“I’m not good enough”… “I’ll never succeed” … “I must be unlovable”… “I’m stupid”… “I’m a bad parent getting everything wrong!”.
If you recognise this kind of mean inner monologue, you are not alone. According to the National Science Foundation, at least 80% of our thoughts are negative and 95% are repetitive. No wonder then, that they can affect our behaviour, decisions, and self-worth, leading to decreased self-esteem, higher levels of stress, and even a greater risk of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
The added responsibility, daily challenges, and familiar ‘mum/dad-guilt’ involved in raising small humans can further compound that negative inner voice for parents. But being unkind to ourselves doesn’t stop with us. It can also make us more likely to engage in unhelpful behaviours such as criticism or overprotection of our kids, as well as set the tone for how our children will talk to themselves.
I had a rude awakening recently. My 6-year-old was being typically argumentative about a standard request one morning. I retorted sarcastically, “I guess I’m such a horrible Mummy for trying to get you to school on time”. He stopped me in my tracks with his response. “Mummy! Stop it! All you’re doing is teaching me to be mean to myyyyyyself when you say that”.
Wowzer. From the mouths of babes, eh?!
Fortunately, these five simple steps can help us combat this harmful inner monologue and instead nurture a more positive, healthy environment for ourselves and for our children. Let’s go!
The first step in combating negative self-talk is to become aware of when it's happening. Admittedly, this can be easier said than done. It often occurs unconsciously, making it easy to get swept away by negative thoughts before we even realise we're being unkind to ourselves.
By becoming more mindful and present in the moment, you can start to identify when negative self-talk takes place. Paying attention to how you’re feeling is often the more obvious indicator. Notice emotions as well as physical sensations. Are you feeling sad, disappointed, angry? Is there tension in the body or changes in your breathing? It can be useful to take a moment to reflect on your thoughts and emotions at regular intervals throughout the day. You might even want to capture thoughts in your notes app or write them down on paper. The key here is the more you notice, the more power you’ll have to tackle the problem.
Once you've noticed the negative self-talk, next it's important to acknowledge it. This is the shift from awareness and acceptance. But not to accept the negative thought as true. Rather, we need to recognise the purpose they are serving, which invariably is about trying to keep us safe. Negative self-talk is often a form of self-defence. Studies have shown that humans have a natural negativity bias, which means that our brains are wired to pay more attention to negative information. This has evolutionary roots, as it helped our ancestors to survive by being more alert to potential dangers.
Instead of trying to shut it out entirely, try to befriend. See it as a friend who is trying to help, but just doesn't know how and is going about it all wrong. Or you might prefer to view it as the frenemy you love to hate, that annoying colleague/neighbour/relative that you tolerate to keep on-side.
It’s important to remember that the thought is not who you are, but a habit that you have formed over time. It can help to personify the voice to create some distance, distinguishing it from yourself. Mo Gawdat (former Google executive, and author of "Solve for Happy: Engineering Your Path to Joy) calls his negative inner voice ‘Becky’, after an annoying girl he knew at school.
This step is about changing your relationship with the negative thoughts. Instead of fighting against them or trying to ignore them, acknowledge their presence and try to understand why they're there. This will help you to become more compassionate towards yourself, which in and of itself can reduce stress levels and improved mental health.
Now you’ve graciously tolerated this thought, and observed it as separate to yourself, you get to hit the big red bullsh*t button on it!
This is about creating cracks in the negative thought(s), through which a more positive light can shine through. Identify where or how the thought is wrong. Become your own defence lawyer (or prosecution – depending which way you want to look at it!) Pick it apart. Hunt for counterevidence to disprove it. Consider other possibilities and interpretations. Get specific, forensic, pedantic – and objective. Criticise that inner critic and give it a taste of its own medicine!
For example, if you're having thoughts like "I always get things wrong," find evidence to the contrary, such as achievements or positive feedback from others showing when you get things right.
You might trace back to the source and pick at the flaws in the original reasoning. Perhaps you internalised a criticism blurted out by a parent / teacher / partner, but now you think about it more critically, they were in a particularly bad mood that day, and said a similar, completely unfounded criticism to at least 5 other people. Or perhaps you reflect that they typically criticised when they felt jealous or threatened, which says more about them than about you.
The more you challenge the validity of your negative thoughts, the more you will realise they are not fact, ultimately diminishing their power.
In this key step, you get to upgrade your irritating, buzzing NAT (Negative Automatic Thought) with a warm, cosy, loving PET (Positive Empowering Thought).
Your alternative PETs will ROC! That is, that they will be Realistic, Objective, and Constructive. This is an important element for success in encouraging your PETs to make a home for themselves, because if you don’t believe in them, they won’t stick around. This is why some people struggle with affirmations: it can be a big leap from telling yourself “I hate my thighs” to “my thighs are svelte and athletic and I look best in a mini skirt”. Whereas if you say “my thighs do their job and allow me to walk/run/climb stairs and I’m grateful for them”, you can evoke a sense of acceptance and gratitude without the internal dissonance.
As you’ve been paying more attention to your NATs, you’ll likely notice repeat offenders. Perhaps every time you leave the house late you tell yourself you’re disorganised. Brainstorm some more positive reframes and see what sits well with you. For example, you might say to yourself “Mornings are hard, and I’m doing my best”, or “I’m juggling a lot, and couldn’t do it all without some organisational skills”.
Once you have found your PETs, plan a way to test them out and see if they hold up in the moment. This isn’t about getting it right the first time or every time. It’s about building your positivity muscles.
“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.” - Rick Hanson
Our brains have a negativity bias, meaning we’re wired to pay more attention to negative information. Additionally, negative information tends to elicit a stronger response in the amygdala, the brain's centre for processing emotions, than positive information, meaning they can have a stronger impact and be harder to shake.
Research has found that it takes approximately three positive statements to counteract one negative statement i.e., if someone receives one negative comment, it takes at least three positive comments to balance out the negative impact on their self-esteem and outlook.
Find ways to over-index on the positives. Congratulate yourself on every win or write a list at the end of the day of all the things that went well or you’re proud of (however tiny). This is also why cultivating a gratitude practice can be so effective, as it encourages us to notice and appreciate the positives, which breeds more of the same.
The more we practice a new thought or behaviour, the stronger the connections in the brain become. By focusing on positive experiences, thoughts, and feelings, we can train our brain to build new neural pathways that pay more attention to positive information, creating a more empowering inner dialogue which in turn has been connected to greater levels of happiness, reduced stress and anxiety, and improved relationships.
Combating negative self-talk takes some time and effort, but it's worth it – and so are you. By following these five steps, with patience and persistence, you will learn to recognise, acknowledge, and combat your negative self-talk, and in turn build a more positive and empowering inner dialogue. As a result, you will enjoy the positive impact on your mental health, self-esteem, and overall well-being as well as contributing to improved relationships, better decision-making, and increased resilience. You deserve to feel good about yourself, because you’re doing great.