We’ve all been there: Just as you’re moving along toward your goals, a voice pops into your head, instilling all kinds of doubt. You should be farther along by now. Is that all you can do? So-and-so is doing it way better. Or—gulp—you’re an imposter and don’t deserve your success. Ouch.
Negative self-talk can be insidious, and it can be damaging. Here, how to spot negative self-talk, stop it in its tracks, and turn your negativity into positivity (without being annoying, of course).
What is Negative Self-Talk?
First, you’ll want to be able to identify negative self-talk when it’s happening. So, what is it? According to the American Psychological Association, self-talk is an internal dialogue, and negative self-talk “confirms and reinforces negative beliefs and attitudes, such as fears and false aspirations.” In turn, says the APA, this can change how you feel about yourself and affect your choices and reactions. For instance, you wanted to sign up for that race, but your inner voice told you that you can’t, and now you don’t even want to try.
“Negative self-talk is any thought that gets in the way of you being your best self,” says Kelly McKenna, LCSW, an anxiety therapist with Sit With Kelly, a virtual therapy practice in New York, New Jersey, and Florida.
These downer thoughts may come out of past life experiences, such as bullying, high parental or self-expectations, lack of resilience, or low self-esteem, says McKenna. Unfortunately, it also can hold you back from your goals, whether they’re personal (going for a promo at work or embracing a new relationship with a partner) or centered around health and fitness.
Having negative thoughts is completely normal. It’s a part of life. But it becomes a problem when it dominates your thoughts. “Negative self-talk rewires your brain to not believe in yourself anymore. After repeated times of telling yourself you can’t do it, you start to believe it,” says McKenna. “Similar to the idea of ‘rose-colored glasses’ or ‘glass half-full’ kind of people, some of us look through the lens of never being good enough due to negative thoughts,” she explains.
Negative Self-Talk Examples
Negative self-talk can manifest in a variety of ways, including catastrophizing, self-blame, and “shoulding” yourself, says McKenna. Here are some examples:
You should have worked out today -> Now you’ll never get to your goal
You spilled your coffee this morning -> The rest of the day is going to be terrible
You made an error in a project -> You’re going to get fired because you’re a fraud
Something went wrong with the group project -> You think if only you did xyz differently, it would have gone better
You should have ordered xyz at dinner -> Now you won’t be healthy
How to Stop Negative Self-Talk
It’s a great personal aim to work to stop your negative self-talk, but it can be difficult—especially at first. “The neural pathways in the brain are so strong that it might feel challenging to change your negative self-talk at first,” says McKenna. But with some practice, you can slowly change your thought patterns to make a more realistic outlook the norm. Follow these three tips to help you get started:
Accept Your Emotions
Even though it’s beneficial to try to stop negative self-talk, it’s also good to recognize that it’s okay to have those emotions in the first place. Even fitness experts experience times of self-doubt. “For a long time, I would push away my feelings and emotions. I wouldn’t fully process them or allow them to be,” says Peloton instructor Kirsten Ferguson. Thoughts and emotions are only temporary—they float in and out of your mind, and you do not have to accept them as the truth just because they surface. Feeling them and working through their muck can help you come out the other side. For Kirsten, after acknowledging moments of negative self-talk and taking a couple of deep breaths, “I then figure out how I can put myself back into a position of power,” she says.
Ask for Proof
Having a downer day? Rather than nobody likes me, change it to I am cared for by people who genuinely care about me, says McKenna. What’s the proof? Your friends ask you about your day, they’re happy about your success, and they want to spend time together. Or, rather than I will never get a new PR, change it to I’m making small strides every day to get there. What’s the proof? You show up for a class even when you’re not feeling it. You listen to your body and rest when it needs it. You can make it all the way through a beginner class when you stopped to take breaks before.
Practice Meditation or Yoga
One of the best things about meditation and yoga is that these practices invite you to just be in the moment. “They can help shift your brain from focusing on negative thoughts, which are usually future- or past-thinking thoughts, to what is surrounding you in that moment,” explains McKenna. Indeed, practicing breathing meditation daily for eight weeks helped decrease peoples’ tendency to brood (or get stuck in negative thoughts), and they were more positive about the future compared to those who did other mind-body practices, as well as a control group, according to a 2021 study in Psychology & Health. If you’re interested in making this part of a daily ritual, try a 5-minute meditation on the Peloton App in the morning to set a more positive tone for your day.
Flip Your Thinking to Positive Self-Talk
Be ready with a comeback: When Kirsten experiences an unexpected situation or is trying something new, negative self-talk starts bubbling up. One way she flips things around? “I like to speak back to her,” she says. You can borrow some of her positive self-talk scripts when you need them the most:
“Isn’t it just as likely that it will all work out?”
“I will succeed and not fail.”
“This is happening so I can pivot to this part of my life.”
See the big picture: Maintaining perspective can also be so helpful. For Kirsten, when that self-doubt arises, she reminds herself of one of her core beliefs—that everything has a purpose. “How can I look at every situation as a blessing in my life?” When it feels as if everything is working against her in that moment, she can flip the script to: “Everything is working in my favor.”
Write down affirmations: You’ve got to see it to believe it! Writing down affirmations and placing them in spots where you frequent, such as in your car, on your fridge, or on the bathroom mirror, is one strategy to help you flip your thinking, says McKenna. “It might feel fake at first, but it can get easier,” she says. Eventually, what will happen is that a negative thought will pop into your head—I’m not going to be able to make it through this entire workout—and then a different voice will chime in—I’m strong and I can handle hard things. Practiced enough, your affirmation will start to drown out negative thinking until it becomes more automatic.
Speak to yourself like a friend: We can be our harshest critics, and it’s likely that the things you say to yourself you’d never say to a friend—or an enemy. To a friend, though, you’ll be kind, gentle, optimistic, and nonjudgmental. You can use that on yourself, too. “When a friend says, I’m a failure because I didn’t meet my workout goal this week, you’d say something back like, you tried your best this week and you’ll try again next week,” explains McKenna. “Talk to yourself like you would a friend because you are worthy of being your own hype person!” she says.