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Challenging negative self-talk

Lauren Stathakis

Lauren Stathakis


Occupational Therapist

Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019

Do you ever say to yourself things like:

  • I am not good enough….
  • I am a disappointment
  • I can’t do this because _______
  • Is there something wrong with me?

These statements are examples of negative self-talk. Negative self-talk can have substantial implications on our self-esteem, confidence and performance. However, changing negative thinking can be difficult because it can be something we’ve been practicing for years.

Negative self-talk can also affect our productivity, self-care and leisure activities. In other words, it can affect almost every aspect of your life.

Who is responsible for negative self-talk?

The truth is, more often than not, we are own biggest critic.

One of the areas of the brain that plays a substantial role is the “amygdala”. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure located in the temporal lobe. It is responsible for playing a large role in emotion and fear.

So how do we start changing our thinking style?

The first step is to identify negative self-talk. Let’s use an example:

Jane has been working as a receptionist for a year and she’s about to receive her yearly performance evaluation. She feels fearful and nervous of her employers’ feedback and worries about it the night before.

Her performance evaluation occurs, and it consists of positive and constructive feedback. Her employer tells her she’s doing an awesome job in all aspects, but could improve by keeping her work area tidier.

Overall, her work performance is considered positive. However, Jane focuses on the area in which she could improve. She does not consider all the things that she’s doing right, but instead feels down based on one negative comment.

This style of thinking is called “a mental filter.” A mental filter is when you focus on one negative detail of an interaction instead of seeing the whole picture. 

You may at some point have been guilty of using this style of thinking and that’s okay! The point is to recognize it so that you can change it.

When you read this example, it may become obvious and clear how Jane’s negative self-talk is counterproductive, but often when we are in this kind of situation, we don’t recognize that we are engaging in negative self-talk. This is because negative self-talk is a learned behaviour!

Chances are you have been using this for longer than you can remember. People use negative self-talk for a variety of reasons, whether to “cope” with a situation, for reasoning purposes or because your self-expectations are high.

Different negative-self talk styles

The first step is recognizing and admitting that you use negative self-talk. There are many different types of negative or distorted thinking. For example:

  • All or nothing thinking: You see things black or white
  • Disqualifying the positive: You discount the good things that happen to you
  • Labeling: You give yourself or others a generalized label (i.e. I’m a failure)
  • Magnification/minimization: Discounting something or catastrophizing
  • Mental filter: Paying attention to only certain types of information, such as the negative
  • Overgeneralization: Drawing a broad conclusion or attempting to see a pattern based on one event
  • “Should” statements: Unknowingly adding the word should to a statement can make us feel guilty and set us up for failure
  • Personalization: When you blame someone else for something that was your fault or when you blame yourself for something that wasn’t entirely your fault
  • Emotional reasoning: You are relying on your emotion to determine if something is true
  • Jumping to conclusions
    • Mind reading: The perception that we know what others are thinking
    • Fortune telling: When we predict the future

You may find yourself realizing that you use a few of these thinking styles. Don’t worry, this is common.

The point is, recognizing which negative thinking style you use and why. These are huge questions that can’t be fixed overnight and will require committed efforts to change.

Why is it important to change your negative self-talk?

Negative self-talk can affect current function and interfere with your goals.

The type of self-talk you use can affect your performance, whether it sets you up for success or failure. For example, imagine applying for a job. If prior to the interview, you think that “I can’t do this,” this will likely make you feel nervous, less confident and affect your performance.

In contrast, if you think “I can do this,” you will likely feel and appear more confident and perform better. Positive self-talk is often paired with mental imagery, which involves envisioning and visualizing the situation beforehand, allowing you to prepare.

For example, prior to the interview, you may brainstorm possible questions that could be asked and think of potential answers. Preparing your answer will allow you to feel in control of your words and allow you to present yourself in the way you would like to be perceived.

Now that you know the different negative thinking styles and the importance of changing them, the next step is managing negative self-talk.

How do we manage it?

  • Try to catch your negative thinking style early
  • Some negative self-talk is okay, but put a time limit on it
  • Question your negative self-talk by asking yourself “Would I say this to a friend?”
  • Challenge your negative self-talk. Are all your thoughts and assumptions reality or are they heightened/exaggerated?
  • Engage in positive self-talk. Positive self-talk is the opposite and requires you to shift your focus on all that went wrong and look at all that went right.

These tips can help you recognize and manage your negative self-talk. As we know, negative self-talk can have large implications on your performance, mood and expectations.

If you find that negative self-talk is holding you back, you may benefit from seeing an occupational therapist.

An occupational therapist has a functional focus and can help you by identifying areas of your life that are affected by negative self-talk, then teach you coping styles to combat these counterproductive approaches that are impeding or hindering your daily activities so that you can get back a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.

If you’d like to consult an occupational therapist, check out our Locations page to find a clinic near you or book online to schedule an appointment.

Lauren Stathakis

Lauren Stathakis


Occupational Therapist

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