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How to stop negative self-talk

By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts

We’ve all probably heard the expression, “being your own worst critic.” We’ve all probably experienced it, too. Even the most successful and happiest people deal with negative self-talk, that critical inner voice that chimes in with a message of doubt, fear, blame, or judgment.

If this happens too often, it can negatively impact our mental health. We start believing what we’re telling ourselves, even if it’s not true. This constant negative chatter can have so much power over us that we might talk ourselves out of going after our goals or experiencing joyful moments in life.

The first step to stop negative self-talk is to understand that we can’t stop our thoughts. It’s impossible. The mind’s always going to think. But it is possible to change how we talk to ourselves. Meditation can help retrain the mind to stop flat-out believing every negative thought we think and every difficult feeling we feel. With this new perspective, we can switch negative self-talk to self-talk that’s loving and kind, improve our self-esteem, and use our energy to do what makes us happy, not hold ourselves back.

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What is negative self-talk?

We’ve all heard that voice in our heads. The one that helps us work through problems, make decisions, reach conclusions, and firm up beliefs. This mental chatter is what psychologists call self-talk.

Self-talk is important in how we think about and treat ourselves and the world around us. Research shows how we speak to ourselves has a powerful impact on our mental and physical health, including managing stress.

Typically, we speak to ourselves kindly and compassionately if we have high self-worth. And our actions reflect that. Maybe we think: “Oh, I caught myself biting my nails. I want to stop that habit, but it’s hard to stop.” Our self-talk might reply, “Sure, I messed up, but I’ll give myself a manicure tonight. That’ll make me feel better about myself.”

If we experience constant negative self-talk, it’s hard to hear anything else. In these conditions, we might have the same thought: “Oh, I caught myself biting my nails. I want to stop that habit, but it’s hard to stop.” But this time, our self-talk might reply, “I messed up. I have no control over myself. I’m a failure.”

What happened? We believed our self-talk and assumed how we feel in the moment reflects the way things are — “I feel it, so it must be true.” In reality, that’s not always the case. Our thoughts and feelings don’t need to control our moods or behavior.

What causes negative self-talk?

If constant negativity is harmful, why do we do it? The answer is survival. Our ancient ancestors lived in a threatening world and were more likely to survive if they were prepared for the worst. As a response, they developed an instinct that favored negative thinking.

Today, those threats are largely gone, but the instinct remains. We’re all born with a glass-half-empty view. And the more we indulge in negative self-talk, the stronger our negative bias gets — the brain actually strengthens our neural pathways toward negative thinking. Other people’s criticisms and opinions have also influenced the mind since childhood. All this makes it easy for the mind to think up reasons to question our self-worth and bring us down.

Before we react with, “Oh no!” or “Welp, that proves it — I’m doomed!” or some other negative self-talk, consider for a minute that this news isn’t all bad. If these thoughts are part of what makes us human, we’re not alone in having them. Everyone we meet and see and admire has faced the same feelings of doubt or fear of failure and other negative emotions we might face daily. We’re not alone.

With this increased awareness, we can start tapping into self-compassion and give ourselves a break.

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How can I stop negative self-talk?

A lot of advice for tuning out negative self-talk from our inner voice focuses on replacing it with positive self-talk. Like many other shortcuts, that’s too good to be true. Healthy self-esteem comes from changing our relationship with our thoughts, not from overriding them with positive ones.

Trying to force ourselves or others to be happy can be emotionally toxic. We meet a new set of challenges by taking a “positive vibes only” approach. We begin denying or minimizing our experiences, which triggers guilt and shame. Maybe we start showing up for ourselves when things are good. But when they’re not, we might feel defeated and judge ourselves more harshly for being unable to grin and bear it. Despite our good intentions, we set ourselves up to fail.

Here’s a more practical alternative: when we get caught up in negative self-talk, we can pause and ask ourselves, “If a close friend shared this view with me, how might I respond to them?” Chances are, we’d speak to them gently and sympathetically, no matter what they’re going through. We’d provide them with validation, comfort, and a healthy sense of perspective. Imagine if we did that for ourselves. What would happen if we treated ourselves like that instead of being harsh and critical? As Headspace teacher Dora Kamau says, “If we are kinder to ourselves, we can accept ourselves as we are. And if we accept ourselves, we can love ourselves as we are.”

We can also reconsider our view of self-talk altogether. The truth is, self-talk isn’t good or bad. It’s only harmful if we keep returning to a negative mindset (or toxic positivity) out of habit. This approach makes it feel like less of a fight against negative self-talk. Instead, we hear our critical inner voice, acknowledge it, then let it go.

How meditation can help self-talk

Meditation won’t stop negative self-talk. But it will help us put more space between our thoughts and chatter that drags us down, so we have the chance to choose kinder words. Here are a few easy meditation techniques to help us find some perspective.

  • Sunlight visualization.

Imagine liquid sunlight streaming into the body. We can visualize the sun beaming over our whole body, or we can imagine it warming up each part, one by one, from the top of our head down to our toes. Doing this can make us feel lighter and comforted on the spot.

  • Noting.

If we get distracted by negative self-talk (while we meditate or do anything else), the noting meditation technique helps us call it out. We stop to recognize, “Oh, I’m thinking. Oh, I’m not being so kind to myself.” This simple act gives us a sense of having dealt with it and makes it easier to let go of the distraction and return to whatever we’re doing. When we get distracted again — and we will — repeat the process of pausing, noting, and letting go.

  • Blue Sky meditation.

We can remember the blue sky when we’re caught up in negative self-talk and searching for relief. Here’s what we mean: At Headspace, we’ve often understood the mind to be like the blue sky. Our thoughts and feelings come and go, like the clouds in the sky. But no matter how many dark clouds roll in, the blue sky is always there.

Meditation teaches us to be kind to our mind — how to be less judgmental and critical. Once we learn to let go of those harsh ways of thinking, we find that kinder mind.

The more often we practice meditation, the easier it becomes to replace our old habit of negativity with one of acceptance. Just 10 days of using Headspace has been shown to increase satisfaction with life by 7.5%.

Mindfulness - How to stop negative self-talk

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The Headspace app has hundreds of guided exercises to help you build your practice. Start by exploring these three meditations to help you stop negative self-talk and be kind to your mind. A happier, healthier you is a few breaths away.

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Recognize calmness and become less reactive.

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Key takeaways:

  • We can’t stop our thoughts, but we can change how we talk to ourselves

  • Meditation helps us put more space between our thoughts and chatter that drags us down, so we have the chance to choose kinder words

  • Try meditations to stop negative self-talk with Headspace

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