Have you ever found yourself thinking, “What am I saying? I sound like a fool!” as you ramble on to someone else’s voicemail? It’s an experience a lot of us can relate to, and a perfect example of negative self-talk. Self-talk is that internal dialogue we have with ourselves and it frequently has something to do with the ideas of self-worth and perception.
When a thought is planted, most of us are generally inclined to selectively focus on evidence confirming our beliefs. This is true for thoughts provoking negative self-talk and the same reason conservative people get their news from conservative-leaning sources, and liberals from liberal-leaning sources. As one might imagine, even with overwhelming support for the contrary, altering firmly held beliefs is not an easy task. The process involves two major steps: 1. Using critical reasoning to expose the fallacies and holes in their beliefs; 2. Changing the belief itself.
The first step involves a serious and honest evaluation of the origin, validity and impact of those negative thoughts. Ask yourself:
- Where do they come from? Was the thought instilled from a bad childhood experience, or maybe it came from an unfair social construction/standard?
- Are the thoughts unfounded and illogical? Does someone stand to gain (monetarily or otherwise) from me thinking this way?
- What are they doing for my life? Am I using them as a shield because my success kind of scares me? How are these thoughts influencing my relationships, work and life?
One of the best examples illustrating this process is negative self-image. Let’s say Ashley thinks the occasional blemish she gets on her forehead is a horrendous problem. She remembers being called nasty names by her peers in middle school every time this happened. She’s also bombarded with advertisements depicting people with seemingly perfect skin because all of their blemishes have been edited out. Ashley is told that these people are beautiful and something to aspire to. These messages and arbitrary constructs inform her beliefs on a less conscious level.
Maybe Ashley’s blemishes aren’t so bad, but the beauty industry, that stands to gain large profits off of her (and others like her) purchasing products to prevent and conceal those blemishes, needs her to think they are that bad to stay in business. Upon serious thought, Ashley realizes this one negative thought is causing her to shy away from situations directing others’ attention to her. She found herself going out in public less, and taking a back-seat role on a work project she knows she could have impressed her boss with had she been confident enough to take a lead. She decides that being prisoner to these thoughts is senseless and concludes that she shouldn’t be so hard on herself, especially given that she’d never think ill of a co-worker or friend with the same issue.
There is a little Ashley in all of us. Perhaps your evaluations in step 1 will produce similar results.
Once you can identify the negative thoughts you can better understand how to tackle the challenge of step 2 – inspiring positive self-talk. Consider some of the strategies below to help you build your plan for change.
- Face yourself. It may be a bit cliché, but try spending time looking in a mirror. Tell yourself, aloud, the things you appreciate about yourself as well as the things you excel at and are proud of. This can be an incredibly challenging task. If you find yourself coming up short, examine yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you and think of all the wonderful things they would have to say about you. Remind yourself of these things daily, if not more frequently, and work them into your core set of beliefs about yourself over time. If you’re really dedicated, maybe every time you see your reflection you can think of one positive aspect of yourself.
- Enlist friends. Share this admirable journey with a few close friends. Invite them to be your ally and ask them to give you a gentle reminder should they ever hear you making negative remarks about yourself. The support and encouragement of others can really help spur progress.
- Keep calm. Doing major (or even minor) belief-shifting work can feel like it throws every aspect of your life off balance. It can cause anxiety and the task of learning to unlearn these negative thoughts may seem overwhelming. Have faith that this change is possible and know that the struggle will be worth it in the end. Take baby steps or any other means necessary to keep moving forward. And, be patient with yourself; creating new habits takes some time. Above all, know that you can do this!
None of us is perfect, so of course we each have our flaws, but we also have things were are really great at, so why torture ourselves by focusing solely on the negative? It may not be productive to ignore the negative altogether, but it’s certain not productive to dwell on it either. Working to recognize our value and advance our personal growth is a huge part of life. When you believe in yourself and your abilities, you open a lot of doors and create endless possibilities for yourself. Stick with this important work, even if it remains on-going for the rest of your life. This is one fight worth fighting!