I’m Mean to Myself All Day — Here’s How Mental Health Pros Say I Can Fix That

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Do you ever drop and break a plate when you’re doing dishes and immediately think to yourself, You idiot? Or make a mistake at work and spend the rest of the day telling yourself how incompetent you are? Psychologists refer to that inner dialogue as “self-talk” — and, unfortunately, many of us can be quite cruel to ourselves inside our own heads. 

“To put it simply, I think of positive self-talk as any internal conversation that uplifts and encourages us, with negative self-talk being the kind of language that berates, invalidates, and discourages us,” says therapist Jor-El Caraballo, co-founder of Viva in Brooklyn.

Jenny Weinar, a psychedelic-assisted therapist based in Philadelphia, says there are a few reasons people engage in negative self-talk. First, it’s a way to protect ourselves: If we can identify all our shortcomings and flaws before anyone else does, perhaps we can evade rejection or criticism. “Many people also believe that negative self-talk will motivate them to change for the better, although the opposite is usually true. Negative self-talk can often become so consuming that it ultimately worsens mental and physical health, preventing us from taking any productive action,” Weinar says. “There is good research suggesting that self-compassion is much more effective at motivating us.”

So if you’re ready to counter the negative self-talk and make self-compassion a habit, here’s how mental health pros recommend getting started.

Examine where the negative self-talk is coming from.

“One of the first steps is simply gaining some awareness around your negative self-talk,” says Weinar. She recommends establishing a mindfulness or meditation practice to help get in touch with what’s really going on in your mind. “Once you’ve started noticing your negative self-talk more, you have the opportunity to practice turning toward yourself with kindness. For some people it’s helpful to imagine how they would talk to a friend or a child.”

Ash M. Seruya, a psychotherapist based in New York City, agrees that the first step is to recognize “all of the ways in which shame and blame have woven themselves into your current perspective. We can’t change something we don’t know intimately, so getting to know the unhelpful internal talk and understanding it — where it comes from, what traumas might be related to it, how it might have actually helped you get through in your past — is essential.”

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Find a therapist you trust and be prepared to do some hard work. 

“It’s important to work closely with a therapist or mental health clinician to help develop your own approach to your internal self-talk,” says Seruya. “It’s a lot of intentional hard work, over and over, and treating yourself with as much kindness and compassion as you can along the way.” In fact, she says, sometimes the clinician themselves can be the one to provide that kindness — especially when you haven’t yet learned to do it for yourself.

Plus, a therapist might notice your negative self-talk more than you and shine a spotlight on it, Weinar says. “When I hear someone’s harsh inner critic surface in a therapy session, I’ll often ask, ‘Whose voice was that?’ so that we might explore where that negative self-talk came from.”

Keep a list of “pushback phrases” handy. 

Seruya recommends keeping a note on your phone with specific phrases to help you push back against the negative or unhelpful thoughts. “Having it written down in plain text can really help guide you when you’re feeling flustered or defeated as most of us can’t pull our skills out of the hat when we need them the most,” they say. 

Some examples? “I am not incapable, I am just experiencing a barrier. How can I help myself identify and navigate this barrier?” Or, “I am not lazy, I am just experiencing overwhelm. What can I do to alleviate this overwhelm?”

Try creating an alter ego.

Several of Caraballo’s clients have found success in countering their negative self-talk by giving them some sort of alter ego. 

“When a distorted thought about ourselves appears we can say, ‘this is the distortion talking’ or ‘that sounds like your villain brain taking over,’” he says. “Sometimes people find it helpful to give that entity a name and I recommend creating (or finding) a visual to represent that negative part to help clients better envision the difference between themself and the thoughts they are having.”

Be patient and trust the process.

No matter how much you commit to self-compassion, unhelpful internal dialogue won’t stop altogether. “Rather, when you push back against the instinct to engage in self-flagellation and self-blame, you begin to create new neural pathways in your brain that, over time, become just as automatic as the self-blame,” says Seruya. “Over time, the more you can honor the unhelpful thoughts while also rerouting yourself to a perspective that is more productive, the less frequent those unhelpful thoughts become, and the less intense they become.”

Ultimately, remember that making positive self-talk a habit will take practice — but the end result will be so worth it.

“It’s not healthy to go about your daily life with an emotional abuser living inside your head. No one deserves that,” Caraballo says. “Just imagine, if you had a better internal dialogue, how might your day-to-day change? What might you be able to do?”