How to Turn Harmful Self-Talk Into Helpful Self-Talk
Is Your Self-Talk Harming or Helping You?
Posted April 2, 2019
Many people are experts at taking an unpleasant situation and making it worse by adding negative self-talk to the equation. However, with practice, negative self-talk can be turned around. Start by setting the intention never to take sides against yourself. Continue by learning to treat yourself with the compassion that everyone deserves. No one benefits from being unkind to him or herself.
Harmful self-talk can take many forms, some of which come under the heading of what are called cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking that lead you to talk to yourself in irrational ways. This can take many forms. Here are a few: exaggerating things way out of proportion; taking everything personally; holding yourself to unrealistically high standards; assuming that you know why others act or speak as they do.
With those examples in mind, here are some common situations in which you can turn harmful self-talk into helpful self-talk. I’ve divided the piece into two categories: self-talk in relation to your interactions with others, and self-talk regarding to your own behavior.
Self-talk in relation to your interactions with others:
#1 When you didn’t say what you wish you’d said
Harmful: “Why did I respond that way to what she said? I’m such an idiot. I shouldn’t even bother to interact with people.”
Helpful: “It would be nice if I could always say just the right thing to fit the interaction of the moment, but no one can do that. Interactions unfold so fast, it’s not fair for me to expect perfection from myself in this way.”
#2 When you overreact to what someone said or did
Harmful: “What’s wrong with me? I way overreacted to what happened. I always do that. I hate myself.”
Helpful: “Oops. I think overreacted a bit. No big deal. Next time, I’ll try to remember to reflect more before I speak. That’s all I can fairly ask of myself.”
#3 When you feel ignored by someone
Harmful: “Either she must think I’m not interesting or she must have something against me.”
Helpful: “Maybe she didn’t say hello because she’s in a hurry to get somewhere. Or, maybe she’s feeling ill today or has the blues and isn’t in the mood for chatting.”
#4 When you feel disappointed by someone who’s a good friend
Harmful: “I’m never going to contact her again. She doesn’t care about me. Why should I care about her?”
Helpful: “I was disappointed in that visit, but we’ve enjoyed each’s company many times before. I’ll try a couple more times before I assume the friendship isn’t working.”
#5 When you find yourself constantly critical of others
Harmful: “I hate all doctors.” [Lots of categories of people can be the target of this type of harmful self-talk.]
Helpful: “Doctors [or whoever] are like everyone else: some are honest and have solid ethical standards and others are only interested in self-gain. Lumping everyone into one negative category makes me feel bad about people in general and that makes me feel bad myself.”
Self-Talk regarding your own behavior:
#1 When you damage or break something
Harmful: “I can’t believe I dropped that glass. I’m unbelievably clumsy. I can’t be trusted to touch anything delicate.”
Helpful: “Oh no! I dropped a glass and it’s a favorite of mine. It’s okay to feel sad about it, but it’s only human to break things once in a while.”
#2 On a day you’ve got the blues
Harmful: “I’ll never get over this blue mood. My life will be miserable from now on.”
Helpful: “I’m blue today. I’m sad about it, but I’m not going to make it worse by projecting it into the future. The blues blow in and blow out like the weather. Instead of worrying about how long they’ll last, I’ll be as nice to myself today as I can.
#3 When you’re struggling with a creative endeavor
Harmful: “I’m no good at this and I’ll never be good at it. I should just quit.”
Helpful: “This is a hard skill to master. I’ll keep at it as long as I’m enjoying it and be thankful for whatever skills I’m able to develop.”
#4 When you come up against your limitations
Harmful: “I’m such a failure because I can’t [fill in the blank: afford new clothes, travel because of health problems…each of us has a long list!]. This is so unfair. I hate it.”
Helpful: “I wish I could do whatever I wanted but, the fact is, life isn’t fair. It’s just life. Nobody gets everything he or she wants. I’ll try to make the best of my life as it is.
The way you talk to yourself can make a tremendous difference in your quality of life. If you’re always running yourself down, you’ll feel run down. If you’re always blaming yourself for the way you handle things, you’ll feel of little worth. If you’re constantly critical of others, it will be hard to enjoy life. The good news is that you can turn your negative self-talk around. I hope you’ll start right now!
Here’s another piece I wrote on harmful self-talk: “Have You Listened to Your Self-Talk Lately?” For more on cognitive distortions, see my piece called “How Distorted Thinking Increases Stress and Anxiety.”