We’ve all heard that voice in our heads — the one that can ruminate on mistakes or replay cringe-worthy events. Sometimes, it can be downright rude or unkind, with harsh criticism and judgments about our work, appearance, or personality. Our mental chatter is what psychologists call self-talk.
Even the most successful and happiest people experience some negative self-talk. But these loud thoughts — coming from our inner voice — are not the issue; it’s the weight we give them, how we choose to engage with them, and the storylines we create around them that get in our way.
Try this visualization technique that encourages us to direct goodwill first to ourselves and then to others.
But if there is no “off” switch to our ruminating, the question is ‘How to combat negative self-talk?’ Ultimately, we are the ones in control of this inner voice … even if it sometimes doesn’t feel that way. But one effective tool to prove the truth of this is meditation. Using the Headspace app for just 10 days has been shown to decrease negative emotions by 28% and increase satisfaction with life by 7.5%.
Through training the mind, we get to shift perspective and not let our thoughts and feelings define us. With regular practice, meditation teaches us to let go of self-talk and rumination, and instead access a place of deep confidence that exists beyond the thinking mind.
Throughout the day, we have a running dialogue in our heads that can range from talking ourselves through how to carry out a task, to making observations about our internal or external environment and situation.
In recent years, it has become among the most discussed topics in psychology, with researchers honing their self-talk definition. Studies suggest that how we speak to ourselves has a powerful impact on our mental and physical health, including weight control, managing stress, and improving sports and academic performance.
A study published in June 2020 by the Alzheimer's & Dementia journal even linked negative thought patterns to brain changes that could be associated with Alzheimer's disease. In the study, older adults who engaged in repeated negative thinking were more likely to experience cognitive decline — including memory problems — than those who didn't.
The Harvard University Stress and Development Lab identifies 10 types of negative self-talk we can experience, such as “all-or-nothing thinking” or “jumping to conclusions”. By identifying when we fall into one of these traps, they say we can reappraise whether these interpretations of our situation are helpful to living our most fulfilling life.
Perhaps their most pertinent example to define what is negative self-talk is what is known as "emotional reasoning," where we assume our negative emotions reflect the way things really are, or, “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
And this gets to the crux of the central lesson of dealing with negative self-talk from a mindfulness perspective. Our thoughts and feelings are just that, thoughts and feelings, and they do not need to dictate our moods or behavior.
A simple question with a not-so-simple answer. But being unafraid to question them and experience them can make all the difference.
Much of the advice around overcoming our inner-critic focuses on how to stop negative self-talk by replacing it with a more positive inner-dialogue. But true self-esteem comes from changing our relationship with our thoughts, rather than trying to override negative thoughts with more positive ones. Remember, thoughts are just thoughts, neither negative nor positive. We are the ones adding the extra layer of meaning, or the labels.
When working out how to combat negative self-talk, we should understand that our thoughts and feelings that fuel our inner-dialogue are neither good or bad — happiness is just happiness, sadness is just sadness — but it’s the storylines we create around them that can cause issues.
So rather than trying to learn how to stop self-talk altogether, we should listen, be curious, acknowledge these thoughts without judgment, and let them go.
This involves not being too hard on ourselves and treating our fears and concerns in a similar way to if we were giving advice to a friend or loved one — with compassion, kindness, and understanding.
Psychotherapist Kate McCauley, MEd, LCSW, says: “The only road to true mental health is self-compassion. Without it, you enter the world from a defensive perspective, protecting yourself from your own inner self-critic.”
One of the goals of meditation is to let go of self-judgment and create a softer, more gentle mind where kindness can thrive.
According to self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff, self-compassion is made up of three components: being kind to ourselves as we make mistakes (self-kindness), recognizing that suffering is part of the human experience and felt by everyone (common humanity), and observing our emotions and thoughts in a non-judgmental manner (mindfulness).
For many people, the hardest person to direct kindness to is ourselves. But there are many techniques on the Headspace app to help us to stop negative self-talk from sabotaging our lives. These include the skill of noting, where we gently acknowledge our thoughts and feelings as they arise without judgment, which gives us the power to let them go.
Meditation will not silence the voice in our heads, that is not the intention. But it will help to find a new perspective that allows us to let go of our inner-critic.
Headspace’s Blue Sky animation reminds us that our thoughts and feelings come and go, like the clouds in the sky, but our underlying sense of happiness and natural self-confidence, like the blue sky, is always present.
Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe says: "For me, the magic happens when we stop ... when we stop searching, when we stop trying to be a happier, calmer person and just allow the mind to express itself exactly as it is. Because underneath all the crazy thoughts and challenging feelings is that blue sky.”