Negative Self-Talk & Anxiety and Depression
What is Self-Talk?
Self-talk is what we say to ourselves in response to any given situation. Mood and feelings arise from what we say to ourselves, our self-talk. What this means is that you have the power to alter your mood by altering your attitude or perspective.
For example, let’s say you get stuck in a traffic jam. Some responses to this situation might be to say, “Why does this always happen to me,” “What’s wrong with these people?”, “Why didn’t I turn off earlier?”, “I can’t stand this.”
This type of response might result in an angry or anxious mood. Alternative responses might be, “Oh, great, now I have some time to listen to that podcast or book on CD,” “Now I can take some time to practice my deep breathing and decompress from the day,” or “Now we can take some time to talk with one another (if a car with someone else).” This type of response might result in a calm mood.
Negative self-talk arises from many different types of “cognitive distortions.” Cognitive distortions are distorted or irrational beliefs, but they easily sound like the truth. They are automatic and so much so that you might not even notice when negative self-talk occurs much less the effect it has on your mood or feelings.
If you find yourself often feeling anxious or depressed, try paying attention to your negative self-talk. Read the list of cognitive distortions below and see if you can identify which category your self-talk often falls under.
1. Assuming: In the circumstances, we assume the worst without testing the evidence. For instance, instead of assuming one is angry with you, ask them. Assuming self-talk would also be when you tell yourself, “I know I won’t enjoy myself,” or “I know I’ll do a lousy job even though I’m prepared.” More reasonable self-talk would be, “I might or might not enjoy myself (do a good job, etc.). I’m willing to experiment and see what happens.”
2. Shoulds (Musts/Oughts): Shoulds (musts/oughts) are demands we make of ourselves. For example, “I should be a perfect lover”; “I must not make mistakes”; “I should have known better”, or “I should be happy and never depressed or tired.” We think that we motivate ourselves with such statements.
Usually, however, we just feel worse (e.g., since I should be so and so, and I’m not that way, I then feel inadequate, frustrated, ashamed, and hopeless). Perhaps one of the only “reasonable “should” is that humans “should” be fallible, just as we are, given our background, our imperfect understanding, and our present skill levels.
If we really knew better (i.e., if we clearly understood the advantages of certain behaviors, and were perfectly capable of behaving that way), then we would be better. One solution then is to replace “should” with “woulds” or “coulds” (it would be nice if I did that. I wonder how I could do that). Or replace “should” with “want to’s” (I want to do that because it is to my advantage, not because someone is telling me I should or must.)
3. The Fairy-Tale Fantasy: the fairy-tale fantasy means demanding the ideal from life. This is really a special type of “should.” “That’s not fair!” or “why did that have to happen?” often means “The world shouldn’t be the way it is.” In reality, bad and unfair things happen to good people – sometimes randomly, sometimes because of the unreasonableness of others, and sometimes because of our own imperfections.
To expect that the world be different is to invite disappointment. To expect that others treat us fairly, when they often have their own ideas about what is fair, is also to invite disappointment. Again, a “would” or a “could” is a wise substitute for a “should” (e.g., “It would be nice if things were ideal, but they’re not. Too bad. Now, I wonder what I could do to improve things.”)
4. All or Nothing Thinking: With all or nothing thinking you hold yourself to the impossible standard of perfection (or something close to it). When you fall short of this standard, you conclude that you are a total failure as a person. For example, “If I’m not the best, I’m a flop”; “If I’m not performing perfectly, I’m a loser”; “If I score below 90%, I am a failure”; “A rough edge means I’m all bad.”
This is unreasonable because such absolute, black and white extremes rarely exist. Even if it were possible to perform perfectly (it isn’t), performing below some standard usually means we’ve performed at 80% or 35% – rarely at 0%. And poor performance never makes a complex person worthless, just fallible. Ask yourself, “Why must I bat one thousand?”
5. Overgeneralizing: Overgeneralizing is deciding that negative experiences describe your life completely. For example, “I always ruin everything”; “I always get rejected in love”; “No one likes me; everybody hates me”; “I never do well at math.” Such global statements are unkind, depressing, and usually inaccurate to some degree.
The antidote is to use more precise language: “Some of my skills are not yet well developed”; “I’m not as tactful in some social situations as I’d like”; “Sometimes people don’t approve of me (sometimes some people do)”; “Although some aspects of my life haven’t gone well, that doesn’t mean I never do reasonably well.” Be a healthy optimist: expect to find small ways to improve situations and notice what’s going well.
6. Labeling: Here you give yourself a label, or name, as though a single word describes a person completely. For example: “I’m such a loser”; “I’m stupid”; “I’m dumb”; “I’m boring.” To say, “I am stupid” means I always, in every way, am stupid. In fact, some people who behave quite stupidly at times also behave quite intelligently at other times. Because humans are too complex for simple labels, confine labels to behaviors (e.g., “That was a silly thing to do.”), or ask, “Am I always stupid? Sometimes, perhaps, but not always.
7. Dwelling on the Negative: Suppose you go to a party and notice that a guest has dog poop on his shoe. The more you think about it, the more uncomfortable you get. In this distortion, you focus in on the negative aspects of a situation, while ignoring the positive aspects. Soon the whole situation looks negative.
Other examples: “How can I feel good about the day when I was criticized?”; “How can I enjoy life when my children have problems?”; “How can I feel good about myself when I make mistakes?”; “The steak is burnt-the meal is ruined!” A solution to this habit is to re-examine your options: “Would I enjoy things more (and feel better about myself) if I chose a different focus?”; “What pleasing things could I still find to enjoy?”; “What would I think on a good day?”; “How would someone with sound self-esteem view this situation?”
8. Rejecting the Positive: Dwelling on the negative overlooks positive aspects. Here we actually negate positives so that our self-esteem remains low. For example, someone compliments your work. You reply, “Oh, it was really nothing. Anyone could do that.”
You discount the fact that you’ve worked long and effectively. No wonder accomplishments aren’t fun. You could just as easily have replied, “Thanks” (and tell yourself, “I do deserve special credit for doing this difficult and boring task”). You would give a loved one or friend credit where it’s due. Why not do yourself the same favor?
9. Unfavorable Comparisons: Suppose you had an unusual magnifying glass that magnified some things (like your faults and mistakes, or the strengths of others) and shrunk others (like your strengths, and the mistakes of others). In comparison to others, you would always seem inadequate or inferior-always coming out on the short end of the stick.
For example, if you think to yourself: “I’m only a housewife and mother” (minimizing your strengths). “Jan’s a rich, bright lawyer” (magnifying another’s strengths). Your friend replies: “But you’re an excellent homemaker. You’ve been great with your kids. Jan’s an alcoholic.” To which you respond: “Yes, but (minimizing another’s faults and your accomplishments) look at the cases she’s won! She’s the one who really contributes! (Magnifying another’s strengths).”
A way to challenge this distortion is to ask, “Why must I compare? Why can’t I just appreciate that each person has unique strengths and weaknesses? Another’s contributions are not necessarily better, just different.”
10. Catastrophizing: When you believe that something is a catastrophe, you tell yourself that it is so horrible and awful that “I can’t stand it!” in telling ourselves this, we convince ourselves that we are too feeble to cope with life.
For example, “I couldn’t stand it if he were to leave me. It would be awful!” although many things are unpleasant, inconvenient, and difficult, we can really stand anything short of being steamrolled to death. So one might think, “I don’t like this, but I certainly can stand it.” Asking the following questions will challenge the belief that something will be a catastrophe:
- What are the odds of this happening?
- If it does happen, how likely is it to do me in?
- If the worst happens, what will I do? (Anticipating a problem and formulating an action plan increases one’s sense of confidence.)
- One hundred years from now, will anyone care about this?
11. Personalizing: Personalizing is seeing yourself as more involved in negative events then you really are. For example, a student drops out of college and the mother concludes, “It’s all my fault.” A husband takes full responsibility for his spouse’s fatigue or anger, or for a divorce. Here the ego is so involved that each event becomes a test of worth. There are two helpful antidotes to this distortion:
- Distinguish influences from causes. Sometimes we can influence others’ decision, but the final decision is theirs, not ours.
- Look realistically for other influences outside of ourselves. For example, instead of thinking, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this?” one might say, “This is a difficult task. The help I need isn’t here, it’s noisy, and I’m tired.” Instead of thinking, “Why is he snapping at me?” one might say, “Maybe I’m not the central character. Maybe he’s mad at the world today.”
12. Blaming: Blaming is the opposite of personalizing. Whereas personalizing puts all the responsibility on yourself for your difficulties, blaming puts it all on something outside of yourself. For example:
- He makes me so mad!
- She has ruined my life and my self-esteem.
- I am a loser because of my crummy childhood.
The problem with blaming, much like catastrophizing, is that it tends to make us think of ourselves as helpless victims who are too powerless to cope. The antidote to blaming is to acknowledge outside influences, but to take responsibility for your own welfare: “Yes, his behavior was unjust and unfair, but I don’t have to turn bitter and cynical. I am better than that.”
Notice that the person with self-esteem is free to assume realistic responsibility. He will acknowledge what is his responsibility and what is not. However, when one takes responsibility, it is for a behavior or a choice, not for being bad to the core. Thus, one might say, “I performed poorly on that exam because I did not study enough. Next time I’ll plan better.” There is no judging the core self here, only behaviors.
13. Making Feelings Facts: Making feelings facts is taking one’s feelings as proof of the way things really are. For example:
- I feel like such a loser. I must be hopeless.
- I feel ashamed and bad. I must be bad.
- I feel inadequate. I must be inadequate.
- I feel worthless. I must be worthless.
Remember that feelings result from our thoughts. If our thoughts are distorted (as they often are when we’re stressed or depressed), then our feelings may not reflect reality. So question your feelings. Ask, “What would someone who is 100% inadequate (or bad, guilty, hopeless, etc.) be like? Am I really like that?” this challenges the tendencies of labeling or all or nothing thinking. Remind yourself that feelings are not facts. When our thoughts become more reasonable, our feelings become brighter.
1. Make a conscious effort to pay attention and catch your negative self-talk. It might be easier to identify when your mood changes and backtrack to find out what event preceeded your mood and what type of thoughts may have occurred in reaction to that event or situaiton.
2. Identify which type of distortion your negative self-talk falls under, challenge its logic and replace the thought(s) with thoughts that more closely align with reality. Since negative self-talk is so automatic and ingrained into your thinking, it’s not enough to just think of challenging statements. You must actually write down alternative statements and practice them (out loud is great!).
When trying to counter your negative self-talk, ask yourself:
1. What is the evidence for this?
2. Is this ALWAYS true?
3. Has this been true in the past?
Negative Self-Talk: “I have to receive my parents’ acceptance and approval or I’ll be devastated.”
Cognitive Distortion: Catastrophizing
Questioning: Am I being totally objective? Is it actually true that my parents’ approval is necessary for my well-being? What’s the worst that could happen? (I could still survive and have people who care for and support me even without my parents’ approval).
Counterstatement: I’m willing to go forward with my life and try to better myself regardless of what my parents think.
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