Why even try. Nobody cares about you.
This thought crosses my mind at least once a day, thanks to my struggle with negative self-talk. And if you’re also someone who consistently makes mean comments to yourself, you’re far from alone. Thoughts like “Oh, you’re so stupid” or “You’re too fat to wear that” are prime examples of the way many of us talk to ourselves every day.
“Negative self-talk can be hugely impactful on your daily life,” says psychologist Ashley Hampton, Ph.D. “Our thoughts influence our feelings and then our behaviors. This can lead to negative behaviors, like isolation, lack of motivation, and a desire not to engage in activities that bring you happiness.”
Beyond adding to depression and isolation, negative thoughts can lead to physical changes. A 2015 study found that adolescents who viewed themselves as overweight, even though their body weight was in the normal range, were more likely to become obese later in life. Now, thinking “I’m fat” once or twice will not make you heavy one day, but the study showed a direct connection between negative thoughts and a negative outcome.
(And let’s note that I’m not saying that being overweight is negative, I’m saying it was the negative scenario for those participants. Be whatever weight you want!)
Negative self-talk promotes a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies and prevents you from seeing the bright side. Most of us have probably felt its effects before. When you tell yourself, “I’m going to do terribly in the job interview. I’m awful. Oh, God, let’s prepare for this disaster,” you’re setting yourself up to do a terrible job when the interview actually happens. We think we’ll do badly, which makes us perform badly, which makes us think we’ll do badly again next time.
But instead of getting stuck in this cyclone of sadness, you can change the way you talk to yourself. It’s not always easy, but coaches, counselors, and psychologists have some tips on how to turn your Negative Nelly voice into a Pollyanna of Peace.
1. Check Yourself
“Building an awareness of your negative self-talk and recognizing every time you are giving yourself a negative message is the first step of minimizing its impact,” says life coach Shefali Raina. When you’re used to being crappy to yourself, you might not even notice how negative your thoughts are.
Raina recommends tracking your negative thoughts for two weeks. Simply write down every time you say something mean to yourself. Maybe you’ll have a couple lines on a page or a whole journal full of hate. Either way, by recognizing the negativity, you’re making a good step toward changing it.
After you find out your baseline of negative self-talk, then you want to find your triggers. “In a world where we are inundated with social media and highlight reels showing us people living on the beach and saying they’re millionaires, sometimes the comparison game can trigger negative self-talk,” Hampton says. “The very simple reality is most of what we see on social media is not true or at least is not completely true.”
Even if social media isn’t your trigger (and if it isn’t, I commend you), Hampton says to always give your triggers a second look. Ask yourself if what you’re reacting to is actually true (“My friend is always at the beach. She has such a better life than me.”) or if you’re reacting to a false presentation (“Oh wait, she’s always complaining about how broke she is. This beach pic is just one example of a complicated life.”)
By reframing these knee-jerk reactions, you can distance yourself from these negative thoughts, which can allow you to more easily see lies for what they are. As the great Bette Midler once said, “From a distance, there is harmony, and it echoes through the land.” View your thoughts from a distance and you’ll start playing a lot more songs of hope and peace and fewer songs of “everyone hates me.”
2. Amber Petty Recommends Speaking in Third Person
I say things to myself like, “You’re an f’ing idiot,” or “Nobody cares what you think,” all the time. But would I talk that way to another person? Nope. I mean, I might say it behind someone’s back if they really pissed me off, but to someone’s face? No way!
It turns out that distancing yourself from your own self-talk can be surprisingly helpful, as a 2014 meta-study revealed. Participants who referred to themselves in the third person (“She’s a great person with solvable problems”) during introspection had less anxiety than people who spoke in the first person (“I’m a smart person with solvable problems”).
This is evidence that using the third person automatically puts those thoughts at a distance and lets you treat them more rationally and less emotionally. I mean, maybe if the phrase had been, “Can you smell what I’m cooking,” the Rock never would have become superstar Dwayne Johnson.
Basically, when you speak in the third person, you’re acting like you’re talking to a different person. So just as you wouldn’t say, “You look so ugly in that dress” to a friend, when you use third person, you’re much less likely to say that to yourself. It may seem a little odd at first, but if you try it, you may find it works for you too.
3. Name That Jerk
Raina recommends another distancing technique to tame your negative instincts. Instead of using the third person, Raina says to give your mean thoughts a name. “Naming it helps create a space between the message and yourself,” Raina says. “It gives you the opportunity to send those negative thoughts to the side and get back in control of your destiny again.”
I actually do this. My negative voice is like an unfunny Daria or a goth teenager who wants to sit around and tell me how stupid and pointless everything is. So, when I have those thoughts, I tell that snotty teen to put her black lipstick away and go bother someone else for a while. And it really helps! Lord knows I’m not always perfect with this, but it’s something I’ve done recently that makes a big difference.
Or in the words of Katya Zamolodchikova, name your inner saboteur “Brenda” and tell her to shut the eff up. It’s a really solid, funny way to reduce stress—and it works.
4. Watch Your Words
After you notice your negative thoughts, you can begin to change them. An easy way to start is by taking a few words out of your self-talk vocabulary. Counselor Melanie Hall, M.A., LCPC, recommends limiting your usage of “always,” “never,” and “should.”
“Using absolutes such as ‘never’ and ‘always’ disempowers a person, and is self-defeating,” Hall says. “There are ranges to most things in life—few things are final while life is in motion.” When it comes to the term “should,” Hall says this word can be punitive and is usually attached to shame and guilt. By taking these words out of your self-talk, you instantly have thoughts that are less drastic, more balanced, and probably less negative.
Now, instead of saying, “I should work out more,” try, “I can work out more,” “I will work out more,” or “I could work out more, but I have better things to do with my life.” The last one maybe isn’t the best choice, but it’s certainly my favorite.
5. Look on the Sunny Side
Now that you can identify negative thoughts and make little changes, it’s time to really make changes by turning negative self-talk into positive self-talk. And when you practice positive self-talk, that’s not just some rah-rah BS to make you feel good—it can really change your attitude, outlook on life, and actions in the world. Studies have found that positive self-talk can even help athletes perform better in high-stakes situations.
So, even if it feels weird, try to see little positivity in all of your negative thoughts. Maybe “I messed up, I’m so stupid,” becomes “I messed up and I know I won’t do it again because I’m a smart person and hard worker.”
Now, sometimes it’s really hard to go from dark to light. But even going from dark to neutral can make a difference. So, instead of “Ugh, my gross, fat stomach,” you could think, “My stomach is big. I’d like it to be smaller.” You’re not exactly farting rainbows, but at least you’re looking at the situation objectively and not guilting yourself into feeling worse.
Over time, it’ll be easier to change neutral thoughts into positive thoughts. Then, who knows, maybe you’ll catch yourself thinking, “Wow, you are so smart, you did a great job today” without any prompting at all. That might take some time, but that kind of positive attitude is attainable when you get to work on your Debbie Downer self-talk.
6. Bust Out the Gratitude Journal
To help achieve a general aura of positivity, all the experts I interviewed said to start a gratitude journal. “I encourage clients to write three to five things they are grateful for every day. This helps redirect the pattern of thinking to the glass being half full, rather than half empty,” Hall says.
I’ve done this before, kind of, in that I used to keep a journal where I’d just rattle off three things, like it was such a chore to be asked to be grateful. And guess what? That journal didn’t help me. Instead, Hall recommends taking time and really feeling the happiness the things in the journal brought you. After a while, you’ll start to look for the positive things in life instead of always latching on to the negative. And your self-talk will follow suit.
7. Make It RAIN
Asking you to go through every one of these tips every time you have a crappy thought is kind of asking a lot. So, Raina recommends the RAIN method as a handy way to remember the steps toward changing your self-talk.
R – Recognize the negative self-talk
A – Accept the message
I – Investigate
N – Non-Identify with Negativity
Basically, realize you’re being a jerk to yourself, accept that that just happened instead of arguing with yourself about it, figure out if that mean thought is actually true or just an exaggeration or false perception, then distance yourself from the negativity and switch it to a positive or a neutral.
That still sounds like a lot, but think of the mental health toll negative self-talk takes. It’s exhausting to think unkind things about yourself 24/7. By slowing down, analyzing your thoughts, and going through these simple steps, the negativity will begin to fade, and a happier you will emerge.
Amber Petty is an L.A.-based writer and a regular contributor to Greatist. Follow along as she shares her weight-loss journey in her new bi-monthly column, Slim Chance. Follow her on Instagram @Ambernpetty.