We all have a little voice inside our head that seems to have a say on everything we do. We often hear it take the form of negative, self-critical comments. “You’ve messed up again!” “You’re stupid, a loser, a fake.” “You can’t do anything right.” You’re not smart enough, strong enough, pretty enough, _____ enough.”
All humans experience some variation of that self-critical voice, and if we listen to it, that voice can bring us down. But we don’t have to let it hold us back. The voice can be tamed, become quieter and less intrusive. Through the practice of mindfulness, we can train our minds to think differently, looking at not just the negative but also the positive. When our mind becomes quieter, a tremendous amount of mental energy can be unleashed toward doing what you please. Freedom from your inner critic is achievable.
How does Negative Self-Talk Work?
Negative self-talk is almost always self-defeating. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” Your brain believes what it is told most often. The most important chemical process necessary to wiring the brain is repetition. Every time your inner voice repeats a negative phrase, you are effectively wiring your brain to believe that what you are saying is true. For that reason, negative self-talk turns into self-fulfilling prophecies. When we believe those messages strongly enough, we will commit self-sabotage.
Negative self-talk is nothing short of a bad habit. The more you practice the habit, the stronger it becomes.
Who Is the Voice Inside My Head?
If you are like most people, you identify with the thoughts going through your mind. One of the greatest insights we can come to is the realization that we are not the thoughts in our minds; we are who hears the thoughts.
Our mind is just a tool. We use it for specific tasks like planning and recalling crucial information. But when we allow it to fixate on certain thoughts, we call this compulsive thinking, which is often negative and draining. When we learn to stop identifying with our mind—when we stop confusing what we think with who we are—that negative voice loses its power over us. We discuss this concept in greater length in our post What Does it Mean to Be Present?
Monitor Your Negative Self Talk
Start by listening to everything going through your mind. Pay particular attention to thoughts that bring you down as well as any repetitive thought patterns. Remember that negative self-talk is a habit, so you should be able to identify several negative thoughts and themes that play on repeat.
As you pay attention to the thoughts playing in your mind, you’ll eventually begin to recognize the inner voice when it begins to speak, and you’ll notice yourself listening to it. This is an important realization that should bolster your understanding that the voice is not who you are, and therefore there is no reason to accept what it says at face value.
Engage in the Present Moment and the Voice Loses Its Power
You may not be able to control when the self-critical voice shows up, but you can control how you react to it. Being engaged in the present is the pathway out of compulsive thinking. Instead of listening to the voice, you can make those thoughts go away by simply directing your attention to the present moment. Give your fullest attention to whatever it is you are doing, whether it is washing the dishes, walking down the street or just breathing. Become aware of a silent sense of just being. Doing so should be a deeply satisfying experience similar to meditation.
The voice might still show up and interfere with the present moment. But when it shows up, simply dismiss it by paying attention to your sensations instead. When all else fails, just breathe. Deep breathing has potent calming effects that soften the mind and its critical tendencies.
You can also use a personal mantra to quiet the mind. When the voice starts nagging at you, say to yourself “I can only do the best I can,” or “I can do this.” Over time, repeating your go-to-phrase will become a potent way to tune out the negativity.
Answer the Negative Voice
Negative self-talk may include a part of the truth, but it certainly isn’t the whole truth. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? The answer is that it’s both. Looking at it from only one direction does not encapsulate the whole truth. When the voice tells you something that brings you down, look for another way of looking at the situation. What information is the voice missing? Chances are that there are plenty of things the self-critical voice didn’t consider. Poke holes in the criticizer’s judgment. Weaken it using your own reason.
Each time you successfully prove your negative voice wrong, you’ll train your brain to see yourself in a different light. Over time, you will view your capabilities, as well as your limitations, more accurately.
Every so often, the negative self-talk actually has a point. Something important could have been done better. You usually can tell that it’s worth paying attention because of the sheer intensity of the emotions associated with it. But instead of crying over the past and bringing yourself down, learn lessons from your mistakes. Look for solutions and change your behavior accordingly.
Remember that the negative self-talk doesn’t need to be addressed every single time. You can simply leave it for the present moment by paying attention to your sensations, what is going on around you or focusing on your actions.
Keep at It
It takes time to rewire your brain and defeat negative self-talk. It is a process. Take it one moment at a time and celebrate small victories. If you keep at it, you will find moments of actual silence. These moments are deeply satisfying and sufficient. Enjoy them.