and Speculation,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 58 (2002): 965–92.
Cynthia Kane, Talk to Yourself Like a Buddhist: Five Mindful Practices to Silence Negative Self-Talk (San Antonio, TX: Hierophant, 2018).
Daniel R. Stalder, “‘It’s Not the End of the World’: Comforting but Illogical,” PARBS Anonymous (blog), February 21, 2016, https://parbsanonymous.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/its-not-the-end-of-the-world-comforting-but-illogical/.
Daniel R. Stalder, The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).
Jennice Vilhauer, “4 Ways to Stop Beating Yourself Up, Once and For All,” Psychology Today, March 18, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-forward/201603/4-ways-stop-beating-yourself-once-and-all.
Jonathan Wai, “Why Is It Socially Acceptable To Be Bad At Math?,” Psychology Today, March 25, 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/finding-the-next-einstein/201203/why-is-it-socially-acceptable-be-bad-math.
Guy Winch, “5 Ways We Justify Negative Self-Talk and Why They’re Wrong,” Psychology Today, Jun 16, 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201906/5-ways-we-justify-negative-self-talk-and-why-they-re-wrong.