I have a secret. Something no one else can see, that does no immediate outward damage and that could remain hidden forever if I wanted. And here I go, calling myself out on the Internet.
I talk to myself really badly sometimes. In a way I wouldn’t talk to any other human. In a way I would never let my children speak. And in a way I would certainly never allow others to speak to themselves.
Perhaps I’ve picked this up from some harsh criticism I received as a child, or maybe I’ve adopted this language naturally as a part of my perfectionistic personality, or perhaps the weight of motherhood and little eyes soaking in my every move has caused this phenomenon. But regardless of its origin, it happens.
So what’s the problem? I make a mistake, and I chastise myself until I feel like I’ve been sufficiently chastised. It doesn’t bother anyone else, and the ultimate goal is to improve from whatever mistake I’ve made in the future. Win, win right?
Negative self-talk has a myriad of consequences, including increased worry and anxiety, feeling down and sad, decreased self-confidence, stress, feelings of helplessness, and negativity. And guess what typically isn’t a result of speaking to ourselves harshly? Positive change.
For the sake of this topic, let’s consider our thoughts as ground zero of anxiety and depression. As both research and some of the most widely used therapeutic treatments have shown, our thoughts and our self-talk are like the steering wheel of our mood and feelings, which then impact our actions and behaviors. If you want to change the way you act, you will almost always start by addressing the way you think first.
This negative way of speaking to ourselves can ultimately hold us in a sort of stagnant purgatory, where we don’t move forward with our goals or make the positive changes we need. It can then snowball into the trap of confirmation bias: when we start to view the world in a way that confirms our beliefs. So if I’m consistently telling myself I’m dumb, I will, whether intentionally or subconsciously, begin to look for evidence that I am, in fact, dumb.
Forgot to press start on the dryer after I put in the clothes? Dumb. Left my son’s backpack on the kitchen counter again? Dumb. Missed the turn while going to a place I go to all the time? So. Dumb.
I will be far less likely to see the evidence that refutes this belief. Eventually, this may even contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which I start to give things less than my best effort because I believe deep down I’m dumb, therefore creating a scenario in which I validate my own beliefs.
Don’t get me wrong here – self talk doesn’t have to be overly peppy or optimistic (trust me when I say I am rarely either of those). Things really do go wrong in life, we truly do mess things up at times, and negative emotions are a very real part of our human experience. It also doesn’t mean ignoring our mistakes or not holding ourselves accountable for our choices. However, framing our thoughts in a more positive, realistic light can start the shift away from depressive and anxiety symptoms. Instead of, “I can’t believe I just messed that meeting up, I’m so stupid,” we can try, “I didn’t do my best during that meeting. Next time, I need to spend more time preparing.” If a friend bails on us, instead of thinking, “I’m not even worth spending time with,” we can try, “That really stinks to be cancelled on, but something important must have come up.” When we shift our language from negative to realistic, our feelings tend to shift as well. While it certainly won’t take away the hard feelings, it can make them more mild and manageable. In this sense, ridding our minds of negative self-talk can also lessen anxiety and depression, which tend to be fueled by catastrophic, worst case scenario thinking.
So why expend all of the mental energy to improve my self-talk when it’s something I could ultimately keep hidden? Don’t I deserve to be chastised and corrected by someone when I make a mistake? If these are questions going through your head as well, I challenge you to ask yourself why. Do you value yourself as much as your family or friends? When you make a mistake, do you think you deserve the same grace you pour out to others when they mess up? Why might you speak to others more gently than the way you speak to yourself?
Please join us at Breath of Life on Monday, January 7th at 6:30pm as we continue this discussion on improving our self-talk, its impact on our mental health, and its tie to our self-worth.