How to kick negative self-talk to the curb

Story highlights

  • Negativity can quickly become a habit
  • Over time, negative self-talk can make people depressed, anxious and stressed

Erica Bartlett has spent most of her adult life saying horrible things to herself. As a heavy teenager, her greatest hits included: "I'm so ugly. No one will ever be attracted to me. I can't stand to see how big I look in the mirror. I have no willpower around brownies."

She started gaining weight after struggling with loneliness and low self-esteem, and her own put-downs just made her feel worse, fueling a vicious cycle. At age 24, she carried 259 pounds on her 5'0" frame. It was her mother's unexpected death from cancer around that time that made Bartlett think about mortality and motivated her to get healthy. Her goal: To climb Katahdin, a 5,200-foot mountain in Maine that her mother loved and spread her ashes. Yet, as she lost 130 pounds over the next couple years by eating better and exercising, Bartlett still kept up the self-hate: "Why does so much loose skin hang off my arms? I'll never be athletic. I still look ugly."
    "I discovered that having such a negative focus was really exhausting," says Bartlett, now 39, a software product analyst and health coach living in Portland, Maine. "It takes a lot of energy to constantly criticize yourself."
    We've all been guilty of dwelling on the negative. However, when that gloomy self-talk becomes a habit, over time it can make you depressed, anxious and stressed. Or it leads to destructive behavior, such as stress eating. (Here's what to do when stress eating starts taking over your brain.) "If you do it over and over, it becomes automatic. It becomes hard-wired in our brains like bike riding," explains Mort (Doc) Orman, MD, a Baltimore-based stress relief expert and author of Stop Negative Thinking: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Stress and Become a Happy Person Again.
    Even though all that pessimistic pondering can feel like it's got a stranglehold on our psyches, it's surprisingly not that hard to change the habit. "We grow up with parents and teachers constantly correcting us," he says. "So we have to work at bringing out the positive things in life."
    Here's how to deflate the power of those toxic negative thoughts.

    5 Ways to Erase Negative Self-Talk (and Start Being Kinder to Yourself)

    1.Know your triggers.

    It's important to identify what makes you sink into a shame spiral. One of the most popular methods of squashing negative thinking is called cognitive behavioral therapy, which is based on the idea that thoughts influence feelings, which then influence behavior. The goal is to recognize your unhelpful thought patterns, so you can challenge them and create a new habit. "Doing this work empowers clients to be able to make desired behavioral changes," explains Jeff Riggenbach, PhD, a counselor based in Oklahoma and author of The CBT Toolbox: A Workbook for Clients and Clinicians.
    Start by thinking back to your most recent down-in-the-dumps episode: Did thoughts of "I'm not pretty enough...social enough...or funny enough" make you feel insecure at a party? And did that, in turn, make you want to drink too much wine? With enough awareness, you can interrupt that defeating thought next time — before it does damage.

    2. Explore the opposite reality.

    Make it a game. For example, if you're thinking "I'll never lose weight," flip it around and tell yourself, "I can lose weight." You'll end up surprising yourself by finding evidence to back up your new position. "All you have to do is think 'Could I see anything that would make this valid or true?'" says Orman. "Maybe it's 'Well, I did lose 20 pounds a few years ago, so I know what changes to make.'"
    Taking that extra step to prove it to yourself is more effective than just telling yourself "I can lose weight." By thinking though arguments that challenge your original position, you can start to whittle away an automatic belief.

    3. Put an end to black and white thinking.

    Watch out for thoughts containing the words "always" or "never." They're usually distorted and don't give you an accurate view of what's happening in your life. Classic examples: "I will never succeed" or "I always mess up my workouts." Absolutes, such as "if I can't do it all, none of it is worth doing" or "I just ate a cupcake and now my diet is destroyed," are dangerous, too.
    "We encourage people to take a bigger picture perspective," says Riggenbach, who suggests this healthier approach: "I had a setback one day, so I need to learn from it. But I have stuck to my plan nine days out of 10."

    4. Play out the worst-case scenario in your head.

    Don't just think about the negative consequences of whatever is causing you anxiety. Play out the scenario in your mind like a movie with lots of details. You'll start to realize that the consequences of your action probably aren't quite so extreme.
    That's the finding of a new Boston University study that asked 20 people suffering from generalized anxiety disorder and 19 healthy students to repeatedly imagine positive, negative and neutral events. The chronic worriers didn't add a lot of details, whereas the control group could better articulate what they thought might happen. "The worriers were stuck in a more abstract negative idea of the future. They couldn't think their way out of a negative scenario," explains lead author Jade Wu, a clinical psychology doctoral student.
    She gives this example: Worried about money? See yourself at your desk in tears over a pile of bills. What would you do when you stopped crying? Would you pick the most urgent bill? How would you problem solve? "By really fleshing it out, you can feel the worst of it and snap out of the feeling." When it comes to dieting, eating an extra cupcake might screw up your calorie-counting that day — but it's not going to sabotage your weight loss goals. You'll do better tomorrow.

    5. Grill yourself.

    Remember the Socractic Method from college — when teachers would question you to stimulate critical thinking? Well, a recent study by psychologists at Ohio State University showed that patients who were questioned by their therapists to challenge their beliefs felt less depressed over time. Researchers asked 55 patients who participated in a 16-week course of cognitive therapy for depression to fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of each session about their symptoms. The more Socratic questions the therapists used, the better patients felt.
    For example, if a patient said, "I'm a failure because I'm divorced," the therapist might ask: "Is everyone who experienced divorce a failure? Can you think of anyone for whom that is not true?" The idea is to teach patients to ask themselves such questions when they slip into negative thought patterns.
    As for Bartlett, she felt better about herself when she re-framed her negative thoughts into more positive ones. Instead of hating her body, she reminded herself of all the amazing things her body could do. "Sure, some of my skin is loose, but I can hug another person, taste delicious foods, walk for miles and play in the sand. These are gifts I still have," she says. "If you can turn your negative thinking around and focus on what's good, you have a lot more energy."