We all have a little commentator in our head who gives us a running play-by-play while we are going about our day. It has an opinion about everything; what you are doing or not doing, how all your interactions and relationships are going, what you look like, etc. etc. It’s endless.
That little commentator is also known as the inner critic and can be a major factor in how we view ourselves, and how we perceive others view us.
Some days our commentator can be lighthearted, kind, and encouraging. Other days it can be judgy, rude, harsh, and throw our insecurities, past mistakes, and embarrassing moments in our faces.
It thinks it’s motivating us, but it’s actually making us feel bad. And it can be very hard to turn the critic off, and stop the negative chatter.
In some sessions, I have individuals write down their self-talk as a regular practice. We take those thoughts and work from them to gain an understanding of what’s contributing to their struggles.
Most people know they say a few negative things to themselves, but when they really listen, they’re shocked about the amount and frequency of negative messages AND how hard they are on themselves.
Even though our brains are an amazing organ, sometimes it works against us. Not every thought that comes into our heads is something we should believe. We don’t have to listen to every thought we have. We need to decide what we want to take in–and what we want to discard. We have thousands and thousands of thoughts a day and more than 80% are negative and 90% are repeated. This means we’re saying a lot of untrue, cruel BS to ourselves every day that we need to discard.
Anxiety and depression can lead to negative self-talk, and negative self-talk can lead to anxiety and depression. They can feed off each other, and cause us to be stuck in a negative loop. So, the best thing to do is to turn off the megaphone, stop scolding ourselves, and shut down the relentless inner critic.
The good news is you can educate yourself on the common negative thinking patterns and call yourself out. Here are some common ones, try picking out the one (or ones) that applies to you.
Polarizing: you see things as good/bad, black/white, or all or nothing. So, when we aren’t perfect at doing something, we see ourselves as a failure.
Catastrophizing: Oh, I got this one. This is when we take one mistake and blow it up, assuming the worst possible long-term outcome or failure. For example, getting a D on a test and then telling yourself you won’t go to college. Or you make a mistake at work, and you tell yourself you are going to be fired and end up homeless.
Personalizing: This is when we filter things that are happening in our lives through a negative lens blaming ourselves. When your friend cancels for dinner, you might tell yourself that it’s really because she doesn’t want to hang out with you.
Filtering: You don’t give attention to the positives of a situation or yourself, instead only focusing on the negative. We often don’t take in the positives about ourselves, and are like a sponge with the negatives.
There are many more ways we can distort our thinking, causing us to beat ourselves up. I want to mention one more because it’s so common and I see it interfering and leading to a lot of miscommunication and disruption in our relationships leaving us feeling bad. It’s mind reading. Sounds like some sort of superpower, right? But a superpower usually means something positive and when we mind read, we usually come away thinking negatively about ourselves. We take one little cue, tone, facial expression, or comment from someone and assume the worst.
Awareness of what we say to ourselves, and learning what triggers these critical thoughts is the first step to take control and stop the constant spiraling out of control.
Just like we can’t stop what others say to us, we can’t stop our automatic thoughts. But we do have control over how we take them in, what weight we give them, and how we respond.
Think of your thoughts like little pebbles you toss into a lake. When we throw a pebble in the lake, there is a ripple effect, and it reverberates on the whole lake. Take a pause, slow things down and ask yourself, is this a pebble I want to throw into the lake, or is this one I want to leave (lay aside) on the shore.
How Can I Help Myself In the Moment?
Now that you have awareness of your body sensations and how you are feeling, you can be more present and notice what thoughts are swirling around in your head.
Jot down your self-talk over a couple of days. Just notice what you are saying to yourself when things go wrong, when you make a mistake, have a conflict with a friend or family member, or feel anxious or down.
After understanding what’s going on in your head, try this process when you have a negative thought:
1) Pause and acknowledge the thought: “Here are those unwanted thoughts.”
2) Stand up for yourself: “I am not going to beat myself up.”
3) Reassure yourself: “I am ok.”
4) Distract: Call a friend, turn your favorite song on, pick up a book, get outside or partake in some physical activity.
(You can modify the statements that fit better for you but just keep the process the same.)
When we have racing thoughts, they tend to be past or future focused. Things that we regret or worry we messed up, or creating scenarios of things taking a bad turn for us. Bringing yourself back to the present can help. Try the five senses grounding technique. Name five things you see, four things you can touch, three things you hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you taste. This exercise can take you to the present, help you feel grounded, and interrupt those thoughts.
When you are feeling good, write down things you love about yourself, your character, what kind of a friend, son/daughter you are, and your accomplishments. When you find yourself ruminating on the bad, find and read the list. Or put some sticky notes in places you frequent every day like your bathroom mirror, day planner, or nightstand.
Something that’s been used for years to help interrupt painful thoughts: grab some ice and hold it for a few seconds. Do your 5-2-8 breathing
If you are having thoughts of self harm or suicide, always seek help from a professional or a trusted person. (Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line by texting “LIV” to 741-741.)
How Can You Get Support From Others?
Move the body, calm the mind. Moving your body can take you away from your negative thoughts. Ask a friend or family member to get outside with you and exercise. Play sports, do some yoga, or simply go for a walk.
You’ve probably heard: you wouldn’t say what you are saying to yourself to your best friend. But I think it is more powerful to imagine turning to a child or the younger you, and repeating your critical words. Write down your top five negative thoughts. Turn and say them to your mental health ally. Or say them out loud. You’ll hear how harsh they really are.
Negative self-talk robs us of our joy, gives unearned power to our insecurities, and is damaging to our mental health. Don’t beat yourself up with negative thoughts and don’t beat yourself up because you may not be successful all the time for combating them.
Caring about YOU and your mental health,
Read the next blog in the series: Identify: Recognize Signs of Anxiety/Depression