Each of us has an inner dialogue which can frame how we respond to events and the people around us. Unfortunately, negative self talk can show up as being overly critical of ourselves, using self deprecating language, and making statements such as ‘I’m a loser,’ or ‘I can’t do anything right.’ This kind of negative dialogue can cause certain messages to play over and over, and fuel feelings like anger and hopelessness.
A negative self-talk pattern can develop in childhood from experiences at home, school, things we may hear from peers, and also from traumatic experiences. We may remember being bullied at school, being told to ‘be tougher,’ or hearing words that made us feel hopeless and less valued. This language can become internalized and can follow us into adulthood, and impact how we respond to situations and the environment around us. For example, Fred takes an exam to get into law school, but doesn’t pass. He naturally becomes upset and frustrated at the prospect of having to retake the exam at a future date. As Fred continues to think about his exam attempt, he begins to question himself and his ability to succeed in the future. His negative self talk may show up as, ‘I’m such a screw up,’ ‘I’ll never pass,’ or ‘I’m so stupid because I’m the only one who didn’t pass.’ Fred’s early experiences may frame how he views himself, and make him question his ability to thrive in this situation.
Power of Shifting Language
Positive self talk is also a part of our internal dialogue, and focuses on our strengths and abilities. It is more encouraging, and offers more self compassion in situations where we feel we have made a mistake. Creating small shifts in our language can open us up to opportunities which may otherwise feel out of reach. Let’s take the example of Fred again. Rather than focusing on the negatives, Fred reflects on the situation with more kindness and self compassion, and with a focus on the positives of the outcome. This may show up as, ‘It’s not the end of the world,’ ‘I’m human, and I can use this as a chance to learn and make changes for the next time,’ and ‘I’m proud of myself for trying.’ This approach creates possibilities, and a sense of self-efficacy and accomplishment. Here, there is a focus on Fred’s strengths, such as his persistence and determination.
Although this may appear easy, the truth is that shifting our language takes work. When you notice unkind thoughts, take a moment to pause, and ask yourself the following: Is there a less judgemental way that I can talk to myself about this situation? Is there a kinder way to say what I just said? Can I express this thought so that it can help motivate me to grow and move forward? Another strategy involves asking yourself if you would say the negative words to others who were in a similar situation. If your close friend, family member, or loved one didn’t pass their exam, would you call him or her a screw up, or tell them they would never pass? Not likely! In these situations, we are much more critical of ourselves than we would be of others in similar situations. Also consider a written activity, and note down three positive adjectives that someone who cares about you would choose to describe you. Now take a moment and look at those words reflected back to you from the paper.
Language is a powerful tool, and sometimes we can forget the impact that it can have. Our negative internal dialogues are not an accurate representation of our current abilities, choices, or circumstances. That negative chatter is not true, helpful, or productive, and is often frozen in time from past experiences. Creating small shifts in our language allows us to recognize that mistakes are not a reflection of who we are. Lending ourselves kindness and compassion serves to enhance our possibilities, rather than diminish our capabilities.
Wishing you all a happy and safe summer!