All day long, every day, most of us have a running monologue of thoughts streaming in our heads. It’s our self-talk, our inner voice, which we may or may not realize is with us 24/7. We think constantly, and while we don’t always verbalize or say out loud what is running through our minds, we still ‘hear’ it. Maybe on the way to your car, you think (but don’t say) “It’s so hot outside,” or “Where did I park?” Classic self-talk.
Your self-talk is shaped by your beliefs, experiences and the situations of your daily life. Mentally mapping out how to get to a specific restaurant? Self-talk. Debating which shoes to wear? Self-talk. Rehearsing a tough meeting with your boss? Self-talk. We use self-talk to interpret and process our daily experiences.
Self-talk can be positive, neutral or negative. Some categories of negative self-talk:
Filtering. This is when you mentally remove all of the positive aspects of a situation and keep the negative ones. Here’s an example. Let’s say you’ve been working to eat more healthfully and exercise three days each week. For three months, you’ve been able to easily fit exercise into your busy weeks and you’ve been a meal-planning superstar. In month four, you are assigned an unexpected project at work and go a whole week without exercising, but your meal-prep game never falters. If you’re filtering negatively, that’s what you’ll focus on – the one week out of 16 that you didn’t exercise – forgetting all about the three months you hit your goal and the week you were so incredibly busy yet still planned healthy meals. Sound familiar?
Catastrophizing. AKA automatically expecting the worst or thinking (irrationally) that something is far worse than it really is. The two main ways we catastrophize are by making a catastrophe out of a current situation or by making a catastrophe out of a future situation. Here’s how that works: your regular morning coffee drive-through gets your order wrong, so you are automatically certain that the rest of your day is going to be a disaster.
Blaming. This is when we either blame (hold ourselves accountable for) bad things that happen to others or hold others accountable for bad things that happen to us. This is problematic because when we engage in blame, we often view things as being out of our control, which also diminishes our perceived ability to affect change.
Rehashing. Have you ever mentally replayed an event or situation over and over and over in your mind? That’s rehashing. It could be the donut you wish you hadn’t eaten or that conversation you wish had gone a different way.
Rehearsing. You’ve got something coming up in the future, and by golly you can’t stop imagining the many ways it could possibly unfold poorly. Advanced ‘rehearsers’ may also add new, terrible variables into their imaginary future scenarios and play them again. And again.
Personalizing. This is when you blame yourself for anything bad that happens. Say your regular lunch group cancels an outing. If you’re personizing, you automatically assume that plans were canceled because everyone decided they hate being around you.
Polarizing. If you’re polarizing, you don’t see any middle ground. Things are either good, or bad. This means that if you or anything you do are less than perfect, in your view you’ve failed. You’ve got two options: perfection or failure.
Negative self-talk can harm your health. First of all, it increases and prolongs feelings of stress. When we prolong our stress response, when stress is elevated over time, it can trigger sleep problems, cardiovascular issues and even some cancers. It can cause you to self-soothe by overeating, and ongoing stress can shift your metabolism, making weight loss almost impossible. Depression and anxiety can be caused or worsened by a constant stream of negative self-talk.
Tips to help turn negative self-talk around
People who focus on positive self-talk and optimism thinking benefit from it. Researchers have found that some effects of optimism and positive thinking on health include: better ability to cope with stress and hardship; longer lifespan; lower rates of depression; reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease; better resistance to the common cold and better general physical and psychological wellbeing.
Check in with yourself. Every so often during the day, pause for a moment and check in on what you’re thinking – or how you’re thinking. Have you slipped into negative self-talk or thoughts? Bring some objectivity into the equation. Is something you’ve labeled as negative actually just neutral? Are you filtering?
Practice positive self-talk. Be kind to yourself. Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else. We all have negative thoughts. The key is to examine them rationally and reframe them. Think about things you are thankful for in your life.
Let yourself laugh. Actively look for silly or funny things, even when times are tough. Especially when times are tough. Give yourself permission to experience laughter. It’s a mood booster and a stress diffuser.
Hang out with positive people. The people we spend the most time with can influence our frame of mind. Surrounding yourself with supportive, positive people makes you feel supported and more positive. Negative people add stress and deplete our energy levels.
Optimism and positive self-talk take practice. They may feel strange at first. But the benefits you’ll experience are real. Positivity is like a muscle. It needs regular exercise to become stronger, but with practice you’ll get the hang of it – and reap the rewards.
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