Okay, Heifers, today I want to talk about something most (if not all) of us struggle with: negative self-talk. I know….I sound like I’m about to tell you to lie back on a sofa and tell me all about your mother. But, for real, self-talk is kind of a big deal.
We all do it, and we do it all day long. From the moment we wake up until we hit the sheets at night, we are talking to ourselves. We don’t even hear it most of the time because we’re so used to our internal chatter. It’s like having the TV on in the background for white noise. We just go through the house, the sound blaring, tuning most of it out. But the thing about self-talk is that we might tune it out in our conscious brain but our subconscious brain is raking it in, scooping it up and believing it.
Then, our subconscious brain does all kinds of naughty, crazy things like telling our conscious brain to act based on all of this self-talk dialogue and before you know it, we’re flopping back on the sofa instead of going for a run because we believe we’re too fat to run or don’t have the time to run or our knees can’t possibly sustain a run.
It’s a vicious cycle for many reasons, the biggest one being that we’re often not even aware it’s going on. I’ve worked with my therapist on this subject for years, Heifers. Years. And I’ve learned a few things along the way that have helped me change the thoughts in my head, which has helped me change the actions I take with my body.
So how do we stop the negative self-talk and replace it with something better?
Here are my 7 #NoBull Tips for Shutting Down Negative Self-Talk:
Listen – Spend some time just observing your thoughts, particularly about yourself. We have all kinds of thoughts throughout the day, but pay attention to the ones you say about yourself and your environment. Don’t try to change anything; just listen. Try not to judge yourself, which is easy to do. We have negative feelings about the fact that we have negative self-talk! But just try to pay attention for a week or two to the thoughts running through your head. Write them down if you get a chance, sitting in line at school pick-up, when you wake up in the morning and think about exercising, when you get on a scale or look in a mirror, when you’re parenting. Just jot these thoughts down for a few weeks and don’t think anything more about it.
Recognize Patterns/Triggers – You’ll start to see patterns if you notice your thoughts over a week or two. You’ll start to see when you dive into negativity about yourself. You’ll start to see times of day, situations, and triggers. It’s different for everyone, but common triggers could be when you’re exercising (I’m too out of shape for this; I’m not a runner; I’m so slow), eating (I shouldn’t eat this; I’ll pay for this later; I have no discipline), when you’re in stressful situations (I’m such a bad mother; I’m lazy; my boss hates me) and before you fall asleep (I didn’t do enough today; I am so lazy; I will never lose weight). Pay attention to when you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk and which situations are triggers for you.
Replace and Repeat – Once you know what and when to look for this kind of thinking, it’s time to replace negative thoughts with positive ones and repeat them – over and over again. For example, if you are lying in bed at night and skipped your workout, you might think: I’m lazy and won’t ever stick to an exercise plan. This is negative and defeating. It’s also super common and normal for many of us. Instead, though, replace that thought with something like: I know exactly what to do to keep my body healthy and fit and I can start doing it tomorrow, after a good night’s rest. Or, after wrangling kids all afternoon, you might be thinking: I’m a horrible mother. You can change that around too. Be honest but kind to yourself. You can say: I had a long day with the kids and was impatient. Tomorrow will be better, and I will find some help or take the kids for an activity in the afternoon to break up the day. The point isn’t to be all "Pollyanna" about it and ignore reality. The point is actually to focus on reality, which distorted negative thoughts don’t do any more than muttering about rainbows and unicorns. Replace the negative, drastic, black-and-white thinking (never, always) with more reasonable, positive, and honest feedback. Do this over and over, keep repeating it, and eventually your brain will get on board and stop sabotaging you behind the scenes.
Befriend Yourself – What would you say if a friend was having a hard time? Would you be rude and negative and harsh? No. Probably not. You’d be kind and gentle and honest. This doesn’t mean, again, that you should lie or sugarcoat things. The best friends in the world tell it like it is, but they don’t beat us over the heads with our failures and get dramatic and blow things out of proportion. If a friend told me she skipped her workout that day and was a lazy, fat loser, I wouldn’t agree with her and keep the bandwagon going with other negative comments. I’d remind her of the situation (maybe she's getting over being sick or just got home from traveling or has a husband who’s out of town) and then I’d encourage her to take action the next day to feel better: hit the gym, get in a run, get some sleep. Friends don’t bash other friends, and friends don’t encourage each other to continue crappy behavior. Friends want each other to be healthy and happy, and we all know that berating our friends isn’t the way to do that. Treat yourself like your best friend. Seriously. When you start to get nasty and judgmental with yourself, take a step back and think: would I say this to my best friend? If the answer is no, don’t say it to yourself.
Ask Question #1 – Asking questions is a great way to stop almost any undesirable behavior. When we ask questions, our brains have to stop what we’re doing and think. The first question to ask when this negativity sets in is: is this talk and train of thought helping me meet my goals? Most of the time, negative self-talk doesn't help us meet our goals. Most of the time, it discourages us and keeps us from taking positive action. Most of the time, it makes us a victim, and when we feel like victims, it’s hard to take action. Is telling ourselves we’re fat, lazy, stupid, unworthy, unchangeable, stuck, unloved or any of the other possible negative thoughts helpful? Does it motivate us to make changes and sustain healthy lives? No. It doesn’t. I know it’s tempting to think those views will somehow push us to work harder or become stronger, but the reality is that they just slow us down and keep us in victim-mode. It would be like someone handing me a big ol’ backpack full of dirt while I was trying to run a 10k. It’s not going to make me stronger. It’s going to weigh me down, slow me down and probably cause me to quit early. These negative thoughts and conversations don't help us meet our goals. They weigh us down. So the next time you find yourself thinking you’ll never run a 5k or you’ll always be overweight or you’ll never be a great employee, ask yourself if these thoughts are helping you achieve your goals. Chances are, the answer is no.
Ask Question #2 – The second question to ask yourself is harder than the first but maybe more important: where are these thoughts coming from? This means digging deep, Heifers. Believe me, I’ve had to do it more than I’d care to admit. It means looking at our past, at our relationships with people close to us and at beliefs we developed a long time ago, when our brains were processing life before we could make any sense of it. Maybe you believe you’re ‘not athletic’ because your parents told you that as a kid, maybe to save you the embarrassment of not making the team or because they had their own issues with sports. Maybe you think you’re lazy because a teacher told you that in the 4th grade, for an entire year, before you were diagnosed with dyslexia. There are reasons we feel the way we do, and part of getting rid of those negative beliefs is looking at where they came from and seeing that most of the time, it had very little to do with us and our capability and potential. Most of the time, it was all about someone else. This can be very liberating and help us move beyond that constant loop of negative beliefs that plays on repeat in our brains.
Stop – When all else fails, and you don’t have time to analyze your childhood or do a mock conversation with your best friend, just stop. When a negative thought about yourself or your situation comes to your brain, stop. Think about something else. You don’t even have to repeat a positive affirmation or mantra. You don’t have to flip it around. You don’t have to do anything at all but stop. Maybe have a mental image of a stop sign in your head or a policeman holding up a hand. Whatever works; do it. If you think about the size of your thighs while you run, stop. Think about a beach. Think anything else. It doesn’t matter what. Just stop the negative thought. Over time, your brain will be trained to stop on its own. In the very least, it stops your brain in that moment from going down the dirt road of self-loathing. Sometimes, the best course of action is the simplest. Once you see what you’re doing to yourself, and even after you’ve identified why, you just have to practice the simple act of stopping. Simple is never easy, Heifers, but it’s very effective.
I’ve used all of these tips in my adult life to combat some pretty heavy negative thoughts. It’s not easy to change our thinking. It doesn’t happen overnight. I still struggle with destructive thoughts. The difference is that now I have some tools to work with, and it’s not so overwhelming and damaging. I can see it coming and stop it before it becomes days or weeks of putting myself down and then failing to take positive action to make life better.
If you think you’re struggling with these kinds of thoughts, you might ask yourself the following questions to get started
When do I feel the most discouraged or negative during my day?
Do certain people trigger destructive thoughts?
What would I say to a friend who was struggling with an issue I deal with? How would I treat him/her?
What are my health/fitness goals? Are my thoughts helping me achieve them?
Where do these negative beliefs come from? And are they true?
It’s not easy to tackle distorted beliefs and dramatic, all-or-nothing thinking, but the flip side is continuing to feel like crap about ourselves. So, much as I’d like to barrel through life thinking only about rainbows and unicorns, I have to do the work to retrain my brain, focus on my goals and shut down the monkey on my back.