“I’m so stupid,” Kasha muttered, “I always find a way to screw it up, always. This is why I never get anywhere in life…I’m just an idiot.” Since this was our first session, I allowed Kasha to finish her several-minute-long self-flagellation without interruption. She had initially scheduled the session to discuss other issues but an hour earlier, her boss called her into her office and chewed Kasha out for missing an important deadline; Kasha was too upset about it to discuss anything else.
A general rule of thumb I use is that compared to the self-criticism a patient voices aloud in a session, what they say to themselves in the privacy of their head is always far worse. Given how harsh Kasha’s self-criticism sounded, I could only imagine how brutally savage her internal negative self-talk must be.
Many of us respond to common life experiences such as making a mistake, failing, getting rejected, feeling guilty, not living up to our expectations, and an array of other events, by employing negative self-talk—basically, beating ourselves up in our heads (and yes, occasionally, aloud too).
Yet despite the popularity of this unfortunate fight club, psychologically speaking, the practice of negative self-talk has no utility whatsoever—none. It is purely harmful. It impairs our self-esteem, confidence, sense of empowerment, agency, mastery, competence, motivation, determination, purpose, and I could go on. It adds zero value and causes profound psychological, emotional, and cognitive damage.
So why do we keep doing it?
This is the question I always ask my patients when I glimpse their internal wrecking ball in action. The justifications they give as a response might sound reasonable at first blush, but they are in fact both unreasonable and wrong—all of them. Here are the five most common justifications we use for negative self-talk and why they are entirely invalid:
1. "I’m just being honest with myself."
Indeed, you should be. In fact, it’s always important to explore what mistakes you might have made, to be accountable for your errors, to take responsibility, to understand what went wrong, to figure out what you need to avoid or do differently next time—and being honest with yourself in that way is important and valuable.
However, calling yourself names in the process of self-examination, putting yourself down, and treating yourself dismissively and punitively adds no value whatsoever. Worse, it significantly impairs your ability to learn the necessary lessons you could extract from such experiences.
2. "It will prevent me from having an inflated ego."
People with inflated egos go around thinking everyone else is an idiot. Overly self-critical people who call themselves idiots are SO far from having an inflated ego it is simply not a risk factor for them.
3. "It will prepare me for future disappointment or hurt."
Nope, it will just set you up to make more mistakes and have more hurt because you’re undercutting your confidence, supersizing your insecurities, and sabotaging your motivation and determination.
4. "It’s an accurate reflection of who I am as a person."
The event causing your self-criticism reflects what you did (your actions), not who you are (your essence).
5. "I deserve it."
This was one of the ways Kasha justified her negative self-talk. After all she made the mistake of missing her deadline—surely she deserved whatever punishment her mind dished out as a response. I asked Kasha to imagine a friend made the same mistake and felt bad about it and whether her response to them would be to say, “You’re so stupid. You always find a way to screw it up. You’re an idiot!” Kasha was horrified at the suggestion. “Of course, not,” she assured me. “That would be horribly cruel.” “Indeed it would,” I agreed. “So why is it okay to treat yourself with such cruelty if you would never do that to a friend?”
Instead of negative self-talk, what you "deserve" is the same response you would offer a friend in the same situation. If you believe the friend needed reminding that we’re all human, that we all make mistakes, and the best we can do is to learn from them; if you feel the friend deserved support and compassion—then that’s exactly what you deserve as well. This approach is called self-compassion and it is the most important thing to introduce for people who are self-critical.
I spent the session with Kasha discussing her negative self-talk and dismantling her array of justifications for this insidious habit. The last thing she said in the session demonstrates how tricky it is to challenge negative self-talk and how vigilant one has to be when doing so. Kasha sat back and sighed, “You’re right. I do it all the time, all the time…I’m such an idiot. Wait! No, I’m such a human.”
Copyright 2019 by Guy Winch
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