The Complete Guide to Mastering Negative Self-Talk
How to reframe negative beliefs, stress-test false assumptions, and conquer your inner-critic
For the past seven years, I’ve been obsessed with language and self-talk, and how they relate to emotion. This obsession grew out of the realization that self-talk and anxiety drove me toward a life of heroin addiction.
Driven by childhood trauma, I was tormented by the voices in my head, and the stories that I told myself. As I got older, my anxiety got worse, and so did my urge to escape it.
I began using drugs when I was 14 years old, and by the time I was 20, I was a full-blown heroin addict. I spent the next 15 years destroying my body and mind. But I was lucky. Pummelled into submission by the most painful night of my life, life gave me a second chance, and I devoured every second of it.
That was in October 2013, when I began to design my program for life. Since then, I’ve become a final year PhD student, an author, a life change strategist, consultant to some of Ireland’s leading corporations, and a lecturer at the top two universities in Ireland.
During my psychology studies, I met Professor Yvonne Barnes-Holmes, a wizard of a therapist, and a world expert in the field of language and cognition. Yvonne was a guiding light on my journey, both personally and professionally, and now we have written this article together.
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.
This article is not about the science of self-talk [you can find that here]. But I would like to explain several components of language (i.e., self-talk) that are important to understand.
First, language is symbolic (i.e., it relates words to real things). For example, the word “seat” is something we have chosen to represent an actual seat. Thus, the word and the object are related to each other, and you affirm this relationship when you use the word “seat.”
Second, language is relational. Take this sentence: “A seat is the same as a chair.” In this case, “seat” and “chair” are related to one another as similar. This is the simplest form of relation, but words can relate in a variety of different ways: “Feeling sad is the opposite of feeling happy.” “Mindfulness is a type of meditation.” The latter is a hierarchical relation, where mindfulness is contained within meditation. There are also comparative (e.g., “more than” or “less than”) and spatial relations such as “Whiskey is stronger than wine” and “The chair is beside the table.”
Third, language is generative. This means we can learn new relationships without being directly told, or even being aware of them. For instance, if you know rum is a strong liquor, and I tell you that Bacardi is a type of rum (i.e., they are now related), what you know about rum will transfer to what you know about Bacardi, even though you have only just heard about the latter. This is a key facet of how we think and learn.
Lastly, and most importantly when it comes to negative self-talk, language provides a vehicle for emotion. That is, emotions travel through words and thoughts. As a result, rumination, compulsive thinking, and negative self-talk are key vehicles for emotional and psychological pain.
To illustrate this more clearly, consider my own personal experiences when I was addicted to heroin. The spoken word “heroin” held many of the same psychological properties as an actual bag of heroin. Even during severe withdrawal, by simply hearing I was about to get a fix, my psychological and physical functioning would improve before I even put the drugs in my body.
On one occasion, I remember feeling fine until I realized I had forgotten to take my methadone (a heroin substitute). Within seconds, my stomach was upset, I had begun to shiver, and sweat was streaming down my cold body.
Self-talk is powerful, especially when we use it against ourselves.
Here are 7 science-based techniques to help you to master your self-talk and, as a result, change how you feel, change how you act, and ultimately, change how you live your 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.
- A is for Adversity (something bad happens).
- 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.
The basic idea behind the ABC model is that “(A) adversity does not cause difficult emotions (i.e., (C) consequences) — our (B) beliefs do, particularly when they’re irrational beliefs.
Take this example. You get passed over for a promotion at work. This is the (A) adverse event, which triggers negative (B) beliefs such as “I’m a failure. I’m stupid. I’m never going to amount to anything.” What do you think the (C) consequences of such beliefs might be? You’ll feel sad, dejected, and depressed. And you might not even apply for the next promotion.
Now let's say your colleague also applied for the job. They get passed over too, but their beliefs around the event are entirely different: “Maybe I wasn’t the right fit for the role. Maybe someone else did a better interview. I should have researched the role better.” What do you think the consequences of such beliefs might be? They’ll get on with their day and prepare better next time.
The idea behind the ABC model is to explore the connections between your beliefs, and the consequences of those beliefs. Once you identify these beliefs, especially if they’re irrational, you’ll be able to reframe them to better suit your needs. Over time, you’ll learn how to recognize other potential beliefs (B) about adverse events (A). This allows the opportunity for healthier consequences (C) which can help you to move forward.
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.
In this extended model, D stands for Disputation, and E refers to the New Effect.
- (D) Disputation: When irrational beliefs are the cause of unhealthy consequences, you must dispute those beliefs and turn them into rational beliefs.
- (E) New Effect: When disputation turns the irrational belief into a rational belief, and healthier consequences ensue.
Consider how this might work from the example above. Having been passed over for a promotion at work, you believe you’re a stupid failure who’ll never amount to anything. Instead of accepting these beliefs, however, you dispute them using logic. In other words, you stress test your assumptions.
Questioning your existing beliefs is the best way to do this. Am I a failure? “Well, no, I’ve succeeded in many areas of life. Maybe I wasn't the right fit for the role.” Am I stupid? “No. I’m quite average in terms of intelligence. Maybe my preparation wasn’t great.” Will I never amount to anything? “Well, this attitude won’t help, so maybe I better change it.”
The consequences of your original beliefs were sadness and dejection. But by disputing these irrational beliefs, you now have a New Effect — (E). Just like your colleague who also got passed over for the job, instead of avoiding future promotion opportunities, you might use it as a lesson try better next time.
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.”
When this kind of internal dialogue goes unchecked, nothing gets done. When you do catch it, however, it is vital that you act. I simply switch the above with “just do it,” or, if I’m feeling less motivated, I’ll say “let’s just make a start.” Sometimes a start is all you need, and momentum takes care of the rest.
Other less obvious phrases that can stop you taking action should also be avoided. For example, reactive words such as “I can’t,” “if only,” “I must,” or “they made me feel that way” should be replaced with proactive words and phrases such as “I will,” “I can,” “I prefer to,” and “let’s look at this another way.” This practice is empowering, and when you make the switch, even your posture will change.
In challenging situations, you should also track the questions you ask yourself. For instance, replacing “why me?” (head-based) with “what can I do about this?” (action-based) will instil in you a sense of strength, directing you toward corrective action rather than worrying about your problems.
There is another word, which is far more subtle, that you should try to eliminate from your vocabulary. The word is “just,” and although it appears harmless, believe me, it is not.
‘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?
When you use the word ‘just,’ you immediately diminish yourself, what you are doing, or who you are with. Worse than that, when ‘just’ becomes part of your internal narrative, you are disempowering yourself. Just is a terrible word, and it should be avoided at all costs.
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.
Metaphors can also be used on a psychological level to explain abstract concepts such as anxiety, acceptance, and suffering. When used correctly, the psychological properties of one reference point transfer over to the other, thus providing people with a more concrete understanding of their problems.
For example, a person struggling with anxiety will often try to fight back. But this only creates more anxiety. A great metaphor for this is a tug-of-war with an anxiety monster.
You have one end of the rope, and the monster has the other. In between both of you, there’s a bottomless pit. You pull as hard as you can, but the monster is stronger and pulls you closer to the pit. You’re stuck. What should you do?
‘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.
In other words, instead of fighting anxiety or allowing it to take control of your actions, you can acknowledge that it’s there, set healthy boundaries, and try to get on with your day regardless.
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.
Self-observation, which is a form of meditation, helps you to do just that. It involves mindfully observing your self-talk, feelings, and bodily sensations.
For example, if I asked you to observe how tense your body feels, you might take a step back and focus on a specific area, such as a lump in your throat or a tight chest. If I asked you about your self-talk and feelings, you could observe this too. You might be worrying about money, why your chest feels so tight, or why everyone except you seems to be able to cope.
The point is, you can take an observer’s perspective of self-talk, feelings, and bodily sensations. When you implement this practice, however, you must do so without engaging.
The clouds metaphor explains this best. Imagine your self-talk, feelings, or bodily sensations as clouds floating through the sky. Sometimes they’re dark and angry. Sometimes they’re light and calm. But ‘you’ are not the clouds. You are the blue sky who observes the clouds, without engaging. You simply observe them until they pass.
Self-observation not only improves self-awareness — it provides you with a sense of detachment in challenging situations. Instead of being controlled by negative self-talk and feelings, an ability to observe them will arise instead.
I have a wonderful relationship with anxiety today. I still get anxious in challenging situations — it’s natural after all — but with the help of self-observation, I watch it pass by, without engaging.
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:
“It’s fine. It’s fine. I’ll do EVERYTHING. It’s fine.”
In this example, it’s not what’s said, but how it’s said — the tone, the cadence, and feeling behind the words — that carries the real punch.
The same thing applies to the way we talk to ourselves. While this isn’t an issue for everyone — it depends on the tone of the words — for those with a harsh inner-critic, issues with self-worth, and for those who constantly doubt themselves, this can be highly self-destructive.
Here a few examples of negative, judgmental, and sometimes, even cruel self-talk: “Ugh, I can’t get ANYTHING right.” “Fucking hell… are you STUPID or something.” “I might as well be dead. No one takes any notice of me anyway.” “You’re SOOOO fat. Why can’t you eat like normal people.” “What the hell is wrong with you?”
While most people would never of speak to anyone else like that, those with a critical inner voice are happy to berate themselves with this poisonous kind of self-talk — even though it never serves a purpose.
If you struggle with negative self-talk, you need to pay more attention to the tone of your words. And if you find you’re being harsh towards yourself, you’ll need to take a more compassionate approach. Here are two great ways via Clinical Psychologist Nick Wignall to use self-compassion to silence negative self-talk.
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.
When we look deeply, there are so many areas where we can shine. You might have great energy, incredible empathy for others, or you are loyal and kind and can always be relied upon. The fact is, we all have a personal superpower. But if you’re not aware of it, you won’t be able to harness its power.
To use your superpower as a weapon against your inner-critic, you’ll first need to identify what it is. Start by asking yourself: “What do I do effortlessly that others tend to struggle with?” It might be something that’s not initially obvious, such as patience with your kids, natural enthusiasm, or a curious mind. It’s best to journal on this. You could also ask your friends the same question. Or you could use this character check survey to point you in the right direction.
Once you identify your personal superpower, you’ll need to understand that not everyone has this gift. While it may exist in others, you have your own particular flavour of it. You are a specialist in the field — the top 5%. Be appreciative of this fact and it will work even better for you. Embody it. Feel it. And visualise yourself putting it into action for even greater results.
Now that you’ve identified your superpower, it’s time to hone it to a fine art. Call on it regularly, and feel the confidence that comes from having mastery of it. This means you can do more with it, take on new challenges, safe in the knowledge that you’re the one pulling the strings.
Once you’re comfortable with your superpower, it’s time to take on your inner-critic. First, you’ll need to catch your harsh self-talk in full flight. Self-observation works great for this. Then, the next time you catch that inner voice berating you, that’s when you unleash your superpower.
So what do you do? Instead of falling victim to this poisonous internal chatter, you focus on your strengths. When that critical voice is trying to hold you back, bring your superpower to the forefront of your mind. This will remind you that you are not only good at what you do — you are one of the best. Use this tactic every time the inner-critic tries to bring you down: it’s a gift to yourself — an antidote for your inner-critic
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.
Thankfully, we have power over our inner world.
- We can reframe negative beliefs.
- 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.
Change happens from the inside out. When you change your self-talk, you change how you feel. When you change how you feel, you change how you act. And when you change how you act, you change your life.
If you’d like to dig deeper into the nature and science of self-talk, check out my online course, Master Your Self-Talk.