By Jeremy Godwin.
This is Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about mental health and wellbeing, by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin, that is about much more than just talk – every episode includes practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week we’re talking about self-talk – what it is, why it matters and how to work through the things that you think and feel so that you can be more positive and self-confident (and stop that obnoxious voice in your head from reading you to filth). Listen now in the Spotify player below or read the transcript beneath the player. So, let’s talk!
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Self-talk. Most of us have that little voice in our head that provides running commentary on everything we think, feel and do. But the question is: is that voice your best friend, or your worst enemy? And what do you do when that little voice in your head sounds like it just might have rabies? This week we’re going to be digging into self-talk: what it is, why it matters and how to work through the things that you think and feel so that you can be more positive and self-confident.
Let’s take a moment to define “self-talk”. Self-talk is a term used to describe the voice in your head, which is part of your consciousness. It’s the way we process our thoughts, feelings and experiences, and self-talk can either be positive or negative (or a combination of both).
Positive self-talk is when we have thoughts about ourselves that are supportive, complimentary, and nurturing. Negative self-talk, on the other hand, can be destructive, derogatory, and criticising. There’s a big difference between the two, and it’s usually pretty easy to identify which is which: for example, positive self-talk might be thinking, “Wow, I’m looking good today!” when you’re wearing your favourite outfit, compared with making a mistake and thinking something negative like, “Why did you do that, are you stupid?”.
Most people have a combination of positive and negative thoughts about themselves, and negative thoughts aren’t necessarily bad because they can serve to be a motivator to do and be better – but the challenge becomes when the negative thoughts outweigh the positive. When you’re feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, depressed or are struggling with low self-esteem, it can be a real challenge to push away negative thoughts – and, often, negative self-talk goes hand-in-hand with conditions like anxiety and depression.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about what we’re not discussing this week. I mentioned before that self-talk can go hand-in-hand with anxiety and depression, and it can be very closely connected with over-thinking and stress. I’ve covered both of those topics in detail in previous episodes so I won’t be spending any time on them this week – if you’re prone to either of those (or both) then I encourage you to listen to those episodes on your preferred podcast platform or you can find them on the website (click here for Over-thinking or here for Stress).
Some examples of negative self-talk might be: “I can’t believe I just did that!”, “Why can’t I get this right?”, “Why am I so fat?”, “Why am I so useless?”, “Nobody will ever love me!”, and my personal favourite, “Who would want to listen to anything I have to say?”. On the other hand, some examples of positive self-talk might be: “That’s a good opportunity to learn”, “I’m getting better at this every day!”, “I am getting healthier every day”, “I am useful and valuable”, “I am loved and I am capable of being loved”, and “I have something useful to share with the world”.
Self-talk and mental health
How you think about yourself and how you treat yourself is the foundation of your mental health and wellbeing. If you treat yourself like crap, you’re going to feel like crap; just like if you treat yourself like a Disney princess, then you’ll be a Disney princess (in theory, anyway!).
Let me say that this subject might not apply to everyone – some of you may have really healthy inner dialogues, and good on you – keep it up, you’re number one! For some of us, though, we have an inner voice that sounds more like those two grumpy old dudes on The Muppets who sit there reading the show for filth every episode.
When you think poorly of yourself, it’s tough not to believe it because you know that nobody in the world knows you like you know you, you know? (Sorry, I couldn’t help it!) But our inner voice can be a devious little bugger sometimes and even though we might want to expect that we would have our own best interests in mind at all times, unfortunately our inner critic can sometimes take over and run amok with our fears, vulnerabilities and insecurities.
Working on improving your self-talk is a much bigger challenge than simply deciding to be nice to yourself. If you’re prone to negative self-talk, it’s going to take a while to undo years and years of reinforced behaviour – just telling yourself you’re doing well isn’t going to immediately change things, but – with time and patience and practice – you can and you will turn that obnoxious little voice into a supportive one.
One of the challenges of living with anxiety or depression is the spiral that can happen inside your head when that little voice decides to tell you that you’re a worthless piece of crap. I know from personal experience. In the first two years or so of my depression and anxiety – so we’re talking about late 2011 through to early 2014, when things were at their absolute worst, that voice in my head had an absolute field day. Everything that I didn’t like about myself was amplified, every mistake I had ever made came back with a vengeance and apparently needed to be examined in micro-detail at 3am. I told myself I was worthless, lazy, unworthy of love, a horrible person who deserved every bad thing that came my way because karma had caught up with me for all the people at work who I had ever had to discipline for not doing the right thing in terms of what the company expected of them.
And of course, with hindsight comes the realisation now that not all of those things are true – I mean, I’m not going to paint myself as a saint, because I’m not; we all have so-called ‘bad’ qualities just as much as we have so-called ‘good’ qualities. But I’m certainly not the monster that my mind made me out to be. I know now that so much of that stuff – the vulnerabilities, insecurities, the fears – were due to all of the things that I had never actually dealt with, like my father rejecting me and my mother being both physically and emotionally abusive. Everyone’s experience is different, but one thing that those of us who have experienced trauma in our childhoods tend to have in common is that it can have a huge negative impact on us in adulthood until we eventually confront it and deal with it.
Let’s talk about why negative self-talk happens. First of all, your inner dialogue has been shaped by every thought and feeling you have ever had since the day you were born. It’s the product of everything you’ve ever done, said or felt. So, if you had a rough childhood then it’s pretty likely that you’re going to have some thought patterns that might be on the negative side, unless you deal with them. If you were constantly told that you were stupid, even though you were the top of the class, or if your father suddenly stopped calling or visiting one day because he had a new family, you’re probably going to feel some type of way about that – and if it’s left to fester, then over time it will bury itself deep down into your subconscious and it will start to inform every thought and feeling you have about yourself, every emotion.
Let’s talk about our emotions for a moment. Your emotions are the stuff that’s bubbling away just below the surface – sometimes they come out, and sometimes you keep them hidden, but either way they drive the things you do and say. Your emotions are created by your thoughts and feelings, the stuff that’s going on a little bit deeper under the surface, and they in turn are a product of your values and beliefs. But it doesn’t stop there – your values and beliefs are fundamentally driven by your needs, and more specifically whether your needs are being met or unmet.
There’s a whole theory in psychology, that was put forward by Abraham Maslow, which is referred to as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – in short, it suggests that our needs start from a basic level (breathing, sleeping, eating and security) then progress into love/belonging, esteem and self-actualisation. My point here is that the theory states everything about you is being driven by your needs and whether they’re being met or not. If your more fundamental needs are under attack – let’s say, you’re feeling that your safety is threatened or, maybe more commonly, you’re feeling rejected and so don’t have your love and belonging needs met, then you’re going to think, feel and act in a very different manner than you might if all of your needs are being met.
That’s what is driving your self-talk – all that stuff that’s going on in your mind at this moment is being directly influenced by what’s happening or not happening in your life now, as well as everything from your past, whether good, bad or indifferent.
Why does that voice have so much control? Because we let it. We give it power. And we give it power because of our deep-seated insecurities, vulnerabilities and fears. Fear of failure? Sure, I’ll beat myself up over that and second-guess every decision I make and keep myself small for fear of trying something new in case it goes to shit. That’s just one example, but hopefully you get my point – that voice is trying to protect you in its own small manner, because it’s trying to keep you out of harm’s way. Having said that, it’s also trying to keep you from trying new things so that you stay safe and cosy in your little box, and that’s not what we were born to do. We all know that boats weren’t built just to stay in the harbour.
We all have fears and insecurities – some of us are good at pushing through them, some of us struggle to face them, let alone push past them. It’s human nature, and it happens to many of us, but when that negative voice takes over – especially common for those of us with mental health challenges – then that constant self-criticism can become utterly debilitating. Well, unless you’re Laura Branigan, because the voices in her head were apparently just saying “Gloria” over and over again, so I’m not sure what was going on there.
Self-criticism happens when we focus on the negative rather than looking for solutions or acknowledging the positive. If you choose to only focus on the negative, that is all you will see – so it’s up to you to challenge it. I know, it’s frustrating when you hear things from people like me talk about mental health by saying things like, “It’s up to you to challenge it”, but the reality is that nobody can get into your head and rearrange things for you – only you can do it. You can seek guidance and support, like listening to a podcast such as this and working through the actions I give you, or going to see a counsellor or therapist and digging deep through things, especially past and present trauma, but only you can manage the stuff in your head.
If your little voice tells you that you’re worthless, thank it for its opinion and then remind yourself that it’s just your insecurities, vulnerabilities and fears trying to protect you, even though it’s going a really shitty way about it. It’s like when someone feels it necessary to share their opinion with you when it’s actually a criticism or insult disguised as an opinion: everybody is entitled to their opinion, but you’re entitled to choose whether or not to let their opinion take up valuable real estate in your head. The same goes for that inner voice – just because the call is coming from inside the house, it doesn’t mean that the little voice is in any real position of power… it just means there’s a little voice in your head who is a bit of an arsehole, and you can choose whether to hang up the phone or keep letting it taunt you.
Practical steps for dealing with negative self-talk
So, how do you work through your self-talk and make it work in your best interests?
The first step is to tackle any negative self-talk immediately when it happens. Notice the thought, acknowledge it, process why you’re having it (e.g. “I’m feeling insecure because I am trying something new, and it’s okay to be a little bit scared. I am not going to let fear hold me back”), and then let it go. If the self-criticism is about something you can change and want to change, then change it. If it’s about something outside of your control – like how another person thinks about you – let it go, because you can’t change that. You can influence it, for example by behaving differently in the future, but you cannot change it.
Talk to someone you trust. As I always say, sometimes a good talk is exactly what you need to get things off your chest so you can then move forward. I’m a big venter – I need to vent my feelings, then once I’ve run out of steam I can look at the situation rationally and find a way forward.
It can also help to name that negative inner voice – choose something that works for you; personally I like to use something slightly absurd like Gertrude (no, for real), but you might go with Negative Nora or Negatina or Horrid Henrietta or whatever works for you.
If it’s happening a lot, talk to a professional – they can do deeper work with you to process what’s going on and use techniques that help you to deal with trauma if need be, e.g. Cognitive reframing (which involves working through challenging and traumatic memories to help you reframe them, a process I went through with my therapist in 2012 which was hugely effective for me).
Also, do what you can to prevent getting to a place of negative self-talk taking over. Why? Because prevention is better than cure! Get out more. Focus on actively letting go of the little stuff so it doesn’t become big stuff. Be conscious of what you put into your mind and what you put out into the world, because what you put out comes back to you. Don’t go making nasty comments at people on the internet or being rude to shop assistants or servers and then wonder why negative energy comes right back at you. Put out the type of energy you want back.
Cultivate more positive self-talk. Congratulate yourself on a job well done. Undertake daily gratitude practice and write a list of 5-10 things you’re grateful for every single day. Spend a few minutes every week and write down a list of things that you like about yourself.
Healthy food and exercise. Yep, I know, I say it all the time, but here we are again! What you put into your body, mind and spirit will have a direct effect on how you think and feel. Make healthy decisions. Do not self-medicate with alcohol or drugs or food or whatever, because they do much more harm than good (e.g. Alcohol is a depressant… think about how you feel the morning after – or afternoon after – and you’ll know exactly what I mean!). And if you do slip up – that’s okay. Forgive yourself, learn from it and resolve to do better next time.
Choose healthy thoughts. If you’re prone to negative self-talk, make a conscious decision every single day to think positive thoughts. When the inevitable negative thoughts happen, observe them, acknowledge them, thank them for trying to protect you and tell them that you’re going to focus on the positive now, because that is how you want to live. It will take time, perseverance and lots and lots of practice, but eventually you will see that the negative thoughts will happen less frequently. You need to be vigilant however – don’t stop your deliberate focus on positive self-talk just because things are improving a bit, because if you take your eye off the negative self-talk then it might decide to run around like a bull in a china shop again.
Healthy processing. Be aware of habits that might be affecting your self-talk – isolating yourself, not dealing with problems when they happen, not making time for self-care (get tips on how to practice good self-care in Episode 6, which you can read or listen to here), spending too much time around negative people, pretending that the negative running commentary in your head isn’t doing you harm – because it is, and it is actually chipping away at your self-esteem every minute of every day.
Summary and three quick tips for dealing with self-talk
To summarise: We all have that little voice inside our head that tells us when we’re doing well or where we might need to do better. But when that voice becomes overly critical and belligerent, you need to remember that you don’t have to put up with that crap – take control and stop giving that voice power. Good mental health takes daily effort, and if you’ve had difficulties with negative self-talk then know that it is absolutely possible to turn it around with continued practice, and taking it one day at a time.
To wrap up, here are my three main tips for dealing with self-talk:
- Negative self-talk is your mind’s way of trying to protect you – but it can get out of control if you let it run riot.
- You choose how you think and feel – so if that inner monologue sounds like it’s out to get you, take control, either on your own or with help.
- Increase your positive self-talk through conscious daily effort – focus on the positive in all things, reframe the negative, and learn to let go.
As always, let’s finish up by reflecting on a quote related to this week’s topic. This is a quote from Robert Kiyosaki; take a moment to reflect on this quote in relation to the topic of dealing with self-talk and consider what it means to you. The quote is:
“It’s not what we say out loud that really determines our lives. It’s what we whisper to ourselves that has the most power.”Robert Kiyosaki
So, that’s it for this week! Thanks for joining me again. New podcast episodes and article posts are released every Monday morning (Australian time), and each Friday morning you can read the weekly Mental Health Talk newsletter which is full of general stuff about health and wellbeing (along with some fun stuff), so please subscribe via the website. For more content, go to:
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Next week I’ll be talking about fear – what fear is, why it happens and how to work through your fears in order to improve your mental health and wellbeing. I hope you’ll join me again for that episode. Until then, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – you get back what you give out!
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2019 Jeremy Godwin.