Have you ever pasted up a big sign on your bathroom mirror that says something like, “You are beautiful!” to try to improve your mood and self esteem? And found that it works not at all?
We all have a mean voice inside our heads that criticizes us, often much more harshly than we would ever criticize another person. For many of us, this negative self talk manifests as specific repeating phrases, especially when we are feeling stressed or upset: “You’re such a failure.” “You’re so ugly.” “You can’t do anything right.” You’d never say this to another person, but there it is, knocking around inside your head.
This sort of negative self talk can represent core beliefs we have been holding onto for a long time, maybe that we picked up in childhood or from some internal logic that lives deep in our bodies that we don’t actually believe with our rational minds. We’d never apply this logic to other people: if a friend made a mistake, we would never write them off as a total failure. We have different, sometimes twisted, standards for ourselves.
It’s a very good thing to notice that you are talking down to yourself and want to stop. Using positive affirmations like “you are beautiful” means that you are trying to apply more kindness to yourself. We think if we tell ourselves we are beautiful every day, we will override that mean voice inside our heads that tells us we are ugly.
Of course, it doesn’t work. When we throw a positive affirmation at a negative thought that is its opposite, the brain simply throws it out, perceiving it as a lie. Sometimes it rebounds back against the negative thought which feels more true, ironically affirming the negativity we are trying to manage in the first place. We can’t just talk ourselves into believing something we don’t believe. It’s like throwing hammers at a door to try to unlock it.
Unlocking that door needs, first, acknowledging that the negative thought is happening, and then a phrase that your brain can actually believe and understand. When you catch yourself saying “I’m such a loser” in your mind, you could pause and say something like, “Well, I really do try my best,” or “I am a pretty good cook, though.” Just reminding yourself of positive things you already believe to be true can help switch your mental energy away from the negative self talk and towards a more positive self perception.
The good news is that you can actually take the negative self talk as an opportunity to do the work of re-wiring your brain towards a more positive self perception. Every time it happens, you have a chance to remind yourself of something positive that’s also true. You may not end up walking through the world believing you are the best person that’s ever lived (which is probably a good thing), but you can start to see yourself as a complex collection of qualities that can shift and change and do good.
It’s worth taking a few moments to write down some of your most common negative thoughts about yourself and choosing one to work with. Then spend some time writing down an affirmation that counteracts the negative thought, but make sure it’s something that your brain will actually believe. No matter how deeply grooved your negative thought patterns may be, with a little bit of work, you can re-wire those connections towards a kinder version of reality, and it gets a little bit easier every time.