Banishing Negative Self-Talk - What Works?
Welcome back friends! I hope you're doing super well!
I don't know about you, but amidst the Coronavirus pandemic I have been noticing that little chatterbox in my mind getting louder, telling me that I'm lazy, that I'm unmotivated, that I'm not going to be successful..... you get the idea. After being furloughed from work a couple of weeks ago, the time stretching in front of me can become difficult to handle and results in my negative self-talk rearing its ugly head.
Negative self-talk can be seriously destructive - it can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression and worthlessness. But we all deal with it from time to time, and we can adopt some strategies to help quieten our annoying chatterbox of a brain from telling us all these unhelpful stories.
So I'm going to discuss 3 research-driven ways to banish negative self-talk. These have been used in multiple situations, whether facing a particular goal, or to keep mental health in check. (I discuss other performance-enhancing mental tricks, along with self-talk, that athletes use in another blog post.)
A Note Of Warning - Firstly, I am going to discuss techniques here that I would caution against, through my own personal experience, and through research of these techniques in personal and sport psychology. I'm reporting them here so that you can understand ultimately what the goal is for dealing with negative self-talk, and understand what the differences are between different methods and why they work.
Secondly, from here on in I am going to refer to 'negative self-talk' as 'unhelpful', 'intrusive' or 'unwanted' thoughts. The reason for this is that it's more helpful to think of thoughts as neither positive nor negative, as ultimately all thoughts either help us or teach us something. Also, by thinking of some thoughts as 'negative', this automatically makes our relationship with these thoughts negative - we may start to fear or dread these thoughts, or think of them as 'bad'. By changing the language we use around self-talk, we can have a healthier relationship with all thoughts.
1. Thought Stopping
Thought stopping is a technique whereby, when an unwanted thought pops up in your mind, you literally stop the thought in its tracks. This is a technique that you might already unconsciously use without even realising. There are many different ways of doing this, but some popular ones might be:
Verbally halting the thought - for example, thinking or saying 'Stop!' 'No!' or 'Enough!'
Using imagery - for example, visualising a 'Stop!' sign in your mind when you have an intrusive thought
Using a sound, or music, to stop the thought - for example, blasting a song really loud, or making a loud noise with your hand/against a table
Replacing a negative thought with a positive one - for example, 'no-one likes me' turns in to 'I am well liked'.
This was one of the first techniques used to 'deal with' self-talk. A perceived advantage of this technique is that it's quite abrupt and forceful. It's a quick fix that stops the thought in its tracks, so it's something that often people use for its timeliness. If you want to get rid of that thought quickly, this is your technique.
However, this is a method I would really caution against, for a number of reasons.
It's a short-term solution
Stopping a thought in its tracks, although temporarily alleviating the feeling of discomfort, doesn't address why we're having these thoughts. It's a quick plaster over an uncomfortable feeling. In order to understand these thoughts and either decrease or deal with them in the future, it may be helpful to look at the cause of the thought, rather than just stopping them completely. If you tried thought stopping over days, weeks and months, you would get bloomin' exhausted and probably frustrated and discouraged, and I want you to be able to deal with unhelpful or unwanted thoughts over a long period of time.
It's more likely you'll have that thought again
It's an unfortunate truth that suppression of a thought actually increases the likelihood that you will think that thought more in the future. If I asked you not to think of something, like a pink dinosaur, you likely would not be able to stop thinking about it! So the cycle will continue and those thoughts would become more prevalent over time, rather than decreasing.
It labels those thoughts as 'bad' or 'wrong'
By trying to get rid of thoughts, we are creating a negative association with those thoughts in our heads. In reality, we can never completely eliminate thoughts, and they don't necessarily tell us anything about our personalities or our circumstances - they are just thoughts. So, no thought is inherently 'bad' or 'wrong'. If we create these associations in our mind, we will end up fearing that thought or finding it more distressing, which ultimately causes more issues in the future.
After extensive research on the topic, psychologists have largely dismissed this technique as ineffective and harmful to both performance and mental health, and it is no longer primarily used in sport psychology nor cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This brings me to the next technique that can be useful when approaching intrusive self-talk.
2. Cognitive Restructuring
Rooted in cognitive behavioural therapy, cognitive restructuring centres around the idea that we can challenge our unwanted thought and come up with a more rational thought to take its place. As an example, let's say I have the following thought:
'No-one likes me and I'll be alone forever'
Often, our intrusive thoughts have some similar traits. We often engage in black-and-white thinking (i.e. 'no-one' and 'forever'). Most of the time, this kind of thinking is pretty extreme, and in life there are rarely scenarios that are as all-or-nothing as this. Therefore, it's helpful to challenge this thought and make it a little more grounded and rational. For example:
'Well hang on, I have a family who love me and I have my best friend so-and-so'
'It's unlikely I'll be alone forever, that's a long time!'
By reframing the thought, we can understand better how our thoughts can be irrational and unfounded. You can look at Psychology Today's techniques on how to cognitively restructure.
This is an excellent technique to deal with intrusive thoughts, but it may not work for everyone. The fact of the matter is that sometimes our brains are not rational. So, responding to what you objectively know is an irrational thought with a rational thought can fall on deaf ears. If you are in a particularly anxious place, you can result in going round in circles:
'What if I make a fool of myself at the party?'
'It's not likely that you will because you don't usually make a fool of yourself at parties'
'But what if this time is different? What if there are people I don't know there?'
'There are some people that you know there, so you can stick with them'
'But what if they don't show up? WHAT IF??????'
Our brains are pretty good at imagining worst case scenarios, so for every rational thought, there is a counter-proposal our brains are waiting to make. What then happens is we end up in a thought spiral where we are arguing with ourselves, serving to make ourselves more anxious in the process.
Additionally, engaging in this way of thinking suggests that we can always rationalise our thoughts. That's not true - sometimes we have thoughts that are weird, worrying or disturbing, and there's no real reason why we have them. As I mentioned before: they are just thoughts.
Which follows on to the final (and my favourite) technique to deal with unwanted or unhelpful thoughts:
3. Acceptance of thoughts, feelings and emotions
As a yoga teacher, this is the mantra that I teach my students consistently. In life, there is the good, the bad, the ugly and the pretty. This applies to thoughts, feelings and emotions - we experience it all, and rightly so. If we didn't feel all spectrum of things, life would be pretty boring.
So it is with thoughts that bother us. Sometimes we just need to accept that a thought is there, and leave it at that. There are ways to practice doing this, such as:
- Mindfulness - the practice whereby we notice and pay attention to our sensations. We can practice mindfully washing the dishes, for example - noticing and feeling the water running over our hands, the smell of the washing up liquid and the suds running down the drain.
- Meditation - purposefully sitting still for an extended period of time, and noticing thoughts and emotions that come up during that time. The aim is not to try and ignore or decrease those feelings, but to watch and notice them with curiosity. Sometimes it's called the 'Silent Observer'.
- Yoga - practicing yoga allows us to mindfully move through poses, while focusing on the feelings in our body as well as connecting to our breathing.
All of these practices separate the 'mind' - your internal chatter - with you as a person. When you practice observing your thoughts, you end up detaching yourself from them. By doing this, you are closer to realising that you are not your thoughts, and that they are not to be feared or eliminated. They can just be watched.
Research has highlighted time and time again the awesome effects of mindfulness and meditation on a multitude of things - mental health, sport, and chronic pain, to name a few (see my blog post discussing my MSc dissertation on mindfulness in endurance running). As with all good things, it takes practice and perseverance. It's also not for everyone - it's just my favourite. Some people perceive this technique as incredibly uncomfortable and passive - why would we want to accept thoughts that cause us pain?
So I would encourage you to try these techniques out and see what works for you. Hopefully you'll find something that works, and I would love to know more about your experiences. Is there anything else you try that works for you?
Love to you all!