Chances are, you’re scolded, insulted, and criticized dozens of times a day—by your own thoughts.
We continually narrate our lives, generating an estimated 80,000 snippets of mental dialogue daily. We tend, however, to think mostly negative thoughts. This Debbie Downer discourse—known as negative self-talk—makes up roughly 80% of our internal dialogue, according to experts.
The complaints often begin with “I can’t,” “I won’t,” or “I’ll never.” And these negative statements carry more psychological weight than positive thoughts.
This relentless badgering can compromise confidence for even the most self-assured people. But for the estimated 43.8 million Americans battling diagnosable mental illnesses, negative self-talk can be downright disastrous.
Fortunately, proven therapeutic techniques and common pharmaceuticals can help those who take the internal scolding to heart, while recent advances in genetic testing can help identify the types of medications to accelerate the healing process.
To silence your self-doubt, you need to understand why it happens.
“Blame and guilt are actually part of the brain’s reward circuitry,” explains Alex Korb, Ph.D., author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. “If we blame ourselves, we reassure ourselves that bad things happen only because it’s our fault, not because they occur randomly.”
Trying to suppress the negativity isn’t enough. To send it packing for good, you need to cultivate the skills of awareness, labeling, distraction, replacement, reframing, and gratitude. Here’s how.
“To break a habit, you first have to notice it,” says Korb. So when you consciously “hear” what you’re telling yourself, you can better control your reaction to those messages. One effective way to tune in is through mindful meditation.
Meditators learn to acknowledge and observe their mental activity without automatically accepting the unpleasant thoughts as true or relevant. Their refusal to identify with negative feelings helps strip those feelings of their psychological power, as meditators master “seeing” the unpleasant statements and then releasing them to dissipate on their own.
But you don’t need to sit quietly and look inside yourself to get similar benefits.
“I often ask athletes to begin journaling what they’re thinking,” says high-performance coach Eric Bean, Ph.D., a San Diego–based certified mental performance consultant from the Association of Applied Sport Psychology.
Once they start writing down their thoughts, many are so surprised by the number of relentless self-condemnations that they dedicate themselves to seeing and stopping the self-sabotage.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also help increase awareness. This popular psychological treatment protocol helps build observational skills by guiding patients through the process of noticing, interrogating, and refuting internal negativity.
Once thoughts are seen and heard, they can be labeled—as false, unfair, unproductive, or just plain mean. One way to accomplish this is to narrate your thoughts in the third person (“he,” “she,” “John,” “Mary”) rather than the first person (“I,” “me”).
University of Michigan researchers have found that this tactic creates psychological distance. Addressing yourself in an objective and more impersonal way helps remove some of the psychological burden of judgment that often accompanies “I” statements.
And that makes an assessment less likely to trigger a downward spiral of recrimination and regret.
Without time and attention, habits starve. So self-talkers who can distract themselves from harsh messages—often through CBT—remove the nourishment that negativity requires.
Physical activity can also help deflect the focus away from negative self-talk. Taking a walk, moving to a different location, or meeting a friend can provide distractions, a conclusion bolstered by a 2016 article in The Lancet.
The study found that the simple strategy of encouraging troubled thinkers to be active and involved in the world can serve as a less intensive way of helping to diminish bad feelings “with no lesser effect than CBT.”
Even small gestures can make a difference, Bean explains: “A minor physical activity, like tapping the wrist, can remind you to shift away from negative thoughts.”
Similarly, redefining, replacing, and reframing reinforce that you are not your thoughts. With time and dedicated practice, negative self-talkers learn to immediately substitute upbeat interpretations for unproductive ones. Consider how this might work with this baseball example:
New Jersey–based mental skills coach John Hodson routinely trains budding athletes to reinterpret stressful situations as exciting opportunities for skill building. Last season, his advice guided a 19-year-old minor leaguer through the intimidating prospect of stepping into a major league batter’s box for the first time by cultivating a new habit.
He guided the player through recasting his racing heartbeat and sweaty palms as evidence of joy and exhilaration, rather than fear and trepidation. Through practice, the young player learned to transform scary possibilities into automatic, affirmational dialogue. And that enabled him to sharpen his focus and improve his play.
Hodson has since applied the same tactics to his day job. As a marketing mentor and sometime motivational speaker, he’s helped colleagues battle performance anxiety and demanding expectations by training them to view tough situations as important opportunities to grow, learn, and build skills.
The strategy replaces the negative “I’m going to fail” predictions with the certainty that growth will occur. And it’s one that is guaranteed to impart some wisdom.
Acknowledging and appreciating the good helps counteract bad thinking habits. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology confirms that individuals who express overt appreciation for even the smallest thing—a sunny day, a successful shopping trip—boost their mood, provided that the self-talk is genuine.
“Don’t deny things that are objectively negative,” Korb says. “But once you’ve acknowledged what’s not right, express gratitude for things that are.”
Korb says that you only complicate matters when you attempt to ignore or gloss over an abject failure. You don’t want to lie to yourself as you’re attempting to alter your self-talk. Instead, he says, accept that you’ve had a setback, own the problem, and mark it as done and finished, so that you can turn to activities and thoughts that help rather than hinder.
Some psychologists ask patients to track positive moments in a daily journal, a strategy that gives the thoughts more permanence and functions as an ongoing reminder of upbeat thinking.
A 2018 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology confirmed that those who chronicled positive experiences reported significant increases in feelings of hope and happiness when compared to a control group.
Sadly, the best strategies can fail when the self-talker struggles with a serious mental illness such as clinical depression or severe generalized anxiety. These conditions sap energy, motivation, and hope.
If the negative self-talker can no longer function in everyday life, loses interest in ordinary pleasures, or considers suicide, it’s an emergency requiring immediate medical intervention.
The good news? A variety of treatment protocols can yield dramatic changes, often enhanced by medications that rebalance brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin—the stuff of psychological well-being.
“For some people, the right medication solves the problem entirely,” says Korb. “And for others, it just enables them to exert the kind of control they need to establish new habits.”
For serious negative self-talkers, Pamela Summit Bohn, M.D., a Los Angeles–based psychiatrist, often relies on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants commonly used in depressive and anxiety disorders. Celexa, Lexapro, Luvox, Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft are among the most frequently prescribed pharmaceuticals.
Summit Bohn and her colleagues acknowledge that it can be difficult to find the right medication for each patient, which sometimes means subjecting patients to several different drugs before finding something that works.
Sophisticated new genetic testing using the patient’s own DNA promises to change that by helping to identify pharmaceuticals that may be more likely to be affective and/or well tolerated. Once the correct drug and dose is found, results can be dramatic.
“These medications can be amazingly effective,” Summit Bohn says. “Prior to Prozac, we didn’t expect this kind of response.”