Negative Self-Talk

Overcoming Negative Self-Talk

I was sitting in my car in bumper-to-bumper traffic and I was not happy about it. I was due into my office for a 9 a.m. meeting and I knew I would never make it on time. All sorts of thoughts started to run through my head. Wasn’t I a fool for not leaving enough time for my drive? What if my boss reprimanded me for being late, or worse yet, fired me? Why shouldn’t I be on time when my co-workers were going to be? As my mind raced from one thought to the next, I started to get a headache. My heart was thumping and the back of my neck was beginning to sweat. All in all, I felt terrible.

We’ve all been in situations where things don’t go according to plan. But that’s not what is important. What is essential is the way we talk to ourselves about these situations. Talking to ourselves negatively, like I was doing, can make us feel awful about ourselves and make a difficult situation worse. What if I had accepted the fact that I was going to be late and instead of worrying about the consequences and beating myself up over it, turned the experience into something positive? I could have switched on a news radio station and had something interesting to discuss with my co-workers when I arrived. I could have used the time to think about the things I was going to contribute to the meeting, so that I would have had something to tell my boss if I did arrive late.  Or, I simply could have put on some music that I enjoyed and did some deep breathing while listening to it.

What’s the best way to flip from negative to positive self-talk? The first step is to recognize what we are doing. Far too often, our thoughts pass through our minds without us even being aware that we are thinking them. When we really listen to what we are telling ourselves, we will see that the negative self-talk falls into four basic categories:

  1. Criticizing ourselves (i.e. I’m horrible at such and such. My friends are much better than I.)
  2. Giving up and saying that things are hopeless (i.e. I’ll never be able to do such and such.)
  3. Worrying about the future (i.e. What if such and such happens? Won’t that be terrible?)
  4. Concluding we should be perfect (i.e. I should be able to do such and such. If I can’t, I’m a complete failure.)

Once we have recognized that we are thinking in one or all of these ways, it’s time to battle our negative self-talk. The best way to do this is by countering each thought with an opposing, positive statement that questions or refutes the original thought and then rehearsing the counterstatement over and over again until it becomes second nature.  For example, while sitting in traffic, I worried, What if my boss reprimands me? I could have countered this negative thought with the statement, So what if my boss reprimands me? It’s not so horrible. She’ll get over it and so will I.

If we have the opportunity to write down our counterstatements, that’s even better because it makes rehearsing them that much easier. As difficult as challenging our own self-talk may seem, it is essential if we are to take control of our lives. With responsibility comes ownership and with ownership comes the possibility of greatly reducing anxiety and enhancing self-esteem. It’s no secret that those who suffer from depression and anxiety disorder report that negative thinking is a big part of the reason why. And studies have shown that when negative self-talk is eliminated, depression lifts.

There are many obstacles we face in life that are out of our control. Our self-talk is the one thing that we, alone, can regulate. Why make things more difficult for ourselves than we have to? If we can master our thoughts, then we can master life.

By the way, my boss and several co-workers hit the same traffic jam as I did and all arrived late for the 9 a.m. meeting. When we got to the office, we laughed about it.

About the author: Wendy Aron is the author of Hide & Seek: How I Laughed at Depression, Conquered My Fears and Found Happiness

  • Agreed that negative self talk can be a huge obstacle! I’ve had a lot of success with the technique that you describe. For several months, I carried a pad a post-its in my pocket and would go through a process of writing down the thought, assessing whether it was true or not, and creating a positive thought to counter it. It took some time, but I eventually cut down on negative thoughts significantly. Now I not only feel better, but I’m able to be more effective because I have more confidence.

  • A useful technique is accepting that you can’t change everything. There is no point in thinking negatively about things that are inevitable such as being late if you are stuck in traffic. Of course this is different if you are always late, but if it is a rare occurrence like your example then it’s best to just accept it and put your effort into thinking about something else rather than worrying about the consequences.

  • I really enjoyed this post. I love the “comeback” of positive self-talk. I say “comeback” because it seems as if the practice took a bad rap for awhile as people began to feel it was just downright silly. AND, I also think people didn’t engage in the positive self-talk enough to even see a difference it could have made.

    With that, I would add encouragement to those engaging in positive self-talk. As you know, it has to be consistent and VERY often. As a Psychotherapist, I often say, “So, could you say that a few hundred times a day and we’ll go from there?” And every single time they laugh at me. And then I say, “I’m totally serious.” Yes, silly, but the reality is, it’s not just ONE phrase of self-talk to change, it’s MANY statements.

    Thank you so much for this reminder! =)

  • In the realm of self development awareness is never absent from the equation.

    “What’s the best way to flip from negative to positive self-talk? The first step is to recognize what we are doing. Far too often, our thoughts pass through our minds without us even being aware that we are thinking them.”

  • Self criticizing is definitely not the way to help ourselves in any situations that we are facing. By accepting that not everything will go our way and focusing on things inside our circle of influence definitely help to counter negative self talk.

    Personal Development Blogger

  • Hi Wendy –

    Man oh man, that traffic can be a pain. And that little voice inside can be an even bigger pain, depending on how we guide and nurture it.

    “If we can master our thoughts, then we can master life.” ~ Wendy Aron

  • Hi

    Another tool I find useful is doing a reality check. In other words, seeing if my fears, worries, self-reprimands are in fact valid.
    Has this or that worry actually materialised in my life previously? Do other people think I am lazy? …


  • bucky

    i had this problem yesterday after dealing with a nightmare situation at the dmv but instead of dealing with it like a grown up i drank three beers and packed a bong and watched the new star wars

  • I have to say, sports have helped me overcome negative self talk. If you think negatively then you will get pinned, laid out, or it might cost you a point.

    Don’t think about negative consequences when winning is all that matters.

    Something that helps me is saying constantly, “I am cool, I am strong, I am powerful, I am tall, I am fast, I am quick.” Combat your negative talk with positive talk.

  • I don’t know why but since I was about twelve I rationalised that sometimes I’d be late for work. Or sometimes the tubes would f*k up and there was nothing I could do about it. Seeing adults stress made me realise that there was no point. So in a way, this article’s advise seems obvious.

    BUT, all that said, (and thus why this is a good article) is that it made me think the following: if in some cases, e.g. traffic, I don’t beat myself up for being late, why do I beat myself up in other situations?

    I’m not perfect, I can’t get everything done always to precision etc, yet I continue to beat myself up about it long after it’s happened. But that’s as pointless as panicking about what excuse to give when you’re late.

    This article reminds us, and me in particular, that sometimes our worries and our negative talk aren’t really fair. Self-criticism is a useful tool, but only to a point. For those of us who go on criticizing, there’s simply no point and we’re better off happy.

  • Yvonne

    I think what Wendy wrote was so inspiring to those who suffer from the syndrome of beating themselves up or often second guessing everything they do and how everyone will dislike them. The advice is so simple, practical and everyone can learn to turn the negative thinking around. This is a tool for depression and anxiety that we all can use any time, any place, even in traffic, ha! Life is too short to be worrying and damning ourselves so I say Bravo! to Wendy and her sound, easy if practiced solution! Thanks Wendy!

  • Dear Wendy–I call this negative self-talk “shoulding myself”. This all got so much simpler when I recognized my observer self who could step back and remind me that I was doing it again. I’ve added “pick the brain” to my reader. I write about my spiritual journey of addiction. My sobriety date is Nov.24, 1976 so I had a lot to write about. After 4 years of writing and sorting, I am only now beginning to comment. Thanks again for your insight. Love, Kathy at
    Kathy Berman

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  • This is a tool for depression and anxiety that we all can use any time, any place, even in traffic

  • Please keep it up. I cant wait to read whats next.

  • It’s easy to talk to ourselves in a negative way, the hard bit and the part which makes us successful, (whatever that is for you), is to talk to yourself in a positive way.

    Thanks for the post.

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