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Before I even left the driveway for a weekend yoga retreat, the rude comments began: Remember not to talk too much; you’re not as interesting as you think. Don’t make so many jokes; that looks desperate. Don’t be a nuisance by latching on just because you feel awkward or lonely; people don’t like neediness.

If this had been a partner or friend talking, I likely would have thrown the car in reverse, politely asked them to get out, and happily gone to the retreat solo. But I was already alone.

Self-talk comes in a lot of different forms, and the kind that’s critical really is trying to anticipate danger and steer you away from it,” says Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. (Listen to this Life Time Talks podcast featuring Neff.)

My own inner critics may have meant to keep me safe, but their ultimate effect was sabotage. I followed their advice to keep quiet, and my yoga weekend became a tense, uncomfortable disaster. Many of us could tell similar stories.

Still, though it may often be the loudest, self-criticism isn’t the only voice in our heads. There are four general categories of self-talk, according to Thomas Brinthaupt, PhD, a psychology professor and self-talk researcher at Middle Tennessee State University:

  1. Self-management — the voice that helps us get things done.
  2. Social assessment — rehearsing what we’re going to say or rehashing our conversations.
  3. Self-reinforcement — affirming ourselves and our choices.
  4. Self-criticism — judging ourselves and our choices.

Any type of self-talk can be a product (or producer) of mental stress, but these types differ from the auditory hallucinations that may accompany a mental health diagnosis like schizophrenia. In those instances, one’s inner voices seem to come from outside entities, like voices on a radio. This can be a frightening experience, as though someone else has literally gotten into our heads.

With everyday self-talk, we aren’t confused about where the voices are coming from. Our inner dialogue may direct our choices or judge them mercilessly, but we recognize that these thoughts come from our own minds.

And this means we have the power to change the conversation.

Your Body Is Listening

It can be hard to grasp that my brutal self-criticism before the retreat was my brain’s attempt at protection, but self-preservation is the core function of most self-talk, Neff explains.

“Our brains evolved to do this — it’s an instinctual response designed to get us to safety,” she says. “The problem is that it’s not doing that most of the time. Instead, we start looping, so we’re stuck in these negative thoughts, and that can have a physical effect.”

Most notably, she adds, self-critical rumination can raise cortisol levels. We have natural fluctuations of this hormone throughout the day, but chronic elevation triggered by distressing thoughts traps us in a fight-or-flight response. This can prompt headaches, digestive issues, higher blood pressure, tightness in the muscles and joints, and sleep disruption.

On the other hand, beneficial self-talk can regulate cortisol more effectively, and that offers bigtime physical and mental advantages, says Neff. These include deeper sleep, better cardiovascular function, improved focus and memory, and better-regulated stress responses.

Unsurprisingly, self-talk also ­influences our relationships. Imagine having a conversation as your inner critic is hollering about how unlikeable you are, Neff suggests. Now imagine having the same conversation while an inner voice reminds you how much your auntie loves you. In each case, you’re likely to interact with others very differently.

Studies suggest that the intensity and frequency of self-talk tend to ­increase when we’ve experienced early trauma and isolation (explore this expert’s four-step process for coping with traumatic memories). Peter Zafirides, MD, a psychiatrist and cofounder of Central Ohio Behavioral Medicine, says these early experiences can set us up for a lifetime of negative internal chatter.

“From childhood, our brains have a negativity bias, which means we will always default to the negative first,” he explains. “If [negative] thoughts are reinforced when you’re still young, you may stay in a pattern of self-criticism that’s difficult to break, especially if you haven’t developed mental coping strategies that help you reframe [them].”

Fortunately, we can learn how to redirect our inner conversation, no matter how sticky that sabotaging self-talk has become. Experts suggest the following strategies.

6 Strategies to Help Soften Your Self-Talk

All these patterns of self-talk can harm your well-being and relationships — and you can’t shift them until you know they’re there.

1) Start With Awareness

Because self-talk is largely habitual, it tends to run in the background. Simply being more aware of what your voices are saying can help, says Ashley Smith, PhD, a psychologist in Kansas City, Mo.

“Awareness is always the first step in understanding the impact of your self-talk, good and bad,” Smith says. “Just sitting quietly and observing your mind for a while can help you become more aware of what’s going on.”

This can be harder than it sounds. One reason people find meditation difficult or even distressing when they first start, she notes, is that it’s rough to face our “monkey minds.” If our thoughts are leaping at a frantic pace, sitting in stillness means we can hear all the worries and complaints those monkeys are chattering on about. (For more on the monkey mind, visit “How to Tame Your Monkey Mind.”)

Yet if we want to understand and change our self-talk, hear it we must, she insists. “Simply observing and noting without judging if you have a very critical form of self-talk … can help you have more conscious recognition of what might be sabotaging you.”

“Simply observing and noting without judging if you have a very critical form of self-talk … can help you have more conscious recognition of what might be sabotaging you.”

You might discover that you’re taking other people’s moods personally; catastrophizing; or believing other people are foolish and beneath you. All these patterns of self-talk can harm your well-being and relationships — and you can’t shift them until you know they’re there.

Awareness also allows you to consider the context for your self-talk, notes psychologist Michelle Drapkin, PhD, founder of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center in New Jersey.

“If you’re especially self-critical right now,” Drapkin suggests, “ask yourself: What might be going on to drive that? What’s underneath this? It might not have a specific cause, but even asking those questions can interrupt those thoughts and defuse them.”

A wide range of factors can trigger a negative internal dialogue: not enough sleep, low blood sugar, hurt feelings, job-related overwhelm, even dehydration.

If you can’t pinpoint an exact cause, knowing something external could be causing your harsh self-talk can help you take that much-needed step back, she says. This can be enough to break a negative spiral.

2) Take Care of Your Body

Given how much our physical and mental states affect our perception, tending to basic bodily needs is key. When you notice self-talk starting, Zafirides recommends, do something physical or change your routine. Work out. Visit the farmers’ market. Hit up the bike trail. Embrace an earlier bedtime.

Consider what happens when we don’t take care of ourselves, he says. When we’re sleep-deprived, eating junk food, and neglecting our need to move, we’re much likelier to be reactive and critical compared with when we feel nourished and rested. This is physiological reality.

When we’re sleep-deprived, eating junk food, and neglecting our need to move, we’re much likelier to be reactive and critical compared with when we feel nourished and rested. This is physiological reality.

[Exercise] can provide a cascade of responses, including less inflammation throughout the body and brain and a release of feel-good hormones, like endorphins,” Zafirides says. “That’s ­directly related to lowering symptoms of depression and anxiety. … The same is true if you’re having difficulty with critical self-talk. It can help you gently shift those negative thought patterns when you feel better in your body.”

It’s the same for other keystone habits, such as getting quality sleep, staying hydrated, maintaining strong social connections, and eating plenty of vegetables. They won’t single-handedly silence a ruthless inner critic, but taking good care of yourself can turn down the volume.

3) Revisit Successes

Highlighting perceived threats is what your inner critic does best, says Zafirides, and anything unfamiliar threatens an activated brain. This makes it tricky to break a ­pattern of negative self-talk, because redirecting our focus to something new is … well, new. The alarm bells ring and the brain doubles down on its old self-critical pattern.

Still, we can game this system. Recalling past successes gives us a self-esteem boost that can bypass that mechanism. That’s because past positive experiences are known and therefore not a threat. (Are you listening, brain?)

“Revisiting your strengths, skills, and successes in a similar situation can help you see that you’ve done difficult things before, and that can supply a boost of self-confidence,” says Drapkin.

The more often we cultivate confidence and recall successes, the more automatic creating a positive outlook becomes.

This takes practice, she adds. It’s easy to get stuck on past mistakes or questionable decisions. “We often put ourselves down for what we think we’ve done wrong or ways that we perceive we’re falling short. We don’t tend to remind ourselves of how often we do well.”

Yet we should: Positive memories also have a way of leading to more positivity. We might remember the time we checked in to support a friend who was struggling, which reminds us of a time we showed compassion and openness in a tense conversation, and then how we made a joke that lit up a room.

The more often we cul­tivate confidence and recall successes, the more automatic creating a positive outlook becomes. Over time, this can have a significant effect on the brain’s default setting.

4) Keep It Real

Despite the overly rah-rah quotes and phrases that swamp social media (“You got this, #rockstar!”), Neff argues that replacing your inner critic with a louder cheerleader doesn’t work for most people.

“Positive affirmations tend to help only if you already have high self-­esteem and a sunny outlook,” she says. “For everyone else, they tend to backfire and make your critic dig in and get louder. Despite the ‘fake it ­until you make it’ theory, your brain recognizes when a message feels false.”

As you seek to ease your self-criticism, aim for a more neutral perspective.

As you seek to ease your self-­criticism, aim for a more neutral ­perspective. Neff suggests experimenting with more realistic and ­gentle phrasing that resonates with you. It could sound like this: I’m ­nervous going into this job interview, but I’m also well prepared, and I’ve aced interviews in the past. I’m well qualified for this job, so I’m excited to talk about that.

This statement allows you to acknowledge your nervousness — which is a natural response, Neff says. At the same time, you’re reinforcing positive messages that you already believe.

5) Practice, Practice, Practice

Zafirides jokingly calls himself a below-­average guitarist. Whenever he’s learning a new song, every chord feels awkward; he feels sure that he’ll never master it or improve his playing at all. Then, several sessions later, the song falls into place, and he feels as if he’s been playing it all his life.

“This is a good analogy for changing negative self-talk, because you’re asking your brain to perform a new task,” he says. “We shy away from what’s unfamiliar, so there may be resistance. You may even feel like you’re getting worse. But for many people, at some point, it clicks into place and gets easier.”

Because self-talk is mostly unconscious, practicing new patterns at a conscious level is an important part of mastery.

Because self-talk is mostly unconscious, practicing new patterns at a conscious level is an important part of mastery. For example, instead of solely chasing after the fixes — such as trying to interrupt negative self-talk with reminders of past successes — adopt some preventive habits. You might even tie them to another routine behavior: Every time you brush your teeth, for instance, consider a time you’ve been proud of your work. Or each time you make dinner, recall at least one time you shared supportive words with a friend or family member.

“What you’ll find is that there’s an ebb and flow when you try to change your thought patterns,” he notes. “It may feel difficult and strange for a while, until it becomes more familiar, and that’s when you start to develop a habit through regular practice.”

6) Aim for Good Enough

Negative self-talk is hardwired into the brain’s survival system, so expecting it to vanish completely is unrealistic, says Neff. We all have tough days. And if we’re tired, nervous, stressed, sick, or overwhelmed, negative forms of self-talk will be louder. Their job is to protect, and they’re trying to guard against these threatening conditions.

Still, once you’ve become more aware of where these unwelcome thoughts originate, they’ll lose some of their power. Silencing the inner voices is impossible, but they can be gently guided toward being quiet.

This happened for me just a few days after that yoga retreat. Reflecting on how it unfolded, I recalled that I’d also attended numerous retreats where I’d met new people, told plenty of jokes, talked as much as I wanted, and took deep and luscious breaths on my mat without feeling any disapproval from others or myself.

With that, I signed up for the next one — and this time, I knew which inner voice I’d be taking along.

This article originally appeared as “Self-Talk” in the January/February 2024 issue of Experience Life.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth Millard is a writer, editor, and farmer based in northern Minnesota.

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