We all have our inner critics. That inner critic can be especially harsh, perhaps even debilitating, if you suffered constant verbal and emotional abuse growing up. Part of healing involves learning how to stop that negative self-talk so you can be kinder to yourself.
Where does negative self-talk come from?
If you had an abusive parent growing up, that harsh inner voice in your head telling you that you’re not good enough isn’t your voice; it’s your parent’s.
Many abusers’ purpose is to tear their victims down so they can feel powerful and in control. Most of the time, it’s because they feel inferior or insecure so they demean you to feel better about themselves. If you grew up in a strict, critical, or abusive household, chances are you struggle with pretty severe negative self-talk.
Your parent’s hurtful words ingrained in you concepts, attitudes, expectations, and perceptions about yourself and the world around you. You end up believing all the hurtful things they said to you, accepting them as truths.
If growing up you’re often told “you’re ugly” or “you’re stupid”, you most likely internalized these messages. And these messages have become a part of you.
You can’t seem to live your life without repeating these messages to yourself. “No one would ever love someone as ugly as me” or “I can never do anything right with how stupid I am.”
Recognize that your negative self-talk didn’t originate from you but from your abusive parent. It’s like you’ve replaced their voice with your own and taken over their role to emotionally and verbally abuse yourself.
Once you’ve identified that your negative self-talk isn’t coming from you, it’s time to change that self-talk.
The following method on how to stop negative self-talk is inspired by Susan Forward’s Lies and Truths Exercise in her book, Mothers Who Can’t Love.
You can download my free self-talk worksheet from the Freebies page to work on alongside this post.
Step 1: Recognize that your negative self-talk is lies
The negative messages that you have heard growing up are basically lies – lies about yourself that the abuser fed you that you believed to be true.
To stop negative self-talk, you need to first make a list of all these negative messages (aka “lies”) that you tell yourself.
Write as much as you can think of. But don’t stress about how much you can remember. Just write what comes to mind. As you write down each lie, think about where it originated from.
Questions to Ask Yourself As You Write Down Each Lie
These questions will help you realize what causes negative self-talk, its effects on you, and why changing it would be beneficial.
Who said it?
Even if you are the only one currently saying it to yourself, the lie still originated from somewhere. It’s likely from your abuser, but can also be from another source. When you’ve dealt with early abuse, you’re likely more sensitive to criticism. Therefore, any little flaw on your part can become part of the library of negative messages you tell yourself.
Also, sometimes the abuser (or other “bullies” in your life) doesn’t have to straight-up say things like “you’re ugly” or “you’re stupid”. Just comparisons or implications, like “your sister is so pretty” or “why can’t you be as smart as that other kid?”, can be enough to make you come up with and say these negative messages to yourself.
Why did they say it?
You don’t have to know the answer to this question. Most people don’t. But the abuser likely wants you to doubt yourself and question your abilities. They call you names and insult you because they are likely projecting their insecurities onto you. Once again, they tear you down to build themselves up.
How does the lie make me feel?
These internalized messages likely trigger painful feelings inside of you. They probably make you feel sad, angry, guilty, ashamed, bitter, bad, defiant, or embarrassed.
Spend a little time thinking about each lie as you write it down. Think about how they became so ingrained in you. Each of them is likely linked to trauma from your past.
How did it shape who I am?
The negative feelings each lie triggers lead to self-defeating behavior. In a way, you engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy in making that lie truth.
Why is it time to let that lie go?
Think about how letting that lie go can change who you are and your mindset about yourself and the world around you. Think of the positive changes that could occur.
I’ll use my lie, “I will never succeed”, as an example.
Why did they say it? She feels unaccomplished and projects her insecurities onto me. It was also easy for her to target a child who hasn’t accomplished anything yet.
How does the lie make me feel? It makes me disappointed with myself like I can’t do anything right and that I can never accomplish anything.
Telling myself that “I will never succeed” is linked to all the times my mother said “you will never succeed in life”, “you will never amount to anything”, “you are stupid”, “you are a failure”, “you can’t do anything right”. It is linked to all the times she would go on and on about how much smarter she is than me, how much more successful she is, and how much more she has accomplished. It is linked to all the times she has pointed out my failures, flaws, and vulnerabilities, criticizing them and making fun of them.
How did it shape who I am? I am scared to pursue anything because I don’t think I’ll succeed. I’m scared of failure. I give up before I try because I don’t see the point in trying if I’m going to fail anyway.
Because I believe that I’ll never succeed, I give up on trying. And because I don’t try, the lie that I’ll never succeed will ultimately become truth.
Why is it time to let that lie go? It keeps me from reaching my potential. If I let it go, I will not be scared to pursue things even if I do fail. Maybe I could succeed. I’ll never know until I try.
Step 2: Reason why your negative self-talk isn’t truths
The next step in how to stop negative self-talk is to reason with yourself about why the lies you tell yourself aren’t true.
So next to each lie you have, write down why they aren’t true. Make your argument. Provide evidence. Be as specific as you want. It’s okay to brag.
“I’ll never succeed” is a lie because I have accomplished many things in my life already. I am a good sister/parent, a good wife, and I was a good student. I graduated college with a perfect GPA despite going through a lot at the time. I’m still alive and trying to live life to the fullest with my loved ones. And most importantly, I got custody of my siblings!
Even if you think the lie has some truth to it, write down how you are working to change it.
For example, instead of keeping a message as I’m so fat, change it to I’m overweight and add, but I am working on being more active and eating a healthier diet.
If you believe the lie is true, such as something like “I’m awful at sports”, write down how it isn’t a big deal or how it doesn’t define who you are. It is just one tiny element of your overall identity.
It’s okay if what you wrote isn’t relevant to the lie. What’s important is that you realize how one negative thing about you doesn’t negate all the positive things about you.
You are not perfect. You have flaws. We all do. As cliche as it sounds, it’s what makes us unique. Focus on your strengths and recognize that you do indeed have them.
Having trouble? Think about it this way
If you are having trouble writing anything, try to think of a loved one or close friend that is saying these negative things to themselves. What would you say to them?
Would you go, “Oh yeah, that’s true”? Or would you counter them with evidence and reasoning, like “That’s not true. Remember that one time…” or “Okay, you’re not the best at that, but you are good at….”
It’s often easier for us to stand up for other people and see the good in them while having a lot of trouble defending ourselves.
If you are still having trouble, have someone close to you provide some evidence to counter your lies.
Have them tell you all the good things about you and why those negative messages aren’t true, and how even if they are, it’s not all that you are. Make sure to tell them to remain honest and realistic and not to give broad statements like “you’re awesome”, but give specific instances as to why you are.
Step 3: Replace your negative self-talk with positive but realistic self-talk
Now it’s time to replace each lie with a truth. Each truth should be a positive, but realistic message that counters the lie. And I stress being positive and realistic.
Also, make sure that the truth resonates with you. It has to be something that you believe.
You might not think there’s anything good to say about yourself, but inside, you know there are positive things about you.
Keep this list of truths with you. Look at it whenever you feel and start thinking negatively. Look at it every so often if you want.
Now, whenever you have a negative message about yourself, try to be aware and stop yourself before you start spiraling down and going back to that dark place. Stand up to the bully!
Once the negative thought starts creeping into your mind, stop your thought process, and go straight for the truth.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. So don’t expect to get it right off the bat. It’s pretty impossible. To get to that point, here are some tips that can help you gradually but effectively reframe your negative self-talk and thinking patterns.
Use “I feel” instead of “I am”
I know how natural and instinctual these negative messages could be. Before I realize it, “I’m stupid” comes out of my mouth left and right without me truly processing it.
I notice that my much less self-critical partner says “I feel stupid” whenever he messes up. So I thought, hey, that’s a start.
So instead of thinking or saying “I am stupid”, “I am ugly”, or “I am [insert negative adjective here]”, try to at least change it to “I feel stupid” or “I feel ugly”.
Recognize that what it is you are criticizing and insulting about yourself is a feeling at a specific moment, not who you are.
Know what triggers your negative self-talk
One big way to stop negative self-talk is to start picking up on when it begins. Once you notice yourself thinking in any sort of negative way, stop yourself. Train yourself to stop that thought from going further.
Then, think about what happened that could have triggered the negative self-talk.
So before I get to that point, I try to stop myself and think about the “truth”. If I’m having trouble because my mind is just in a negative place, I’ll do something to distract myself. Once my mind is more clear – this could be minutes or hours later – I ask myself why the negative voice popped up.
A lot of my negative self-talk is triggered when I make some sort of mistake, like overcooking my food, answering something wrong, or even dropping something. I tend to beat myself up over little things I mess up on. I realized that I do this to myself because this was how I was treated growing up. So it became second nature.
Every little mistake I made, even when it isn’t my fault, was followed by insults and criticisms of my ability and self-worth, along with a recount of many mistakes I’ve committed before. It only makes sense why my mind would go there when I mess up. I was basically conditioned that way.
Reason, reason, reason
You must recondition yourself. Stop yourself once you notice the negative self-talk and reason out why it isn’t true. Then, tell yourself what is true.
Do not go to the place where you end up wallowing in negativity and self-hatred, which looks something like this: I can’t do anything right. How can I expect to achieve anything or succeed in life if I can’t even do the simplest thing? I’m such a failure.
Once you recognize the beginning of the negative pattern, stop yourself, and go “that’s not true because…” Focus on the truth and end it at that.
Move on with the rest of your day rather than dwell on the mess-up you did that triggered the negative thought. Because once you start dwelling on that little mistake you made, it adds to the list of mistakes you ever made that will be brought up by future mistakes.
Do not focus on what-ifs
If you focus on what-ifs to what happened, you will end up being filled with regret and shame, thinking about how you could have done things differently.
You will end up obsessing over that little mistake that will end up consuming you and reinforcing that lie you tell yourself.
Give yourself a break
If you really have to go back to the situation, because it’s just there in the back of your mind causing unease and you just have to get your closure, at least give yourself a little breather first.
Look at it from a different perspective and ask questions
Once you’re ready, try to look back at what you did from an objective and realistic perspective. And I repeat, objective and realistic.
Analyze the situation and question it from a third party’s perspective. The more you ask, the more you’ll realize it wasn’t as bad as you thought.
What’s the worst thing that happened because of the mistake?
Most of the time, nothing much. Life goes on for everyone else while you wallow in regret and shame about what you did.
Could the situation have ended up much worse?
Yes. Almost always, yes.
How memorable is my mistake to other people?
Think about other people’s mistakes. How much can you recall? Not much, I bet. We are often our own worst critics.
If you are reacting to someone’s reaction to you and you think they’re judging you and thinking negatively about you, remind yourself that you cannot read their minds.
You might think they’re thinking all those negative messages you tell yourself, but they probably aren’t. Even if they are, chances are they won’t think about it for long.
You are the only one obsessed with your flaws. If they are obsessed with your flaws, then something is wrong with them. Not you.
You can’t control other people’s thoughts and actions. You can only control your own.
The Bottom Line
I’m not going to lie; this will be a difficult process. Catching yourself when your negative self-talk starts takes a lot of mindfulness and awareness. But it is something you can train yourself to do. It will get easier as time goes on.
Remember the three Rs
- Recognize where your negative self-talk comes from
- Reason why it doesn’t define who you are
- Replace the negative self-talk with positive but realistic self-talk
Living with Your Truths
It will always take effort for those of us that’s been programmed early on to think negatively of ourselves. But the effort will lessen as we continue to think positively and realistically of ourselves.
If you’re like me, you might feel uncomfortable with self-praise. You might feel like you’re being narcissistic or you’re a fraud because you don’t believe the good things you say about yourself.
This is because you were told the opposite – all those lies – early on or throughout your life, causing you to believe those negative things about yourself, accepting them as true.
Therefore, anything not “true” to what you’ve been programmed to believe makes you uncomfortable. In a way, you feel like you’re lying to yourself. However, I assure you that you are not. Inside, you know you’re being hard on yourself.
I’m not saying to think of yourself as some super sexy genius. But do think of yourself in a more realistic light. This is beneficial for your mental well-being and future endeavors.
Know that it is okay to have flaws and that you can improve upon them. Embrace your imperfections but realize that you have strengths, too.
Confidence vs. Arrogance
There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Trust and tell yourself that you will not cross that line. You don’t have to say your truths out loud. Just think it.
If you are worried about being too self-involved, you are showing awareness, something conceited people often do not have.
The whole reason you have negative self-talk in the first place is that you are insecure and you doubt yourself. So you need to learn that you are great, too. Thinking you’re great isn’t arrogance; it’s self-love.
You can start worrying once you start rubbing in people’s faces just how awesome you are, thinking you’re better than them. But until that happens, be kind to yourself.
To learn more about your inner voice, I highly recommend checking out the book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It.
Psychologist Ethan Kross discusses the importance of our inner voice and how we can use it to combat negative self-talk, negative thoughts, and anxiety as well as improve our health and relationships.
Once your truths become a part of you, you will be more aware when negative self-talk comes. And when that happens, you will get more used to going through the reasoning that counters the lie and leads to the truth.
Be who you want to be without someone, including yourself, telling you that who you are isn’t good enough. You are kind to others, so why can’t you be kind to yourself?
Hi there, I’m Estee.
Having been raised by an abusive mother, I developed an interest in mental health to better learn, understand, and manage the effects the abuse had on me. My experiences inspired me to create Hopeful Panda.
In my free time, you’ll find me cooking, organizing, playing video games, writing, or spending time with my family. You can read more about me and my blog here.
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