Stop Beating Yourself Up! Breaking the Habit of Negative Self-Talk

At the same time many people fear others’ criticism, they might be subjecting themselves to a constant stream of “negative self-talk” that undermines effectiveness and self-esteem. This harsh, critical attitude toward oneself is usually related to family-of-origin dynamics. For example, a parent who is bound by shame and insecurity might take this out on their child as a means of disowning these intolerable feelings. Children of the same gender as the critical parent are particularly vulnerable, because of the over-identification that can occur. Seeing all of the child’s behavior and emotions as a reflection of them, the critical parent might try to control the child through relentless criticism. The parent might be quite unaware of the damage being done as they try to correct all of the child’s perceived (and usually projected) deficiencies.

When there are difficult circumstances like untreated addictions or serious illness in a family, there might be increased pressure for the children to suppress all negative emotions. Poverty and internalized racial/class discrimination can also foment critical parenting, especially if the adults “buy” the assumption that their family is inferior and therefore must compensate by trying to be perfect.

Negative self-talk can take many forms, including:

  • put-downs and name-calling, e.g., “You’re such a loser”
  • demeaning messages, e.g., “…who do you think you are to ask for this exception?”
  • deriding your own good efforts, motivations and goals – often by only focusing on the negative, e.g., assuming that a major policy paper you wrote is of no value because it had a typo
  • dissecting each interpersonal interaction for evidence of how you might have looked stupid or somehow offended the other person
  • discounting any possibility that others could like you or think well of you, e.g., assuming that you only get complimented because people feel sorry for you
  • hopeless and discouraging messages about everything you attempt, e.g., “This relationship will bomb like all the rest”; “You will never finish your degree.”

To a large extent, negative self-talk becomes a habit. People might know “intellectually” that they are not as bad as their critical messages would suggest. But they feel bad inside (anxious, depressed, self-conscious, ashamed) and try to make sense of it though self-blaming attributions.

What is surprising is that many people are actually comforted by beating themselves up! If they grew up in a family where there was little emotional support or affection, a parent’s criticism might have been the only attention they got. While criticism feels bad, it can convey that the parent is trying to help or take care of you; many children are told “it’s for your own good”. Furthermore, by taking the role of the critical parent, one can achieve a sense of closeness and identification with the actual parent who might still be unsupportive (or even deceased).

Obsessing and tormenting oneself can also be a defense against anger. This is particularly likely for people who have never acknowledged the negative impact of a parent’s criticism or other rejecting/abandoning behavior. By turning the anger against oneself, you can protect your image of the critical parent and pretend their emotional abuse was warranted because you’re no good, you deserved it, etc.

So how do you break the habit of negative self-talk? First, it’s important to identify it as a problem and recognize the ways it hurts you, for example: making you anxious or depressed; destroying your confidence; creating fear and indecisiveness (“paralysis”) so you can’t take moderate risks; negatively affecting your performance at times; making you seem insecure to other people, and possibly more vulnerable to mistreatment.

If you have severe or longstanding problems with anxiety or depression, it is important to consult a mental health professional. Negative self-talk can be a by-product of these psychological conditions – e.g., feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness associated with depression – and it also exacerbates them if it goes unchecked. Self-help books on cognitive therapy can help you identify “irrational assumptions” that often underlie negative self talk, such as believing that everyone must like and approve of you. And it can be helpful to keep a log of the negative messages you give yourself, noting the circumstances (sleep deprived? spending time around a hostile person?) and refuting each message with a more rational and constructive one.

Finally, be proactive about treating yourself well, both physically and emotionally. Self-neglect sends a bad message about your worth and the validity of your own needs; it can thus trigger old feeling of anger and despair that manifest as negative self-talk. Work toward becoming a better “parent” to yourself, ensuring that you get adequate sleep, three meals per day, and regular physical activity. Expand your support network, or at least practice relying more on the people already in your life (and don’t tell yourself that you’re burdening them by talking about your feelings!). Let yourself enjoy positive feedback from others, and also make a point of giving yourself positive messages. If you need help getting started with this last suggestion, we will end this article with a little exercise….

List three of your positive qualities: _________________________________________________

List one of your proudest accomplishments: ________________________________________

List one good thing you’ve done for another person (or persons): _________________________

List one caring or responsible thing you do on a daily basis: _____________________________

Write down one thing you really want for yourself: _______________________, and then tell yourself, “I really deserve this!”