We all have that inner critic. Sometimes, it’s the push we need to work harder, go further, be better. At other times, though, it chips away at our self-belief until we feel incapable of doing what we want/need to do. It tells us we’re stupid, fat, worthless. That nobody likes us anyway. That we are undeserving of love or respect. That we are smaller – so much smaller – than we actually are.
And, understandably, all of this can have a hugely negative impact on our mental health.
As Fearne Cotton recently noted in her Happy Place podcast: “We all have this inner voice that sits there on the tip of our tongues desperate to get out…
“Sometimes it’s really loud and everyone hears it, and other times it just niggles in the back of your head… [and] occasionally the voice will say, ‘hey, you’re actually OK at this’ – which is very rare. Very, very rare.
“As humans, we’re all looking for that voice. And whether it’s loud or quiet, it’s there. I think we have to kind of acknowledge that it does exist. It is there.”
Keen to learn more, I reached out to psychologist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari to ask her about how the best ways to recognise and deal with negative self-talk.
What is Negative Self-Talk?
Basically, negative self-talk is any inner dialogue you have with yourself that may be limiting your ability to believe in yourself and your own abilities, and reach your potential.
“Negative self-talk is often the little – or not so little – voice in our head comparing us to others, putting us down, criticising, judging, and inducing self-doubt, shame and guilt,” explains Ben-Ari.
“Often this voice repeats itself over and over again, with no resolution.”
What Are Some Examples of Negative Self-Talk?
Negative self-talk is unique to the individual, but judgemental and critical statements make up the bulk of it.
Watch out for variations on these common expressions:
- “It’s all my fault.”
- “Nothing looks right on me today.”
- “Why can’t I be like them?”
- “I never should have…”
- “They must think I’m…”
- “I know I look awful today.”
- “I’m such an idiot.”
- “I’m not worth it.”
- “I can’t do it.”
Where Does Negative Self-Talk Come From?
As part of Stylist’s Love Women campaign – our pledge to celebrate all women – we surveyed Stylist readers in a bid to investigate how both traditional and social media impact women. The survey found that both have a profound effect on our self-esteem, leading to a damaging comparison culture when we don’t feel we live up to the images we see on our screens and in magazines.
Here are some of the most shocking results:
- 14% of women have high levels of self-esteem
- 83% of women say social media negatively affects their self-esteem
- 40% of women compare themselves with other people’s successful careers
- 39% of women compare themselves with women they think look pristine without effort
- 58% of women say that social media has changed how others view them and how they view others
On top of this, some 44% of our readers can’t help but compare when we see others having amazing experiences; for others it’s career success (40%) or benchmarking where they’re at in their life compared to their peers (38%) that makes them feel inferior.
And all of this, in turn, causes us to be more self-critical.
How Does Negative Self-Talk Affect Us?
Studies have linked negative self-talk with higher levels of stress and lower levels of self-esteem. This can lead to decreased motivation as well as greater feelings of helplessness. And this type of critical inner dialogue has even been linked to depression.
“When the majority of this talk is negative, it can directly affect the brain’s neurocognitions, hormones and nervous system,” explains Ben-Ari, “which consequently can affect our confidence, raise anxiety and cause undue stress.”
How Can I Overcome Negative Self-Talk?
If you find yourself spiralling as a result of negative self-talk, Ben-Ari says that there are five things you should do:
- Notice: be aware that your guest (the inner critic) has shown up. Something as simple as acknowledging this could be the key to stopping a negative self-talk spiral in its tracks.
- Observe: leave your mind and observe your thoughts, feelings and physical reactions from this voice. You are not your thoughts. You can take a step back and observe, noticing the effect they are having on you. Pay attention to your heart-beat, warmth, breath, tensing of the muscles. In noticing these changes, you can start to lessen the effects.
- Accept: accept the situation with self-compassion. Remind yourself, “I’m not perfect, I’m a human being and I have my own vulnerability. I try my best. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out how I wanted it to, but this is what it means to be human. I am not alone with this.” When we put too much energy into avoiding or rejecting a thought, the opposite can happen, so allow it to occur and accept it if you cannot change it.
- Replace: make it a point to imagine yourself saying this to a treasured friend. If you know you wouldn’t say it this way, think of how you’d share your thoughts with a good friend or what you’d like a good friend to say to you. This is a great way to replace the negative self-talk with a positive, accepting or compassionate voice.
- Question: be curious to explore why you had a particular reaction and open up your own dialogue with the voice, and turn it on its head.
- Do. Move. Act: being active is crucial to breaking the cycle of negative self-talk. Moving your body, playing music, dancing, singing or taking action towards a new goal can shift you and your energy in the right direction.
Ben-Ari adds that, if negative self-talk is affecting your quality of life, you should seek professional help.
“If you feel overwhelmed by everyday experiences, or experience anxiety and low energy as a result of negative self-talk – or it’s affecting your quality of life, the quality of your relationships with others or your own well-being – it might be time to get some outside help,” she says.
“Negative self-talk is often rooted in past trauma and professional support can offer a great deal of healing and growth.”
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.