My negative self-talk started after I experienced a bad break up that left me feeling worthless and unlovable.
No matter what I was doing, toxic thoughts would break through, reminding me of my flaws and all the things I should have said and should have done. The weight of that experience alone would have been enough to cloud my thinking and ambush my self-confidence.
But then, over the next few months a storm cloud of bad luck hovered over me: I was let go from a soul-sucking job; I was betrayed by a friend; and I totaled my car.
It felt like the universe had punched me in the mouth.
In less than six months, I unraveled from a happy, positive person into a scowling, toxic person who was haunted by self-doubt with never a good word to say. I didn’t like myself and I lashed out at the smallest inconvenience.
A passing comment by a work colleague broke the spell and woke me up to how much I had changed from the happy person I used to be.
My friend and I were walking to a conference room for a department meeting at work when I hissed, “I’m so sick of these stupid f*cking meetings they schedule for nothing. Can’t they send us an email and be done with it?!”
Kim, my colleague, smirked and replied, “We can always count on you to be a source of doom and gloom, no matter what the situation is.”
She was right. I had become one of those annoying people who gripe and complain about everything. I was never happy, always bitching, and constantly in a state of low-level annoyance. I was a harbinger of negative energy, and I repelled people without even realizing it. I had become someone I no longer recognized and it was all because of the persistent, negative self-talk in my head.
Her comment stung, but in retrospect, I see that it was a gift. She helped me realize that it was time to finally silence the mean girl’s voice in my head.
That night, I looked in the mirror and decided that living under a gray cloud was no longer acceptable. I had become a kill-joy and I couldn’t stand myself anymore. I decided that my new mission was to read everything I could find to help me find my way back to myself. The library became my new hideaway and books became my guides.
Many people believe that ignoring negative self-talk is the only way to make it stop. That it will just go away on its own if you pretend it’s not there. And still others believe that berating yourself every day with harsh criticism is the way you push yourself to be better. They consider that harsh voice as self-discipline to keep themselves in check.
But the truth is, negative self talk is a damaging cycle: You are mean to yourself and that makes you feel bad. You feel bad so you make bad choices and do things you regret. So you berate yourself and feel bad again … and on and on.
To get get rid of the hurtful voice that makes you feel worthless, you have to break the cycle. According to Sara Arey, a mindset coach, energy mentor, and author of the book The Universe F*cking Loves Me: Getting Out of Your Way and Into Your Flow, ignoring your negative self-talk is the worst way to get rid of it.
“Not listening to this part of yourself doesn’t make it go away. Like a toddler you ignore, it’ll just get louder,” she said. “You can only stuff thoughts and feelings down for so long until the inner pressure becomes too much and things come apart. Life becomes like a game of whack-a-mole where you just don’t have enough hands to keep the next trigger from popping up.”
My healing work began when I learned to flip the negative narrative in my head from a painful story to one that felt better. It didn’t take changing the world over night. I simply had to find one thought in the moment that felt better than the bad one that I was ruminating on.
I quickly learned that going full blown Pollyanna with thoughts of unicorns and rainbows did not work for me. That B.S. felt inauthentic and I quickly rejected it. But, I was always able to find a thought that felt a little better in the moment than the toxic one.
For example, I changed the old story, “I’m never going to find a committed relationship,” into a new story that said, “I just haven’t found the right person for a committed relationship yet.” That small one-word adjustment to the hurtful thought opened up the possibility that what I wanted was still possible and attainable.
In the process of learning to shift my negative narrative, I learned where critical self-talk comes from. It turns out our thoughts get stuck in ruts in our brains. These “thought-ruts” control how we think, feel, and behave. The rut becomes the default way of thinking that you don’t question. You accept its veracity and stop looking for alternatives.
Like water, thoughts flow in a the route of least resistance. The only way to change them is to re-route the river, so to speak.
You can train yourself to regulate your negative thinking.
When your thought-ruts constantly tell you how dumb, unloveable, and unworthy you are, they skew your perspective about what’s true about your life and about who you are. Human brains have the remarkable ability to “rewire” the routes that thoughts travel on, i.e., neural pathways. This phenomenon is called “neuroplasticity.”
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and change. You can train yourself to regulate your negative thinking.
“When we learn something new, we create new connections between our neurons. We rewire our brains to adapt to new circumstances. This happens on a daily basis, but it’s also something that we can encourage and stimulate.”
This newfound knowledge was an epiphany for me. If it were possible to train my brain and make new connections that would change the way I think about myself, then there was hope for me to get back on track and feel better.
I was no longer willing to live in a world where everything felt bleak and hopeless. I started doing several daily practices to intentionally and purposefully change the way my mind talked to me.
Below, are the actions I took that changed my thinking, and thus, literally changed my life.
When in doubt, write it out
I needed an easy win early on, so I picked an activity that I knew I could commit to with minimal effort: Journaling.
When I started journaling, I knew only two things for sure: 1) I no longer wanted to feel weighed down with hopelessness and self-loathing; and 2) I wanted to break free from the pattern of thinking I was caught in and train myself to default to positivity.
On the first day, on the first page of my journal, the first sentence I wrote in was: How do you want to feel?
My pen led the way as I scribbled in a stream of consciousness, listing thoughts and feelings that felt better than the state of mind I was stuck in. “I want to feel calm; at ease in my skin; happy; normal; successful; peaceful … loved …”
Every time my inner critic would harass me, I’d stop and ask myself: “Does this thought help me feel the way I want to feel? Does it help me live the life I want to live?”
Then, I would go back and read through my list in my journal.
Noticing negative thoughts and then purposefully replacing them with better ones felt awkward and forced at first. But, I kept at it anyway and eventually, over time, I noticed fewer random bad thoughts barging in, interrupting my day.
Questions to My Future Self
My favorite writing practice was writing letters to my future self — a wiser, happier, older version of me. This version of me had reached her goals and was living a life I could only dream of. In my letters, I would ask my future self questions like:
- “What actions did you take to achieve your goals?”
- “How did you finally stop beating yourself up for past mistakes?
Then, I would switch perspectives and write a response. I would close my eyes, take a breath, and imagine I was the older, better version of myself in the future. I responded to my questions in my journal, as if I were writing from the future, answering my own questions.
I used the answers my future self provided to reverse engineer the path I needed to take to get to a happier place. (Spoiler alert: It worked!)
Energy Flows Where Attention Goes
I started paying closer attention to the good things that were already present in my life and purposefully feeling grateful for them. This is often described as keeping a Gratitude Journal.
Writing about what was already good wasn’t easy because my default thoughts wanted to wallow in what was wrong or lacking. When I started, I had to intentionally force myself to find one good thing to write about.
Over time, the practice unexpectedly got easier and easier. Noticing the good that was already present and feeling grateful for it rather than fixating on what was wrong in my life made me realize how ridiculous and obsolete my sob story had become.
Get out of your head and into your body
I slowly began exercising. Moving my body, sweating, and pushing myself physically was the best way to get out of my head and into the present moment. Your thoughts can take you to the past or future, but your body only exists in the now. When I exercised, I focused solely on the present moment. It was a game changer.
I would take rigorous hikes in the woods so I could lose myself among the trees. When I started hiking, I struggled with every step. To be honest, it sucked. But after a couple weeks, I noticed that I was huffing and puffing less, my legs were stronger, and I had even lost a few pounds.
Eventually, I got brave enough to join a local gym. I took group classes and even agreed to do a six-week exercise bootcamp where I made new friends. These friends only knew the person I was trying to become. It was a nice, clean space to grow into.
Exercise boosted my confidence, gave me a goal, and inspired me to push myself past my self-limiting beliefs.
Mantras are mind changing
Whenever a critical thought popped in, I would repeated an affirmation in my head to counter it. Affirmations are hugely helpful in altering the pathways in your brain. I borrowed my first mantra from the book The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks.
I customized one of his affirmations to match the feelings and thoughts I wanted for myself: “Every day I expand in joy, abundance, success, peace, and love, and I encourage others to do the same.”
Writing it down now and reading it aloud makes it sound cheesy. But, at the time, when I depended so heavily on these crutches to keep me focused, my mantras were a life line. They reminded me to be present and see the world from a healthier perspective.
I call these actions “practices” because I literally practiced them every day for about a year. I did them imperfectly and I screwed up a lot. I took one step forward and slipped five steps back often, But, I never gave up. And in the end, my efforts transformed my life.
My daily writing practice evolved and I started looking beyond myself for topics to write about. Eventually, I created a website and started blogging.
Blogging consistently led to me mustering the courage to start a small copywriting and marketing business. I quit my corporate job, and for five years I freelanced as a content creator writing marketing copy for clients.
Eventually, I hired a business coach, joined a mastermind, and made amazing friends who are still dear to me today.
Daily exercise is still a huge part of my life. I use it for precious “me time” and as a form of meditation. I credit so much of my transformation to getting out of my head and into my body through physical activity several times a week.
I’m not sure when I realized that the saboteur inside my head was no longer running the show. I was busy living my life and feeling at peace when it dawned on me that I was no longer under its spell.
Does my transformation mean self-judging, negative thoughts never break through my bliss? No, of course not. That’s not how human brains work. Thoughts — both good and bad — are part of life. They pop in your head out of nowhere and buzz around for as long as we allow them to.
The difference now is, I catch the bad thoughts early before they wreak havoc on my life. I challenge their veracity and see them for what they are: just thoughts. Like clouds in a vast blue sky, they will float in and out of view if I let them.
I can choose a better thought anytime a bad one shows up. I have the power to decide for myself what I think and believe. Realizing I have that agency — that I had all along — changes everything.
Shutting up the negative self-talk means you have to consciously practice believing in yourself more than you are committed to believing the sad, self-defeating stories that taunt you and keep you stuck in a dark place.
In the end, the self-talk is nothing more than hyper critical thoughts that you have never challenged or questioned. You take them as truth without ever pausing to consider if they’re wrong. But, with practice and persistence, thoughts can be changed.
The trick is learning to catch and release your bad thoughts early so you can make room in your head for better ones.