Combating Negative Self-Talk, part 1

In my last post, I put forth a rallying cry to encourage us all to stop the negative self-talk. I had also promised to offer techniques to make that an easier thing to do. While many people commented positively on that post on FaceBook or via email, I was surprised to hear from a few people pushing back in a way I hadn’t expected. Several questioned the legitimacy of a few of my examples of negative self-talk by insisting that they are not negative at all.

In fact one friend challenged me in person. “How can you call your first example negative?” she asked. “I can never find my keys is not negative. I say it all the time about my purse. I can never find my purse. You’d think by now I’d have created a special place just for it, but I never think to do it.”

Poor thing. She should have ducked for cover. Instead she valiantly received the verbal onslaught from me that subsequently made her change her mind. However, what our conversation revealed to me is that perhaps we are so used to negative self-talk that we assume it’s normal, not at all negative and hence, we don’t realize why it’s bad for us. Kind of like high-fructose corn syrup.

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So, in addition to offering techniques to overcome negative self-talk, I will define it so you can judge for yourself whether you are engaging in it. The thing is, doing that will make for a mighty long blog post, which will break a blogging rule: don’t go over 1,000 words (give or take a couple hundred). Apparently a hole will rip open the universe if I blather on for too long. In lieu of risking that, I’m going to spread the love in a couple of posts.

But first are you wondering why it’s so important to overcome your negative self-talk? I’ll tell you: because our beliefs about ourselves and the way we interpret the world are created by the thoughts we think — that is, we believe what we tell ourselves. Which means if you repeatedly engage in negative self-talk about yourself, you’ll develop beliefs that will alter your perception of yourself and encourage behaviors and choices that can impact you in (for lack of a better word) negative ways. Don’t believe me?

A 2013 study of anorexics done by researchers in the Netherlands noted that the women in the study would turn their shoulders as if they needed to squeeze sideways to fit through a doorway where they had plenty of room. They did so because their brains thought they were much wider then they really were. Their brains had repeated thoughts that told themselves they were “too big” or “too fat” so frequently that they believed it to the point where they couldn’t actually see themselves correctly. More studies have been done on how our beliefs are based on the way we think and talk to ourselves, but like I said, I’m not supposed to do long blog posts.

anorexic doorAnyway, according to the Mayo Clinic, it’s generally accepted that there are four kinds of negative self-talk: filtering, personalizing, catastrophizing, and polarizing. In today’s post, I’ll cover filtering.

Filtering is when you only focus on the negatives and not the positives. My friend’s sentence above, I can never find my purse, is a perfect example of filtering. She found boatloads of things — obviously she found me, but she also apparently found her toothbrush, the toilet, clothing, car, light switch, front door, the floor, etc. — that day as she does every day and yet she didn’t make mention of any of it. Oh, and she did find her purse, so that “never” thing was a lie, anyway.

Actually, if you think about it, our news media could really be called a news filtering media because seldom do they tell us about what is going right in the world; they focus on all the things going wrong. But I digress…

Filtering can be helpful. If you find yourself saying something like I can never _______, then you know there is something you can do to improve your life. You can find a solution and put it into place so that you always, or at least most of the time, do whatever you need to do to fill in the blank. But when you don’t use filtering as a means to make life better, and instead let the phrases repeat in your head, you may be creating low self-esteem and a lack of confidence in yourself. That’s because when we filter, we’re usually being very judgmental and extremely self-critical. People who engage in filtering self-talk find it easy to think about their faults and to undermine their own actions.

If you have phrases on a loop going through your head that sound like:

  • I forgot to _______ again. Why do I always do that?
  • I am so unorganized. I can never find what I want.
  • I am always running late.
  • I can’t believe I did ______ wrong.
  • I’m so awkward.
  • I never get that right.
  • I’m so stupid sometimes.
  • I can’t stand the way my hair looks right now.
  • Why did I choose this jacket? My rear looks big because of this thing.

then you are filtering.

If you receive a performance appraisal where your supervisor remarks on one or two areas in need of improvement and you obsess over that instead of feeling proud about all the good remarks made about you, you are probably filtering.

If your best friend tells you that you look “good” in a dress and you fret over what’s wrong with you that made her not choose the word “great,” then you may be filtering.

If you made an extravagant Thanksgiving Day meal but feel like a failed chef because some bratty little kid didn’t like your gourmet version of the green bean casserole, then you might just be filtering.

(Am I the only one with Jeff Foxworthy’s voice ringing in her head right now?)

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Remember: our beliefs about ourselves and the way we interpret the world are created by the thoughts we think. So if we’re filtering out the positive thoughts in favor of the negatives, then doesn’t it make sense that we’ll develop negative beliefs about ourselves?

If we tell ourselves we’re always awkward in social situations over and over again, then we will always feel awkward in social situations and try to avoid them.

If we repeatedly tell ourselves we’re stupid because we got a couple answers wrong on a test, or when we make a bad typo in an email, or whatever, we’re going to convince ourselves we are stupid, which could be quite the limiting factor when it comes to applying for a new job or standing up for oneself.

If we look in the mirror, note the things we don’t like to see and tell ourselves those things make us unattractive, we will never feel attractive. We may even become too self conscious to go to places like the beach or to a boutique to try on new clothing.

Going into combat against filtering takes diligence. It’s helpful if you learn to catch yourself in the act. That way you can direct your thoughts and talk yourself out of it. For example, should you say: I hate going to networking events. I always feel awkward and self-conscious at them. You can counter with: Actually, I network all the time. I just don’t put that “networking” label on it. And when I don’t put a label on it, I don’t feel awkward. Just the other day I was explaining to my sister how I solved a client’s problem. That’s the kind of stuff you tell people at networking events. That’s what the people there will expect from me: for me to tell them what I do. I’m good at that. There’s nothing awkward about discussing what I do for a living. In fact, I’m quite good at talking about my job.

If you find yourself obsessing over something you did wrong that day, (thoughts like: I’m so mad I forgot to call that client. I can’t believe I forgot to call him. He’s such an important client. Why did I forget to call? How could I be so busy?etc.) you can stop and remind yourself of all the things you did right and of all the things you remembered to do. It might help to actually write them down. Your brain will wander more and potentially get back into the beating-yourself-up territory if you just try to make the list in your head.

It might be hard in the beginning to stop and redirect your thoughts to more positive self-talk. But each time you do so, you’ll find it gets easier and easier. And as it gets easier, your self-confidence will increase.

Now then, if you think you never filter or if you have difficulty catching yourself in the act, try filling in these sentences as fast you can:

  • I never remember to _______________________.
  • I always forget about ___________________________.
  • I can’t ever _________________________.
  • It’s impossible for me to _____________________.

If you can fill in sentences like those with ease, then you’re probably filtering. You’re likely taking the subjects you filled in the blanks with and focusing more on them than on the truth.

You can combat those filtering thoughts by taking the time, just a few minutes everyday, to write out and mull over how you’re speaking to yourself. Start with I sometimes remember to _______________________. Actually, quite often I remember to ____________________. And then take it one step further. Remember you are training your mind to believe something new about you. So if you want your brain to develop beliefs that support a higher self-esteem and more self-confidence, then add to those sentences with more like: It’s ok to forget to ____________ every now and then. Everyone does. It’s perfectly normal, which means I’m perfectly normal. And I always remember to ______________, which is much more important. Write it out until you feel good about yourself. Then let it go. Crumple the paper and toss it away – or hit the delete key for the file.

You might feel a little silly doing the writing exercise, and that’s ok. Let yourself feel silly as you remind yourself that you’re in the process of creating healthier mental habits. The point of the exercise is really to relax your view of yourself and to stop being so judgmental toward yourself. When you can do that, then you’ll start to feel better about your competencies.

Which brings me to a final point today: when I say “catch yourself filtering” don’t beat yourself up about it! That would only make things worse. Instead, celebrate catching yourself because now you have something to work with.

The next post will be about personalizing negative self-talk! I bet you can’t wait! Stay tuned and let me know how it all goes.

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