Emotions & Shame

Your Own Worst Enemy: Silencing Negative Self Talk

Your inner voice can be a real jerk sometimes. Research confirms that transforming negative self-talk into positive thoughts can improve performance & happiness. Here’s how.

The word "no" written in red, an example of negative self talk
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No, Nay, Never

The average 1-year-old hears the word "No" 400 times a day, according to research conducted by UCLA. By the time that child can vote, he’s heard the word "No" about 200,000 times. Double that if he has ADHD. In many ways, it makes sense. As parents, we praise our kids for singing their ABCs, sharing their toys, and plenty of other bright daily moments. But we also instinctively blurt out "Don’t do that!" "No – stop!" and "I said 'no'" all day, everyday to keep them healthy and safe (or so we think).

A woman looking through a rainy window and doing negative self talk
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How Negative Self Talk Takes Root

Studies suggest that these negative commands and interactions add up — in a bad way. Hearing "no" a few dozen times an hour can, over time, impair a child’s self perception and self esteem. That, in turn, leads to negative self talk — that inner voice that tells us we're not good enough, not smart enough, not ever going to figure it out. 
Most of us are guilty of negative self talk. 
We deflect compliments others give us by downplaying them. 
If we make a mistake, we blame ourselves, citing stupidity or some other imagined flaw.
 It's not entirely our fault that we focus on the negative; most of us were taught this from an early age.

A man at a desk, stressed out by negative self talk
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Why Negative Self Talk Is So Bad

Research on the long term effects of negative self talk and ADHD are limited at best, but a related 2004 study found that professional athletes who were able to set specific goals and utilize positive self talk performed better and were more likely to maintain attention to the task at hand. Those who practiced negative self talk experienced poorer performance and less attention. A more recent study done on both deaf and hearing subjects found that negative self talk adversely affects learning, performance, and skill acquisition. Think about what this means to your life. Negative self talk can hold you back, preventing you from doing your best. And by not being able to maintain focus and attention, you risk never being able to reach your true potential.

A smiling young girl who isn't weighed down by negative self talk
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Step 1: Practice Mindfulness

You have the power to change your ratio of negative to positive self-talk and, in the process, change your life for the better. Start by becoming more mindful and in the moment as you go about your day. Being mindful and in the moment means that you are present. You notice your surroundings. You are aware of sounds, smells, textures, whatever is happening here and now. In this state, you are also tuned in to your thoughts and what you are saying to others.

Drawing of the words "Positive" and "Negative" on a chalkboard, the different kinds of self talk
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Step 2: Acknowledge, Then Flip the Negative

Begin to notice the negative things you think and say, especially about yourself. As soon as you notice a negative thought creep in, stop it and replace it with something positive, or at least something less judgmental. For example: "I'm so fat" is, obviously, a negative statement. Try editing that to, "My body is bigger than I would like it to be, but I can change that if I choose to do so." This allows a change in perspective from your subconscious standpoint, from negative to positive.

Sad faces, representing negative self talk, around one orange happy face in the middle
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Step 3: Talk to Yourself

Supercharge your efforts by learning to use your first name rather than “I” in your new approach to positive thinking. You might say, "Katie, you have made some lifestyle choices that have caused you to gain weight, but you have the ability to make changes to lose the weight if you choose to do it." The idea that this kind of shift in thinking can change your life for the better may be a new one for you, but really, what do you have to lose by trying it?

Scissors cutting the "t" off "I can't" to turn negative self talk into positive
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Step 4: Repeat Your Mantra

One good way to begin the practice of positive self talk is by finding a mantra — a positive phrase that you tell yourself whenever you feel doubt and negativity creeping in. One of my favorite go-to mantras is more of a question: “Is it true?” More often than not, the answer will be “no.” Here are a few more favorites:

“You can do it!”

“You’ve got this.”

“I am strong and capable, and I can do whatever I set my mind to.”

Find your mantra and start putting it to use, even if you don’t believe — yet.

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