Tuning into your self-talk can be as difficult as trying to remember a dream you’re on the verge of recalling – it’s right there but just out of reach. Your internal monologue is so used to yammering away in the background of your subconscious, it tends to get tongue-tied in the spotlight. Bringing your self-talk into your awareness is difficult but there’s a lot to be gained from analysing it.
We all have a voice in our heads that informs our thoughts, feelings, actions, which in turn forms our identity. There are three different types of self-talk: positive, negative and instructional. Negative self-talk can have a terribly detrimental effect on your self-esteem, self-belief and identity. Fortunately, it can be tuned out and replaced with positive self-talk. The third type of self-talk is instructional; it’s neutral and helpful – it’s what you do when you’re working through a task, especially a new challenging task. If you can replace your negative self-talk with positive, even a little bit, it can change the way you see yourself and interpret the world. Because your self-talk is an echo chamber, a small shift towards the positive will bounce around your subconscious and brighten everything it touches – your self-image, your self-belief and your mood.
Aristotle is misattributed with a beautiful quote actually written by Will Durant in 1926, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.’ This can be applied to self-talk and our identity – you are what you repeatedly tell yourself. If your self-talk is negative and critical, you will develop and reinforce a negative view of yourself undermining your confidence and self-esteem. And if you can learn to practice more positive self-talk, you will strengthen your ego and self-esteem and create a stronger identity built around your positive attributes.
Is this normal?
I’ve always found it strange that in movies where a “crazy person” is wandering the streets, they are depicted as talking or mumbling to themselves. We all talk to ourselves. It’s just become a social expectation that we keep our self-talk internalised. I’ve walked past every possible demographic of person talking to themselves out loud and very few were movie crazy. I didn’t give my self-talk much thought until I started talking to myself out loud towards the end of the first COVID lockdown. My partner heard me one time and was shocked by how negative it was. Well, her exact words were, ‘Andy, what the fuck? You’d never dream of saying something like that to someone else.’ It was a shocking a-ha moment. In an instant, the answer to a vague question swirling in my mind appeared. It seemed like maybe my volatile self-belief and shaky self-esteem was a result of unbridled negative self-talk. And it’s a brutal cycle – the worse my self-belief, the louder the negative self-talk. I don’t know how long it had been going on but I know that if it hadn’t been brought to my attention, it would’ve continued its destructive path. But now that I can tune into it, I can stop the downward spiral of negative self-talk.
Negative self-talk becomes exponentially more damaging when we start creating stories around individual incidents and connecting them to memories of errors in the past.
Are you negging yourself?
The thing is, unless you pause to reflect on your self-talk, you’ll think it’s normal – whatever it is. It’s so constant and natters away at a subconscious level in a way that might be so familiar that it’s almost comforting. It’s normal to experience negative self-talk but it’s ultimately unhelpful and serves no real purpose. Negative self-talk thrives in times of stress and conflict. To turn your self-talk from saboteur to ally, you’ll need to be conscious of it in different situations. Think back to the last stressful situation you were in, especially one where you were at fault. Maybe a work email went out with an error, maybe you missed a meeting, forgot to lock up at the end of a shift or maybe you lost your cool with your partner, forgot a friend’s birthday, whatever it was, you fucked up and it was your fault. Was your self-talk around that incident constructive or negative? Did you immediately start blaming yourself, saying things like, ‘yeah that’d be right, classic you. You really shouldn’t have done that and it was so easy to avoid. How could you be so stupid? People are going to be really pissed.’ Did you blame yourself and create a narrative around the incident? Did you start saying that this came about because you’re careless or you rush things and always have, you’re not good enough to do your job or be a supportive and reliable partner? Negative self-talk becomes exponentially more damaging when we start creating stories around individual incidents and connecting them to memories of errors in the past. This toxic narrative can be your worst enemy – it can also be vanquished with some simple positive affirmation.
Our brains are really good at finding patterns – think connecting cause and effect and correlated events. Sometimes we even see patterns when they’re not there. Maybe you called an old acquaintance the wrong name to their face one week, and a few weeks later you dropped one of your mum’s new wine glasses, and then you ruined a load of whites with a red sock. These incidents aren’t significant or meaningful in isolation, but if your negative self-talk is left unchecked, it starts rubbing its hands together and says, ‘Look at all this evidence that proves you’re an incompetent fuck up. You are clumsy and careless and it’s a wonder anyone gives you any responsibility. You can’t adult and you should feel bad and dwell on this for ages.’ If you don’t challenge this chatter, it can create firm negative self-beliefs and the longer it goes on unchecked, the more these false beliefs can become ingrained in your identity. So how exactly do swap the negative for the positive?
Object and overpower
Just because your internal monologue said it, doesn’t mean it’s true. Your self-talk is an unreliable narrator with a flair for the melodramatic. It’s likely to have a strong negative bias and a proclivity for jumping to conclusions and is an unforgiving judge too – what a prick. So if you tune into your self-talk and it’s saying you’re garbage, question why. Pull the thread and unravel why your brain is saying that about itself. Just because you did something stupid doesn’t mean you are stupid. And you can sub in the most relevant adjective for you here – clumsy, unthinking, selfish, etc. Occasional fuck ups and missteps don’t need to define you. If you do something unthinking and your self-talk turns negative and you create a narrative about your being selfish and egocentric, the first step to stopping that is acknowledging it. Try using a phrase that acknowledges it and stops it from spiralling out of control. I often find myself saying, ‘Okay, that’s enough.’ And then follow it up with a gentle positive affirmation, ‘you’re doing fine.’
What to do when you fuck up
Kill it with kindness. Instead of beating yourself up over something and dwelling on the negative, look for three positive things you can say about yourself. Be kind to yourself when your self-talk is being cruel – your goal is to drown the negativity with positivity. One time I borrowed a friend’s truck to move house for the fourth time in as many months. I woke up before my alarm, had an energising coffee and was at the petrol station ahead of schedule filling up the truck. The worst part about putting unleaded petrol into a diesel truck is that your mates never let you hear the end of it. Also having to call the friend whose truck I’d just written off – that wasn’t fun. And then the knock-on effects it all had on moving day. My day had flipped in an instant because I didn’t read the little peeling sticker on the inside of the fuel flap that said, DIESEL ONLY. My negative self-talk was already in overdrive. ‘You fucking idiot. That’s a $10,000 mistake and all because you didn’t think. Your day could still be on track if you’d just slowed down and read the goddamn sticker. Idiot.’ I fucked up, hot damn I fucked up, but there were some positives I could’ve used to stall the negative spiral and redirect the narrative into a positive space.
Turn up the positives
There were easily three positives I could’ve used to drown out my negative self-talk.
- I didn’t start the truck, so it was only an $800 mistake (not $10K).
- I fucked up early so we could still salvage the day ahead.
- I owned the mistake and called my friends who owned the truck and they were super chill about it – they laughed and asked if I was okay. So the biggest external stressor was deflated almost immediately.
But instead of taking a moment to look for the positives, my negative self-talk crucified me for the rest of the day. Also, my mates called me Diesel for a month after. One of the most difficult challenges with negative self-talk is getting on top of it quickly. That means you need to take a deep breath, pause and reflect as quickly as possible after you’ve triggered a stress response. A big dose of mindfulness goes a long way to calming the mind and focusing your attention on the positives. Mindfulness asks you to focus your attention on the present moment. Not five minutes ago when you flooded a diesel engine with the wrong fuel, not three minutes ago when your heart was beating in your throat as you told its owner you’d probably written it off. Right now. You may have messed up but the most important thing now is how you respond to that stress. Listen for the tone of your self-talk and quash any negativity. List three positive things you’re grateful for then look at how you can positively impact the situation. Try not to let the events of the past poison the present or future and don’t let your negative self-talk convince you it’s right.