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How to Transcend Self-Doubt and Negative Self-Talk

What is that voice in your head saying right now? Do you feel lifted up with kind words of support or are your thoughts racing with distorted, fear-based criticism?

All of us have internal dialogues that narrate our day. There is a good reason for this ongoing recitation. Self-talk supports a variety of cognitive processes, including working memory, emotional regulation, coping, perspective taking, and moreover, as a means to reason, think through situations, and stay on track for addressing what needs to get done (Oleś, Brinthaupt, Dier & Polak, 2020).

While we all have an inner voice, not everyone thinks in words. People may also experience inner thoughts as emotions, sounds, or imagery (Hurlburt, Heavey & Kelsey, 2013). Further, not everyone pays attention to their internal dialogue in the same way. But for most people, their stream-of-consciousness voice is ever-present.

When self-talk is positive, it can boost performance, motivation, and confidence, releasing a cascade of benefits. Positive self-talk may enhance the immune system, reduce pain, improve self-esteem, and improve mental well-being. Unfortunately, our brain has a negativity bias, meaning we naturally attach greater emphasis to adverse events such as insults, failures, unpleasant stimuli, and pessimistic scenarios. We inflate the importance of negative events and feel them more intensely. This cognitive distortion means that the majority of our self-talk is at risk of becoming critical and fear-based. An inner voice that is harsh and judgmental can devastate confidence and pull us down like a weight. It can lead to the imposition of self-sabotage, unrealistic expectations, imposter syndrome, social isolation, and other challenges.

Negative self-talk is amplified by ongoing situational and/or historic adversity such as family stress, criticism, bullying, and trauma. It is important to remember that past events can corrupt evolving internal scripts regarding self-image, self-efficacy, and agency. Early negative messages can become intertwined with the subtle messages you deliver to yourself. Self-talk can become so familiar that you feel it must be true. Don’t confuse familiarity with truth.

Another variable to remember is that a critical inner voice will become more pronounced during times of isolation or stress. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, may have amped up your negative self-talk.

Chronic catastrophizing or having repetitive thoughts of shame, inferiority, perfectionism, and regret can unfavorably impact both physical and mental strength. Negative self-talk can fill you with dread, loathing, and self-doubt, and lead to fears of failing, of not feeling lovable or worthy, and, other invalidating inclinations.

Self-doubt is about uncertainty in ourselves and our competence. It is normal to occasionally have self-doubt. This is a psychological process that helps promote reflection and introspection to ensure the decisions and choices you make, are sound. However, negative self-talk and self-doubt can become chronic, undermining a positive sense of self and instilling distrust, isolation, depression, anxiety, and inertia.

Self-doubt and negative self-talk are unpleasant; however, the goal is not to silence your internal voice but to gently shift your stream of consciousness in a kinder direction. In fact, the first step to effectively changing the way you talk to yourself is to become more aware of your internal dialogue. If you have been told that you are too hard on yourself, have difficulty accepting compliments, or never feel ‘good enough’, it may be a good time to become focused on the words you are saying to yourself.

Keep a two-week journal where you log your internal thoughts once an hour, along with the time of day, where you are at (e.g. work, home) and what you are doing/feeling. It can be enlightening to notice the messages you are repeating. Chances are that your negative self-talk is harsher than anything you would say to a friend.

The things you think and say, create your daily reality. This is something that can be changed. Once you have become more aware of the self-talk you are repeating, you can start to change negative thoughts into positive affirmations. As you become aware of the distortions and severity, learn to argue logically with your inner critic. Try to notice when you are comparing yourself to others and take a moment to state clearly that everyone is on their own journey. Stop one time an hour and intentionally focus on gratitude, even if only for 30 seconds. Tell yourself “I am strong” or “I’ve got this”. These exercises do not need to feel authentic at first. With time and focus, positive self-talk will become more natural. Practicing self-compassion by allowing for flaws, failures, and missteps will help tame your inner critic. Changing self-talk is a powerful way to transcend self-doubt.

Think about the people you are surrounding yourself with and ask, are they supportive and kind? People who boost your confidence and increase your sense of belonging will improve your mood, outlook, and self-worth. Practice lifting them up as well so you are creating a virtuous circle of positivity.

When self-doubt creeps in, a tradition of positive self-talk will provide a path toward resilience. The development of a benevolent internal dialogue will help to counter the inner critic who questions your worthiness. The more aware of negative self-talk you become, the more intentional you can be about embracing small flaws and imperfections and transcending self-doubt.

References Hurlburt R.T., Heavey C.L., Kelsey J.M. (2013). Toward a phenomenology of inner speaking. Conscious Cogn. 22, 4, 1477-1494. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2013.10.003

Oleś P.K., Brinthaupt T.M., Dier R., Polak D. (2020). Types of Inner Dialogues and Functions of Self-Talk: Comparisons and Implications. Front Psychol. 11, 227. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00227. PMID: 32210864; PMCID: PMC7067977.

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