Now more than ever, in these unusual and unprecedented times, in this tough time we are all… sorry, let me start again without sounding like every marketing email you’re getting.
I’ve been dealing with negative self-talk recently. In pre-pandemic times, I had a lovely therapist called Kim, who took me through CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). We met up once a week on Thursdays, I’d hit her up for some midday mental peace, then get fried chicken at Jollibee with my husband right after.
Without Kim’s patient ear and unwavering support, I’m using CBT principles (and common sense) to counter my own negativity these days. I want to share these tactics with you, and hope these are useful to you.
*While I aced AP Psychiatry, I have no formal qualifications. Take this as a starting point, not a replacement for qualified medical support.
What is negative self-talk?
In very simple terms, it’s when you trash-talk yourself or put yourself down. An important distinction: negative self-talk is usually biased, rooted in moments anxiety or low-self esteem. This is different to self-awareness, which can be based on more objective consciousness of your weaknesses or shortcoming.
Negative self-talk can be called a ‘Cognitive Distortion’, because its typically unrealistic and biased towards being harsher than necessary.
What are common examples of negative self-talk?
One of the first skills you’re taught in CBT is to identify your negative thinking. Once you realize what you’re doing and when, you can stop it. Here are some common types of negative self-talk – I’ll take you through a few.
Mind Reading: Assuming we know what others are thinking (about us) without evidence.
Example: I’m giving a Zoom talk on design thinking. I see furrowed brows on my boss. I think “Fuck, I’ve said something stupid and she’s realized I’m an idiot and this talk is shit”.
How to Counter: We need to acknowledge that we do not know what the other person is thinking. Introduce other possibilities if helpful. “I don’t actually know what her expression means. She could be digesting what I’m saying, or trying to understand a difficult concept. This could be her resting expression. It could be disapproval, but I have no evidence to suggest it is.”
Overgeneralisation: Making predictions of the future based on isolated pieces of evidence from the present or past.
Example: When moving house, your favorite table is broken. You think “Typical. Shit like this always happening to me, haha!”
How to Counter: Acknowledge that a negative event happening once is not a predictor of it regularly happening again. “Well, it’s a bit shit that this happened. But my track record of having my stuff broken while moving is no higher than the average person, and its unlikely that I will regularly experience broken belongings in future”
Minimization: Being dismissive of our contributions, strengths and positive qualities.
Example: Having finished a complex digital illustration project you receive a compliment on how good it looks. You think or say “Yeah but I think it was a pretty easy brief to begin with, and anyone could have done it”.
How to Counter: We must realize being dismissive is disrespectful to ourselves, and acknowledge our achievements even if this is uncomfortable. “Thank you! It was difficult, and I am happy with the result” “It was not that the task was too easy, but that I had the skill and talent to complete it”.
Maximisation: Catastrophising based on our errors or flaws, blowing them out of proportion.
Example: Your new friend’s been talking to you about her brother being annoying. Later in the week, you ask your friend if her sister has been any less annoying. “Damn. Now she’s going to think I never pay any attention to what she’s saying and don’t care about anyone but myself”.
How to Counter: Acknowledge we’ve made a mistake, as all humans do. We must realize the true scale of the error, apologise and move on. “I’m sorry – my bad! How’s your brother now?” “I forgot something in this instance, but our friendship is likely to move past it. This doesn’t mean I have acted irreparably or ruined my friend’s entire impression of me”.
I’m guilty of doing all of the above, and more. However, identifying what I’m doing in both speech and thought helped me counter these thoughts and move past them.
Challenging negative self-talk more generally
Specific examples are helpful, but its important to address negative self-talk as a mentality. When I am talking shit about myself, to myself (or others), this comes from moments of anxiety and low self-esteem. I say ‘moments’ intentionally – I am not anxious nor do I have low self-esteem, rather these are things I experience, and can deal with. Distancing ourselves can be useful, as it helps humanize us instead of blanketing ourselves as “I’m always anxious, this is just how I am and that’s never gonna change”.
So, let’s address this process more generally. How do we counter our anxious, negative thinking? While the example might seem dramatic, its honestly reflective of things I say to myself.
Example: “Well then. Just woke up. I’m a sack of shit. Entirely untalented and probably not good looking. 2/10 max. Can’t even cook. My life sucks. I’m never gonna find a job”
Here are questions we can use to challenge these thoughts.
“Is there substantial evidence for what I’m thinking?”
It is highly unlikely I am entirely untalented, given I have done XYZ in my life”
“Is there evidence contrary to my thought?”
“I can cook, I actually made a pizza from scratch the other day. Sometimes cooking goes wrong for me, but not always.”
“What would a friend think about this situation?”
“My friend would likely tell me she’s not in the habit of forming friendships with sacks of shit. Ergo, I am unlikely to be a sack of shit”
“Am I interpreting this situation without all the evidence?”
“Yes – I am forgetting about these accomplishments, skills, talents, kindnesses…”
“Will this matter a year from now? Five years from now?”
“Probably not. You can learn skills. You are unlikely to be unemployed forever. You can get better at cooking. If you’re uncomfortable with how you look, you can accept it or change it”.
Thanks, I’m cured
Well, probably not. Nor am I tbh.
I hope reading this helps you acknowledge that negative self-talk is common, and not something you’re condemned to putting yourself through eternally. You can stop talking shit about yourself and become your own cheerleader. It is a process, and one blog piece is unlikely to change it.
But, it’s a decent start.