The Complete Guide to Mastering Negative Self-Talk

How to reframe negative beliefs, stress-test false assumptions, and conquer your inner-critic

Brian Pennie
Dec 10, 2020 · 14 min read

Language and Emotions

‘I am, by calling, a dealer in words; and words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.’ — Rudyard Kipling

Negative self-talk, rumination, and compulsive thinking play a big role in most forms of human suffering. One powerful explanation of why we engage in these harmful behaviours comes from relational frame theory (RFT), a novel account of language, self-talk, and emotion.

Source: The picture on the left is two years before I hit rock bottom. The picture on the right was taken in 2020, 9 years after I reclaimed my life.

1. Reframe negative beliefs

‘The words you speak become the house you live in.’ — Hafiz

We all have beliefs, and these are written with the words we use. If you constantly tell yourself you're a failure, you’re eventually going to believe it. If you tell yourself you suck, it’s likely that you will. It is therefore critical to choose your words carefully, especially when talking to yourself.

  • B is for your Beliefs about the event. It involves both obvious and underlying thoughts about the event (either rational or irrational).
  • C represents the Consequences — that is, your behavioural or emotional response to your beliefs about the event.

2. Stress test false assumptions

‘I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.’ — Emo Philips

Stress testing false assumptions is an extension of the ABC Model. Often referred to as the ABCDE Model, it means disputing existing beliefs based on logic and reality, rather than the assumptions you’ve made up in your head.

  • (E) New Effect: When disputation turns the irrational belief into a rational belief, and healthier consequences ensue.

3. Replace reactive words with proactive words

‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world’ — Ludwig Wittgenstein

In a world full of distractions, our stories about procrastination have become particularly problematic, with many people crippled by an inability to act: “Maybe I should start tomorrow,” “Maybe it’s best if I do X first,” “Oh, I’ll just check my social media first. Then I’ll get back into it.”

‘Hi, it’s “just” me. I “just” wanted to ask you…’

What does that say about you? Just you? I just wanted to ask you. Like there are more important people I should talk to, other more important things to talk about, or that your message is worth less than someone else’s?

4. Harness the power of metaphor

‘Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.’ — Robert Frost

Metaphors, which refer to one thing by mentioning another, provide an excellent tool for explaining difficult concepts. For example, when explaining how atoms work, you might say that electrons circle around a nucleus in the same way that a planet circles around the sun.

‘Drop the rope.’

Yes, the monster’s still there, but you’re no longer in a struggle with it. It’s the same for anxiety. When you stop struggling, you rob it of its power.

5. Observe Without Engaging

‘Dialogue is about creating awareness through self-observation; it starts from the inside out, not the outside in.’ — Oli Anderson

‘Self’ means your self-concept, your story — who you think you are. If you are suffering in some way, like I was with anxiety, disconnecting from ‘self’ will give you the freedom to experience a greater sense of well-being.

6. Speak to yourself with kindness

‘Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.’ — Christopher Germer

We all know that what people say to us can affect how we feel. We also know that the way they say it can have an equally, if not greater, impact. Sarcasm and contempt are excellent examples of this:

1. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend

Ironically, people with a harsh inner critic are generally quite compassionate with other people. If this is you, next time you catch that critical inner-voice in action, ask yourself this: “If a friend was going through the same thing, how would I respond?” While we can’t always have the ear of a compassionate friend, you can learn to be that friend to yourself.

2. Remember that you’re not alone

A key feature of self-compassion is acknowledging that you are a human being — one of 7.5 billion. Whatever your pain, other people have struggled with it too, and most likely, still do. So when that critical inner voice rears its ugly head, try to realise you’re not alone in your pain. We are all in this together. For me, that makes everything a little bit easier.

7. Unleash your hidden superpower as an antidote for your inner-critic

‘You’ve been criticising yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.’ — Louise L. Hay

We all have a personal superpower, even if we’re not aware of it. Maybe you’re not a creative thinker, but you excel with the finer details. Maybe you’re not a confident speaker, but your listening skills are second to none.

Take Away Message

Our lives are defined by what we repeatedly do. This includes our inner world: our self-talk, our thoughts, and the stories we tell ourselves and believe. These internal behaviours not only impact our external world — but they determine how we act and feel.

  • We can stress-test false assumptions.
  • We can focus on proactive self-talk.
  • We can harness the power of metaphor.
  • We can observe negative self-talk without engaging.
  • We can speak more kindly to ourselves.
  • And we can unleash our hidden superpower in times of need.

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

Brian Pennie

Written by

Change is possible. I write to show that. Author | Recovered addict | Speaker | PhD candidate.

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

Brian Pennie

Written by

Change is possible. I write to show that. Author | Recovered addict | Speaker | PhD candidate.

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

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