We are constantly in an internal dialogue with ourselves. We comment, we evaluate, and we judge. Although such inner conversations may seem benign at first sight, what we say to ourselves about ourselves can in fact have an important influence on our emotional well-being as well as our beliefs about our capabilities.
Think of your own pattern of thinking for a second. How much do you focus on the judgments of others as well as your own judgments of yourself? How much time do you spend dwelling on self-critical, negative thoughts?
Negative self-talk, of course, does not need to be flawed just by virtue of being negative. But if you have a tendency to focus on the negative all the time, the chances are you are self-sabotaging yourself. For example, you may consider yourself not good at basketball. This may make some sense if you have repeatedly performed poorly in the past. However if you think that you will not be good at any sort of sports at any time, then you are in the territory of overgeneralized negative thinking, which lacks accuracy.
Evaluating the Outside World: Bad is Stronger than Good
It could be equally troublesome to delude ourselves over optimistically about our own qualities. But this seems to be less common because the tendency to focus on the negative is built into our neural circuitry. A growing body of research from Baumeister and others suggests that negative information tends to influence our evaluations more strongly than positive information of equal magnitude.
For instance, the positive-negative asymmetry effect has been repeatedly demonstrated in the field of impression formation. In one such study by Ito and colleagues, participants evaluated descriptions of people with multiple positive traits of differing extremities as well as descriptions of people with multiple negative traits of differing extremities. The evaluation of the person with multiple positive trait adjectives was similar to the average of the evaluations given to people who possess each of those traits in isolation. However, for the person with multiple negative trait adjectives, the evaluation was less favorable than the average of the evaluations given to people who possess each of those traits in isolation. This asymmetry highlights the greater power of negative information over positive information as we form impressions.
Not only does negative information get processed more thoroughly than positive, but also bad impressions in general are less readily disconfirmed. From an evolutionary perspective this innate disposition makes a lot of sense. The tendency to focus on the negative has adaptive value when facing hostile environments including the risk of attack by predators.
What may be evolutionarily adaptive for evaluating the outside world may not be the best guide for evaluating ourselves.
Apart from being inaccurate and emotionally exhausting, overgeneralized negative thinking can also prevent us from reaching our full potential. Such biases in thinking often negatively skew our perceptions of ourselves. Negatively loaded labels harm our self-conception. How can we bring the best in ourselves if we constantly doubt our capabilities?
Monitoring Negative Self Talk
Inspired by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Todd Kashdan provides an effective way to counter negative thinking by monitoring it instead of repressing it. In one exercise, he encourages people to think of an ugly, self-critical thought and go through the following steps:
- Turn it into a short sentence starting with, “I am …” and sit with it without challenging it for 10 seconds.
- Add the clause, “I am having the thought that I am …” in front of the self-critical thought and slowly say the sentence to yourself for five seconds.
- Add the clause, “I notice that I am having the thought that …” in front of the self-critical thought and slowly say the sentence to yourself for another five seconds.
Afterwards, he points out that among these three versions, the most accurate one is the final one. This exercise aims to change people’s relationships to their negative thoughts by creating a distance between the thinker and the thought. The realization is simple yet powerful: when we use the language of observation, we better realize that our thoughts are just thoughts.
What Happens to your Emotions?
Building on this exercise, we could also try to observe the emotions associated with such negative self-talk. What are the feelings that negative self-labeling evokes? Notice also the sensations in the body. How does experiencing negative emotions feel in the body? Stepping back, this kind of mindful awareness gives us more choice and flexibility in how we deal with negative thoughts and emotions.
If you think you do not have enough time to stop what you are doing and capture your self-talk, you should think twice. Busyshould not be a badge of honor. We could all be better off if we spent time tuning into our inner selves and trying to understand where such negative thoughts are coming from in our mind. Do they come from past experiences of failure, from insecurity, from things we’ve heard others say about us? Only then can we build the inner resources that will enable us to counter such self-critical thoughts. When self-doubt doesn’t get in the way, we can pursue unexplored life directions much more freely.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good.Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323.
Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: the negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(4), 887.
Britton, K. H. (2007). Self-talk: An intervention under construction. Positive Psychology News Daily.
Harris, R. (2009). Act With Love: Stop Struggling, Reconcile Differences, and Strengthen Your Relationship With Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, California. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Kashdan, T. (2012). Becoming a mad scientist with your life. TED-X talk in Utrecht.
This article authored by Irem Gunay was originally published on PositivePsychologyNews.com on January 29, 2013.