Sunday, April 14, 2024

Negative Self-Talk: How Do We Get Our Inner Critic to Shut the Hell Up?

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When we think, our ‘inner critic’ and ‘negative self-talk’ can pop up unwanted. How might we deal with them?

Ever thought about how many words you’re thinking?

Julie Beck from The Atlantic has written a fascinating article called ‘The Running Conversation in Your Head’.

She interviewed Charles Fernyhough, a U.K. professor, psychologist, and author of The Voices Within: The History And Science Of How We Talk To Ourselves – and he told her something surprising. “Inner speech, Fernyhough writes, isn’t bound by many of the conventions of verbal speech. For one, we can produce it much faster when we don’t have to go at the pace required to use tongues and lips and voice boxes. One researcher clocks inner speech at an average pace of 4000 words per minute – 10 times faster than verbal speech.”

Say what? Surely not! As ‘research’, I counted how long it takes me to think the following sentence: ‘if I get home early, I can finish my book in peace but I’d better finish this story first’. It actually takes one second.

We could each write a book pretty quickly if we transcribed all those words. Right now, mine might go something like “I should make that capsicum-and-rice dish tonight before the capsicum goes bad, and I think I’ll start watching Billions tonight because I miss Succession so much, and, ew, did I forget to put deodorant on this morning? And I still haven’t joined the gym because I’m so lazy.” Yep, maybe not a best-selling book.

So, we talk to ourselves a LOT. But how do we talk to ourselves? What are we saying? Well, not always nice things.

Wellington public servant Sally*, 32, has had to deal with negative self-talk since she was a teenager. “I would think things like ‘You’re too boring to get a boyfriend’ or ‘you’re not going to get into university because you always screw up exams’.”

When she landed her first job – one she really wanted – her inner critic got louder. “I kept thinking ‘I’m not as good as my co-workers’, even though I liked the job and my boss seemed happy with me.” Ten years later, her negative self-talk is often about the difficulties of her workday, not the tasks she’s ticked off or any praise she’s got.

Sally hadn’t thought about the idea that your inner critic isn’t her. She’s dubious. “It has always felt like it’s me, but then again at times it’s felt like only one part of me.”

Our Inner Critics

The terms ‘inner critic’ and ‘negative self-talk’ are hard to separate. They’re basically identical twins. One refers to the ‘thing’ that does the self-talk, while the other is the self-talk. So yeah, a wafer-thin difference.

Your inner critic is an inner voice that judges, criticszes, or even demeans you, whether or not the self-criticism is objectively justified. Importantly, the inner critic isn’t ‘you’.  It may even sound like a critical parent or other person from your past. Everyone experiences negative self-talk at times, but the severity and frequency differs from person to person.

Megan Dalla-Camins – an author and global expert in women’s leadership and wellbeing – has written a Psychology Today article called ‘10 Tested Strategies to Manage Your Inner Critic’. “Most of us are quite familiar with the inner critic,” she writes. “It involves those nagging thoughts and the negative self-talk that tells us we’re not good enough, makes us spiral into self-doubt and undermines our progress. The voice is usually very harsh and uses words that you would never say to another person. It’s also very repetitive…. even when the thought isn’t based on any truth or reality.”

Dr Elizabeth Scott’s article ‘The Toxic Effects of Negative Self-Talk’ says that negative self-talk is something most of us experience – and can take many forms. “It can sound grounded (‘I’m not good at this, so I should avoid attempting it for my own personal safety’ for example) or it’s downright mean (‘I can never do anything right!’). It may seem like a realistic appraisal of a situation (‘I got a C on this test. I guess I’m not good at math’), only to devolve into a fear-based fantasy (‘I’ll never be able to go to a good college’).”

The Mayo Clinic outlines some common forms of negative self-talk. These include Filtering (you magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all the positive ones); Personalising (when something bad occurs, you automatically blame yourself); Catastrophising (you automatically anticipate the worst without there being facts that the worse will happen; Saying You ‘Should’ Do Something (thinking about of all the things you think you should do and blame yourself for not doing them); Magnifying (you make a big deal out of minor problems); Perfectionism (having impossible standards); and Polarising (you see things only as either good or bad, with no middle ground).

Psychologist Dr Emma Woodward from the NZ Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience tells me that “in our society, we have such a narrow definition of success – income bracket, job type, educational attainment, body shape, curated aesthetic – that we can feel we’re not good enough, which then drives this negative self-talk in our heads: ‘silly cow’, ‘must do better’, being really harsh on ourselves. The antidote to that negative self-talk is self-compassion.”

Shush, please!

Your inner critic doesn’t tend to pipe down, even if you ask nicely. But here’s the thing: getting rid of it isn’t feasible. It’s not about ‘conquering’ your negative self-talk or ‘silencing’ your inner critic. Our brains don’t work that way, especially if something has been a pattern for years or even decades. Rather, it’s about managing your inner critic – and how you respond to negative self-talk when it pops up.

You can try doing this yourself, or you might need some therapy (probably Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). By challenging negative thoughts with more realistic ones, you can rewire neural pathways. People who do the psychological work around this can learn to be more self-compassionate.

One woman tells me that “I’ve done Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for anxiety and did a lot of work on [negative] self-talk. Understanding where it came from, and that it’s not a reflection of reality, helps. So does repeating it in a stupid voice. If I’m really struggling, I’ll imagine it in Trump’s voice, which is very easy for me to angrily reject. It makes me laugh that it works!” Now, that’s a great tip.

Some tips

  • Trying to ignore or suppress your inner critic doesn’t work and can actually make things worse.
  • Give your inner critic a nickname like ‘Silly Chatbot’ or ‘Debbie Downer’ (yes, those nicknames suck) to externalise it and distance it from you
  • Notice and acknowledge negative self-talk non-judgmentally without identifying it as ‘true’
  • Challenge negative self-talk or ‘argue back’ with evidence that shows it isn’t justified – e.g. ‘I accomplished some important things at work this week’
  • Try to replace negative self-talk with more realistic thoughts. For instance, if your inner critic says “This is too hard and you’ll always be terrible at it” you could say “This is new, and I’m not great at it yet but I’m learning”
  • Say to yourself ‘I wouldn’t talk to a friend or family member this way!’
  • Mindfulness meditation can help, especially with letting thoughts come and go

Photographer Tracey Ambrose has written an Instagram post called ‘Challenge Your Internal Narrative’. It reads: “Do you have an inner critic? Does she have your back or is she own personal enemy? I was told [by a health professional] that I didn’t just have an inner critic, I had a pathological inner critic. She was a total bitch who had no faith in me. It breaks my heart to think how I used to let her talk to me. One of the tricks I was taught to get her out of my head was to literally yell at her. So whenever she raised her voice I used to yell into my own mind ‘Shut Up!’ It’s sounds crazy, but it worked.”

How did she manage this? “I started changing my mindset by changing the words I used to talk to myself. Instead of ‘I can’t do this’, I’d say ‘I can’t do this… yet!’ Changing the narrative, the way I spoke to myself, the story I told myself, literally changed my life. I started showing up and moving forward, moving towards things.”

Tracey was an administrator and book-keeper with creative ambitions – and managing her inner critic has actually helped her to become a photographer as her day job.

She tells me that the process of change involved both professional help and solo work. “I’m still a work-in-progress. It’s not something you can just switch off.” Every day you have to work on not letting her [the inner critic] live rent-free in your head.”

Change can take time, but it can happen.

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