Too Self-Critical? Here’s How to Quiet Negative Self-Talk
Life's challenges can turn up the volume on our inner critic. Learn to stop negative self-talk and the self-sabotage that can come with it.
In 2017, a few months after Meredith Davis of Guelph had her third child, her husband went back to work and she found herself alone at home, trying to manage three kids under the age of four. She was 35, and the stress of balancing her older children’s needs and caring for her new baby was taking its toll. “I felt like my life imploded,” she says. “All I could hear was this loud, glaring voice saying ‘You’re not a good mom. You’re not cut out for this.’”
The more stressed she became, the more self-critical she got, leaving her exhausted and struggling to feel present with her family. She soon contracted pneumonia and shingles—and realized she needed to do something to manage her negative self-talk.
Our interior monologue is influenced by the people in our lives (our parents and caregivers when we’re young, our peers, partners and bosses when we’re older) and the cultural messages and beliefs that surround us. And it’s active! Experts estimate we can talk to ourselves as much as 4,000 words a minute.
Our inner voice can be very helpful, reminding us where we put our keys or to be careful when we’re walking on an icy sidewalk. But challenges and stress in our relationships, jobs, financial affairs and the world around us can turn up the volume on our inner critic. This can lead to negative self-talk and, sometimes, self-sabotage—say, convincing ourselves we’ll never get that job or that we don’t deserve a partner’s love.
Luckily, there are practical actions you can take to shush your self-critical chatter.
Find Out What’s Triggering That Self-Critical Voice
A good first step in managing your inner critic is to notice what sets it off. Davis realized hers gets chatty when it comes to her work. She runs a consulting firm and, sometimes, when she thinks about growing her business, she’ll find herself thinking, Why would anyone want to meet with you? or, You’re not good enough to take on this new project.
In the past, that voice could stop her from pursuing her goals. Now she’s learned to spot her inner critic’s favourite topics and regain control. First, she’ll acknowledge the challenge she’s facing, then she’ll interrupt the self-critical talk and show herself some kindness instead. “Sometimes I just put my hand on my heart and acknowledge, ‘This is hard,’” she says.
Start by keeping a log of your triggers. Ask yourself what the situation was. What did your inner critic say? How did it make you feel? How did you react? After a few weeks, you’ll have a list of your triggers and a greater awareness of how you are or aren’t managing them. It may feel like a lot of work—and your inner critic may try to talk you out of it!—but there’s a lot at stake if you don’t act.
Ethan Kross, the author of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, warns that negative chatter can undermine our ability to think and perform. It can create friction in our relationships, and also has the potential to undermine our physical health. Research shows that self-critical talk can help fuel our stress response, which can lead to sleep disorders and an increased incidence of cardiovascular illness.
Create Some Friendly Distance
Once you’ve named your triggers, it can help to reframe the conversation. To do this, Davis asks herself: what’s a thought that’s more positive than this one and is also one that I can believe? For example, “I’m a terrible mom” becomes “Maybe I’m not the best mom in the world, but I’m trying.”
Kross’s research shows that distancing techniques are also effective in breaking the self-critical chatter loop. Say you’re ruminating on an incident where you were impatient with your parent, and your inner voice is telling you that you’re a terrible, uncaring child. Try addressing yourself in the second or third person. So instead of berating yourself with “Why did I lose my cool?” ask “Why did Christina lose her cool?” It can take the oxygen out of the shame and blame and make room for objectivity and curiosity about how to address the issue.
Jane Reichman Van Toch, a Montreal-based executive coach and consultant, has clients who struggle with impostor syndrome behaviours at work. Sometimes, when they tell her they’re not good enough for their job, she encourages them to look at their own CV and pretend it belongs to an applicant. Does this person have the skills and experience for the job? The answer, more often than not, is yes.
“We often act on our inner monologue more than we act on our outer experience,” she adds. “If we’re not managing our inner voice, then it’s going to manage us.”
Look Outside Yourself
Professional coaches, partners, friends and family can be important allies in our quest to conquer self-critical talk. Davis relies on her psychologist, her husband and a couple of favourite podcasts to give her the right tools, confidence and motivation. Together they act as sounding boards and remind her of the techniques she can use.
Research also shows that awe can be a powerful circuit breaker against our inner critic. That’s because it opens up a world of feeling beyond our own needs and wants. Awe can come in many forms: a beautiful hike in the quiet woods, seeing live music, watching your kids do something they love. It’s all about putting yourself in a different frame of mind.
Reichman Van Toch adds that fun and play can work to change the channel, too. For example, when one of her clients’ inner critics prevented them from being present and effective at work, she suggested trying an improv class—something that is all about being in the moment with others and not lost in the negative loops of their mind.
Finding strategies to manage self-critical behaviour will keep you in good stead throughout every stage of life. Luckily, it’s never too late to get started.
Next, find out how to rebuild self-esteem after your confidence has been shaken.