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Stop Bullying Yourself and Silence Your Inner Critic

Here’s how to control negative self-talk.

Key points

  • Continuous negative self-talk feeds the subconscious mind with the power of suggestion.
  • Self-talk, whether positive or negative, most likely began with beliefs that were developed in one's early youth.
  • A bad experience, especially one that triggered fear or hopelessness at any point in life, can cause negative self-talk.
  • Learning to notice one's self-talk and reframing negative thoughts can lead to a positive mental attitude and better health.
Image by John Hain from Pixabay
Negative self-talk is a habit you can change.
Source: Image by John Hain from Pixabay

In my last post, I wrote about the power of suggestion. I stated, “When our subconscious mind is exposed to a constantly repeated message, it is going to penetrate unless we are cognizant of it.” Becoming conscious of indoctrinating media messages is important, but recognizing your own internal propaganda is even more so. Whether positive or negative, your self-talk is continually feeding your subconscious mind with the power of suggestion. Our thoughts control our feelings. For many of us, those thoughts are negative, which can lead to depression. Changing them takes some effort, but first, you have to become aware of it.

Most likely, you did not create the core beliefs that cause your self-talk. Those beliefs were developed in your early youth. Back then, your parents were your primary authority figures, and because your very life depended on them, you hung on to every word. And to this day, they may still retain that authority over you via your inner dialogue.

On the whole, your parents were passing on wisdom to help you survive in the world, but they may have also passed on to you their own insecurities and fears.

I recall announcing to my father when I was 8 years old that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. He laughed and said, “Writing isn’t a job; it’s a hobby.” Nine years later, after several writing successes, I told my father that I planned on studying to be a writer when I started college the following year. He replied with a stern lecture, repeating that writing is a hobby and that I couldn’t make a living as a writer. I grappled with those words for years. With every rejection letter I received from a publisher, I would hear Dad’s words echoing in my mind, “You can’t make money writing.” Eventually, I learned to remind myself instead of the many occasions when I did make money writing.

Bad Experiences Can Spawn Negative Thoughts

Negative self-talk doesn’t always originate in childhood. Bad things happen to us all the time that can rattle our confidence and cause self-doubt to rear its ugly head. Perhaps you were injured participating in an activity you enjoy, or maybe you worked hard on a new idea that was summarily shot down by your boss. Even a minor auto accident can dash your driving dexterity for weeks. Your inner voice starts telling you, “I’m not good enough,” or “I’ll get hurt again if I try that.”

A few years into my becoming an avid mountain biker, I developed some skill at tackling the man-made obstacles on the trails. One of my favorite trails would switch directions every other day to give riders some variety—except that I always rode on the same day of the week. Then one time, I went on a different day and got to go in the other direction. One of the obstacles was a narrow, 18-inch wide, wooden bridge that went over a fallen tree and a small rocky ravine. At its highest point, the bridge was about nine feet off the ground.

There was a slight dogleg turn at the top of the bridge, which I had handled with aplomb every time I rode over it—except that day when I went in the opposite direction. I misjudged the turn (which was the reverse of what I was used to), and my front wheel went off the bridge. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to thrust myself off the bike while the back wheel was still on the bridge, which propelled me over the rocks in the ravine (where my bike fell) and I landed on the hard dirt ground instead. My injuries were two skinned knees and a bruised elbow, but if I had stayed on my bike, I would’ve broken bones or gotten killed.

Over the next month, I did force myself to ride over that bridge two more times—in the original direction—but each time, I was terrified. That fear continued to grow with my negative self-talk and I soon found that I could no longer ride over any narrow wooden bridges on any mountain biking trail. I would see a bridge coming up and my mind would say, “You can’t do this,” and I would go around it or walk my bike across.

This continued for years, until recently when a friend took me to a mountain biking skills track that had several narrow bridges with a variety of unusual turns that were all only 12 inches off the ground. I rode and re-rode over those bridges until I felt my skill come back, and my inner voice switched gears and started saying, “You can do this.” While I will probably never ride over the bridge that nearly killed me, I am now able to ride over most of the narrow bridges I encounter.

Here's When You're Most Likely to Beat Yourself Up

The occasions in which we are most likely to engage in negative self-talk will have to do with work/career, body image, housekeeping, love life, finances/income, and parenting. This frequently arises when we compare ourselves to others, especially after we have made a mistake or encountered a failure. It is never a fair comparison to measure yourself against others because everyone has a different back story, and you cannot know what advantages they may have had.

When you attack yourself with negative self-talk, you create self-fulfilling prophecies. It is a habit, and any habit can be broken. Anyone can learn or re-learn how to talk about themselves positively instead of negatively. The trick is to start noticing when you speak negatively to yourself, but because it is a habit we don’t even realize that we are doing it.

Once you begin to notice it, you can start to change. Changing is really simple. When you catch yourself thinking something like, “I can’t do this,” reframe your words and say to yourself, “Stop. Yes, I can do this.” In other words, state the opposite positive thought to countermand the negative one. This will take some practice—especially noticing when you do it—but before long you will have a new habit.

Examples of negative self-talk include phrases like these: “Why do I keep doing that?” “I’m clueless; I have no idea what I’m doing.” “I’ll never be able to do that.” “I should know better than that.” “Ugh, when am I ever going to learn?”

Keep a Stockpile of Positive Thoughts Close at Hand

Changing this habit works best when you develop some positive statements or affirmations in advance so that they are ready to use at a moment’s notice. You will also want to create positive statements that you believe; otherwise, it won’t have the same effect when it comes to the power of suggestion on your subconscious mind. Don’t exaggerate, but use positive words that you can accept. For example, instead of replacing, “I suck at golf” with “I’m a great golfer,” say, “I’m a good golfer, and I’m learning and improving every time I play.”

Examples of positive replacement phrases include: “This is an opportunity to experience something new.” “Mistakes help me learn and improve.” “I can train myself to do better.” “I have many skills and abilities.” “I’m living mindfully, working on the next step, and re-examining my priorities.” “I’m getting better at this every day.” “I love myself the way I am.” “Good things are coming my way.”

Enjoy a Longer, Healthier Life

When you shift to positive self-talk, you will begin to develop a positive mental attitude. And, according to the Mayo Clinic, that will empower you to experience benefits such as an increased lifespan, lower rates of depression, greater resistance to the common cold, and better cardiovascular health. Now that’s some great motivation for monitoring and changing your internal dialogue to a more positive one!