“Believing in negative thoughts is the single greatest obstruction to success.” -Charles F. Glassman
We’ve all been there, that morning after, that moment of What have I done to myself? … Again! which is often followed by words of condemnation and harsh judgment… What were you thinking? Seriously, I thought we were over this! You’ll never change, you might as well give up! I don’t think I even need to ask the rhetorical question does this sound familiar? It’s that voice that we think is protecting us, that it’s doing its job to keep us from doing whatever it is we’ve just done, again. But really, is that true? If it was, why did we just do it AGAIN?
Negative self-talk – our inner-critic, judger, call it what you like – feels like it serves an important purpose. You’re so hard on yourself is a statement that once gave me a sense of pride as if I was being recognized for the high standard I was holding myself to. Perhaps you’re like I once was by saying, if I don’t talk to myself like that, how am I able to trust I won’t do it again? or I was wrong, I was stupid. What’s the harm in acknowledging that?
However, there is harm, and it does matter. Using negative language shames, and perversely, keeps us from being the person we want to be. In negative self-talk there is no compassion; it’s demoralizing. We are far more likely to give up on our goals as we don’t feel capable of succeeding. The false beliefs we think about ourselves are affirmed by reinforcing the feelings of worthlessness and incompetence. When left unchecked, these thoughts may lead to anxiety and depression as we listen to the Voice and believe its falsehoods and lies. Now if you’re saying, well it is true, I did do this, I know better! No matter if you did, there are more productive ways of supporting change and encouraging positive behavior that does not require a shaming or self-deprecating mindset.
Here are some things you can do to calm your mind and retrain your inner voice to be an agent of positive change:
Start by being aware. Get curious. Be an observer. Our thoughts move so quickly that if you’re not able to recognize an actual negative thought, look for corresponding emotions like shame, frustration or a sense of worthlessness. These negative feelings are most likely subconscious judgments. By noticing the chatter, you identify your inner critic. If you have difficulty differentiating the voice of your inner critic, turn I am statements into you are statements: I am a worthless becomes you are worthless; I’m a failure becomes you’re a failure, and so on. Now ask yourself, would you say this to someone else? Yourself when you were 10 years old? Can you now hear the internal destruction this creates?
Identifying the critic
Give your inner critic a name. The sillier the name the better. By naming the critic, it becomes easier to attribute the thoughts to something outside of yourself. Your thoughts are not you. I have one friend who visualizes her inner critic as a puppy knowing that puppies are mischievous and prone to trouble, but always adorable and easy to forgive.
Once you have identified the thoughts of your inner critic, you can set about reducing its negative effect through various practices like:
Silencing the critic
When you recognize the chatter for what it is, your inner critic and just another point of view, you now have the power to subdue it and take back control. You do this by challenging it, talking back, telling it that it’s a bully and doesn’t have permission to have a say in the matter. Call it out for being the liar that it is.
Reframing your thoughts
Do this by replacing the voice of negativity with that of self-compassion and kindness. Go back to the first step, awareness, and reimagine the critical statements as a more compassionate inner voice. Take a negative thought from above and change the evaluation from I am such a screw-up I’ll never get this right to I’ve been doing a great job up until last night. I’m glad I have the forgiveness and commitment to get back on track today or gosh darn it, you’re such an idiot you should have said just said no could be though I am a thoughtful and caring person I know there are other ways I can show Mom I love her other than eating her desert, I’ll do better next time. Another way to reframe it is by choosing a more neutral thought: I’m not good at becomes this is challenging, or I hate this becomes I’ve sure done things I enjoy more than this.
Telling a different story
Make a practice of noticing the good things about yourself and the things that are going well. I love lists and use one I call “What Went Well”, a play on the internal list we keep called “What Went Wrong”. On that list I write all my successes, such as “I stayed on plan through the holidays”, and “I woke up today feeling positive”. Nothing is too small; in fact, it is often the small things we overlook that make up the cumulative wins! You can also list those things you like about yourself. The goal here is to retrain your brain to see the positive. It’s also a great list to pull out when you want confirmation that you aren’t the sum of your negative thoughts.
Like any new habit, it will take time to establish new thoughts and beliefs. But with practice, your inner critic’s voice will grow weaker and your confidence will increase. You will develop a newfound sense of trust and calm within yourself. Through kindness and self-compassion, you will no longer believe that you need to beat yourself up to stay in line. Change will be easier, peace is restored and, the best part, it’s sustainable!
Sherry Kittle is Director of HEALcare Commitment Coaching.