Some days, we can be our own worst critics. It’s like there’s a constant commentator in your head nitpicking every single thing you do.
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The truth is, negative self-talk happens to the best of us. But it becomes hard to shake off if you’re surrounding yourself with it consistently — and it can start to take a toll on your mental health and relationships.
Psychologist Lauren Alexander, PhD, explains what negative self-talk is and how to stop it in its tracks.
What is negative self-talk?
You may wonder how negative self-talk works. Is feeling down on yourself always harmful? Not necessarily.
We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all feel down or irritated with ourselves at times. The occasional “Oh, that was stupid of me” or “Why did I do that?!” in response to a mess-up isn’t uncommon.
“Everyone, at some point, has had some level of negative self-talk. Maybe they’ve called themselves a name or something like that,” says Dr. Alexander. “If that’s something you say to yourself occasionally, it’s not going to necessarily have a whole lot of impact on you. Harmful negative self-talk is when the dialogue in someone’s head is constantly negative, maybe more negative than it is positive.”
Examples of negative self-talk
Negative self-talk is more than just feeling down on yourself. Sure, everyone feels a little defeated at times — it’s a natural part of life. Similarly, it’s also important to be self-aware and know when you make mistakes.
That’s why, Dr. Alexander points out, negative self-talk becomes harmful when it becomes the primary way you talk to yourself.
Some examples of negative self-talk include:
- “I can’t do anything right. I shouldn’t even try.”
- “Nobody likes me, I should stop trying to make friends.”
- “I don’t like anything about myself.”
- “I’m so dumb.”
If you find yourself engaging in this kind of inner conversation all of the time — whether that’s actually saying it out loud to the people around you or only in your mind — your negative self-talk may impact your mental well-being.
How negative self-talk can be harmful
The way we speak to ourselves matters. It’s the story we tell ourselves about our lives, feelings and experiences. Pay attention if you’re bogging yourself down with negative thoughts and self-criticism and look for ways to change it (more on that in a bit).
Here are some very real ways that being stuck in a bad headspace can affect you:
- It may worsen anxiety or depression. Negative self-talk can be the sneaky link that intensifies any depression or anxiety you’re having. If you’re going through certain mental hardships, the last thing your mind needs is constant criticism. Plus, it can cause you to shrink back from your support systems. “People engaging in harmful negative self-talk are much more likely to pull back and isolate themselves,” explains Dr. Alexander. This can become a big risk factor for depression and anxiety, even suicide.”
- It can harm your relationship with others. While venting to your loved ones is important, negative self-talk can cause you to trauma dump on your friends and family. If the never-ending dialogue in your head and to others is negative, it can take a toll on your relationships. “It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you share these thoughts with others, you may initially get reassurance. But after a certain point, people may push away from you,” notes Dr. Alexander.
- It may hurt your self-esteem. You may develop low self-esteem from the overload of negative thoughts in your head. The more you beat yourself up over not doing things right, the less confidence you’ll have to try again. “You reap what you sow,” Dr. Alexander states. “If all that is in your mind is this negativity, of course it’s going to continue to affect your mood. So, you need to start practicing different ways of talking to yourself.”
How to overcome negative self-talk
Ask yourself: “Would I say these negative things about my closest friends?”
Probably not. So, you need to learn how to treat yourself with the same gentle care and respect as you do your loved ones.
But how do you break the cycle of self-criticism? It can be a hard habit to break since the person you spend the most time with is yourself. But there are ways to break the cycle of negative thinking.
Here are some ways to cope with negative self-talk:
Try neutral thinking
You may think that the perfect antidote to negative self-talk is positive self-talk. But that may be too big of a jump for some people. The truth is, the key to being kinder to yourself doesn’t necessarily need to be praising yourself — especially if it doesn’t feel sincere.
“It’s probably not going to feel very natural at first,” says Dr. Alexander. Instead, she recommends neutralizing your thoughts. Take them from being so extremely negative to a more realistic and balanced version of what you’re thinking.
She offers this example to show how our thoughts can be distorted:
|Negative emotional trigger||Negative thought||Realistic approach|
failed a test.
|“I failed this test. I can’t do anything right. I’m going to fail at everything. There’s no use in even trying.”||“It’s OK for me to be disappointed about failing the test. But I’m good at other things, and I can come up with some ways to prevent this in the future.”|
The key to doing this successfully? Dr. Alexander says it’s catching yourself in these thoughts and swatting them away like an annoying fly.
“Then, as you practice, you can start to transition into some more positive thinking. You can highlight some of your positive attributes, the things that you do right,” Dr. Alexander adds. “And then, starting to sow a different style of thinking, slowly but surely. It certainly takes time.”
Repeat, repeat, repeat
The best way to form healthy habits is through repetition. But habits won’t change overnight.
“That which is repeated over and over will eventually get ingrained in your mind,” reassures Dr. Alexander. “That’s how the negative thoughts got there in the first place. You’re repeating them over and over.” Instead, try repeating more balanced thoughts to replace the negative ones.
Writing down realistic or positive thoughts can also help them take hold. Anything that helps create a new narrative in your head can filter out the negative thoughts. Dr. Alexander recommends using thought cards — where you write the thoughts you want to have on a card and read them to yourself.
Don’t view negative self-talk as a motivator
We all know the importance of self-discipline and staying humble. But you don’t have to be mean to yourself in the process. In fact, negative self-talk can be what holds you back from being more successful.
All of this to say, constant negative self-talk isn’t going to make you more self-aware or help you get things done faster or better. A comment to yourself here and there to “do better” or “get back on your feet” is one thing, but you can’t let it cross over into harmful territory.
“When we’re talking about someone who is just burdened, overloaded with negative self-talk, it does exactly the opposite,” explains Dr. Alexander. “It creates more negative emotions. They feel more uncomfortable.”
Being kind to yourself is sometimes easier said than done. Life can throw some punches at us that we may not expect, and we often go straight to blaming ourselves. While it’s normal to feel like this once in a while, a never-ending stream of negative thoughts towards yourself can become very toxic very fast. But the good news is, you can reword these thoughts through practice and self-assurance.