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How to Fight Negative Self-Talk

Matthew Cuddeback LCSW

           We all have those moments when we tell ourselves things that aren’t helpful or particularly kind- “I’m so stupid for thinking that. Why am I such a loser? How could I think they liked me? I am not good at my job, etc.” These thoughts build up over time and form powerful beliefs. It is important to recognize when this happens and to do work to counteract these patterns of negative thinking.

There are a few things to know discussing combating negative self-talk, one of the best ways to do this is by using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques. CBT is built on the idea that our thoughts impact and often create our feelings, and our feelings lead us to our actions, and actions lead to a result. So, for example, if I think I am not good at my job because I don’t think my co-worker likes me, it may lead to me feeling bad about myself, I begin to feel sad, lonely, worthless, and this leads to me acting a certain way. This then results in the quality of my work suffering, I don’t respond to that co-worker’s email because I don’t know how to talk to them which makes my boss frustrated, etc. and this all results in a bad annual review. Using CBT, we can fight back against these thoughts that get us to such a negative place.

One of the first things I like to do when I hear negative self-talk is to label it. Our automatic thoughts happen so fast and with no real effort which results in a lot of these thoughts building up. You want to recognize this when it happens and call it out. Secondly, I like to start identifying evidence against the negative self-talk. Third, I will build new evidence that argues in the positive. Fourth, I examine all the evidence, and fifth I will practice and repeat healthier thoughts.

So, let’s use the example above to run it through this process. I might be feeling dread every day when I get ready for work, maybe I am complaining about work more, and feeling bad about the quality of my work. I want to take a moment to recognize this. “Wow, I have been feeling really bad about work for weeks now, what’s going on?” Then you get a new burst of negative self-talk, “Well, it’s because your co-worker thinks you are no good, probably true, and you haven’t done good work lately, so that proves it. Your boss addressed it, so they noticed you suck too…” This is negative self-talk, give it that name so it is clearer to you what is happening.

Once you see this and label you now start to argue against the negative. You might start thinking, “I have been with this company for 6 years, I have never had complaint’s before, my co-worker never actually said anything terrible, other people seem to really enjoy working with me, I have a good rapport with my boss, I take my work seriously, etc.” So now you look at this list of evidence against these thoughts and you also list why you think it’s true. “I can tell my co-worker doesn’t like me by their actions. My work has been slipping which proves I’m not any good. My boss had to talk to me, I have been slower and making more mistakes, etc.” Then you compare the lists. What happens when we do this is one of two things: one, you realize the evidence is against this idea, or two they are fairly equal. If it’s the first then that’s great you can build on that right away, if it’s the second possibility, you then want to make sure the evidence is factual and not based on feelings, and if you still come out in a way that feels like it confirms your negative thoughts then all that means is it is time to address it and make some changes.

Now if I found the list came out against the negative self-talk, I use that as evidence moving forward. Then I keep looking for it and compiling these pieces of evidence. This is to be used any time you start the negative self-talk again. Keep building on this, it does take time and a lot of repetition, but after a while you won’t even have to try anymore. Then I keep examining all of this information. I thought I was bad at my job, but now I see when I argue against it, I can actually see that is more accurate. I talked to my boss and they were happy I noticed a few issues and am addressing them, good, that’s more evidence I am not bad at what I do. I reach out to the co-worker and they were perfectly friendly, maybe I misunderstood before, or maybe they don’t like me, but that doesn’t mean I did anything wrong. Evidence. Another co-worker emailed me thanking me for something I helped with. Evidence. A client thanks me for my work. Evidence. I got my work done faster this week. Evidence, and on and on.

The keys to fighting negative self-talk are arguing against it to see how compelling the argument is, building evidence and doing this over and over and you will get to the point where you won’t have to work this hard to keep doing it. Also, you might find there really was a problem along the way, the argument was not that compelling, and the negative self-talk may feel accurate. That’s okay, it just means there is some change needed. More often than not, negative self-talk is either nothing more than unhealthy thinking that is unfounded, or there are some grains of truth that we blew up into a bigger issue and merely need to be addressed. Either way, this exercise is going to help you address these unhealthy ways of thinking.

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