Getting around our hard-wired self-talk
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
A couple of months ago, ABC Radio National's Life Matters program asked if I would discuss negative self-talk on their program with Hilary Harper. The irony was that this is what happened inside of me:
I can’t do it!
I don’t know enough to speak on this, surely there’s someone more qualified?
You’re going to embarrass yourself on national radio!
My heart beat faster and my shoulders tensed
It's a good thing that this self-talk didn't determine what I did because this morning I ended up doing the live, on-air interview, gut-clenched and heart hammering in my chest (this subsided after a while)! You can listen to the segment here: Inner dialogue, harshest critic.
It was a really good chat about a common human experience. I didn't get to say all I wanted in a short period of time - such is the nature of radio - so I thought I'd post what I had written about self-talk in order to prepare for the interview. I have also put links that could be helpful for people wanting to find ways to deal with their self-talk. The questions below were provided by Emma Nobel, producer of the segment. She also frantically typed out what I had said in my pre-interview chat with her, which formed the basis of these notes!
In your work, how often does negative self-talk come up as an issue people see you about?
The research shows that negative self-talk and shame underlies a lot of mental health issues. By the time people come to see me, they’re not feeling like they’re at a good place in their lives. So almost everyone who comes in to see me has experienced negative self-talk.
I’m defining self-talk as the way we speak to ourselves. When we’re awake, we think all the time and are often telling ourselves what to do, judging, evaluating, interpreting, predicting, worrying, creating rules. It may not be in words necessarily; it may also be images, sounds, and memories.
If people have trouble knowing what I mean by self-talk, I’ll borrow a question to think about from psychologists and writers Louise Hayes and Joseph Ciarrochi: What would you do if you went into your bedroom one day and there is a large koala sitting on your bed? My mind starts to say, “What’s a koala doing here in the Perth suburbs? How did it get in? It might claw me if I try to move it…Who would I call? My council ranger? Oh, this is going to throw out my plans for the evening.” I don’t even have to make myself think this, my mind just went into trying to understand, problem-solving, and predicting what could happen.
It’s kind of like an advisor in your head – I am borrowing this term from a model called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy because many of my clients find it a useful way to think about it.
I try not to label self-talk as negative or positive because of reasons that I hope will become clear in this interview, but I suppose what people typically call negative self-talk is when that inner voice at best reflects our worries, and at worst is critical and shaming.
Who experiences negative self talk?
Everyone experiences self-talk and negative self-talk! It is a very human thing. As I wrote above, I’m a trained professional and still experienced self-talk about being live on radio and I felt quite anxious. I’ve been in rooms full of mental health professionals for training and it always comforts me that we all think in similar ways. I sit in my room all the time with clients, and they tell me things they think that I’ve thought myself.
What are the signs negative self-talk has become a problem?
When how you think and feel gets you to repeatedly act in a way that takes you away from the things you care about or the life that you want to have, that’s a sign that negative self-talk has become a problem.
If I’m going to be real picky, the flip side, positive self-talk, could also become a problem. If my self-talk told me, “I’m going to be just fine in the radio interview” and I act on it in a way that isn’t actually helpful – like not preparing for the interview on a topic that is important to me – it could harm me in the long run. The same logic could be applied to other things, like the thought of, “I’m a great parent”. If I’m really invested in this kind of positive thinking, it could potentially be a problem because I may not reflect on how I’m actually going as a parent, not listen to what my experience or children are telling me, and I wouldn’t change any unhelpful parts of my parenting.
So to be more accurate, it is more the way in which I act on my self-talk that causes problems, not the self-talk itself.
Where does negative self-talk come from?
We’re hardwired for survival; our advisor is part of our threat detection system. Back in hunter-gatherer days, if a wild animal has come and hurt some people in your camp recently, your brain goes, “What is going to happen next? Is that going to happen again? What if there are more animals? What should we do?” Our advisor in our brain is thinking ahead – it looks or problems outside ourselves and it also looks for problems inside of us.
In those very early days of humankind, your chances of survival weren’t high if you were alone; we needed groups to survive. So we ask ourselves questions like, “Do I fit in? Do they like me?” Do I measure up? Will they kick me out of the group?” These might sound more familiar to us on a day to day basis. Our threats these days aren’t often physical – no more wild animals roaming around – but they’re around our social system and sense of stability.
Our brains are negatively biased because there is survival value in thinking that the worst could happen. We’re more likely to remember a negative experience, a threat like a wild animal, because this is more useful to our survival than a positive experience like watching a beautiful sunset with your partner.
What’s physically going on in your brain when that threat detection system is happening, when that voice in your head is advising you?
In short, our senses take in information from the outside world – images, sounds, touch. Our brain then tries to make sense of the sensory data by comparing it to our previous experiences to decide whether the situation is dangerous or not. This is where our self-talk can come in – our brain will bring up associated images, memories, thoughts. If our brain decides a situation is unpleasant or dangerous, it sends a distress signal to other parts of the brain and body.
Then a few things happen:
Our attention narrows down to the perceived threat
Our sympathetic nervous system starts to rev up, like pressing the accelerator on a car. Through neurotransmitters and hormones (like adrenaline), it prepares our body to fight or run away – our heart beats faster to push blood to the muscles and other vital organs, we breathe faster to get more oxygen which increases alertness, blood sugars are released to give us more energy.
When we feel safe again, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and slows us down like pressing the brakes on a car. This is nicknamed the rest-and-digest system.
This fight-or-flight (or fight-flight-freeze) response is all extremely quick and automatic, which is useful back in the days where physical threats were more common. The hardwiring is so efficient that the fight-or-flight kicks in before we even know it, which is how people can jump out of the way of a car before they can even consciously think about what they’re doing.
Here's a good video about our fight-flight-freeze response:
The data from the outside world also gets sent to the more logical parts of our brain (frontal lobes, above our eyes) where more refined interpretation and thinking takes place. For example, is that smoke I’m smelling a sign that my house is on fire, or is it coming from my toast sitting in the toaster for too long? As long as we’re not too upset, we can weigh up the information we’re sensing.
These days the threats are more social and emotional, which is hard because we still have the same old threat detection system and response. Our brains and bodies are not very good at telling threats apart; it reacts the same whether it’s a physical threat or otherwise.
What triggers negative self-talk?
Situations in which there is a potential threat to us can churn up more self-talk – for example, new and unfamiliar situations.
Challenging times could also trigger more self-talk – when you have more on your plate and feel stretched too thin, you might be more prone to interpreting things more negatively. Or even if your biological needs for rest and food aren’t met – think of how we interpret things differently when we’re hangry versus when we’re not!
Often, I find that when we really care about something, there is often a lot of fear. So you might also get a lot of negative self-talk around things you care about, like what your family or friends might think of you, your job, your passions. If you didn’t care as much about it, you might have less self-talk about it.
What are the positives and negatives of self-talk?
Protective: We don’t want to rely on trial and error experience every time we come across something. It’s useful to have an inner voice that warns or reminds us of what we’ve learned before, and we then may act on it in ways that keep us safe.
An offshoot of this protective function is that self-talk can manage your expectations and others’ – I can’t be too disappointed about taking on a challenge if I’ve already told myself I’m going to be bad at it.
Quick and efficient: Words help us learn quickly. For example, I could learn something about gardening without ever stepping outside. I probably wouldn’t do as well without some experience getting my hands dirty, but I’d have an advantage over someone learning only by trial and error.
It also gives us helpful rules to follow: For example, I know that I should look both ways before crossing a road, what to say to someone if they ask me how I am.
Self-talk may be wrong and lead to erroneous assumptions: We might learn from our experiences that it’s dangerous to show our emotions to a parent who will punish us, but then we might extrapolate that to our loving partner and not tell them how we’re really feeling.
Easily influenced by others’ unhelpful ideas instead of our own experiences: While being influenced can be good, what if we get advice from people who don’t have our best interests at heart, from people trying to gain an advantage like advertisers, or advice that is outdated (e.g., stereotypes).
Can lead to avoidance, which can narrow one’s life. We can respond to this fear in a way that moves us away from the life that we really want to live.
The self-talk and our corresponding actions can feel really bad, bringing up emotions such as shame, anxiety, sadness, and anger.
How do we see negative self-talk playing out in different social situations – and what’s an example where it’s a positive?
One way to think about the helpfulness of self-talk is to consider what a social situation like a chat with a friend would be like without any self-talk. I might not notice that I’m talking too much, that my friend is looking bored, or that her eyes filled with tears with something I just said. These would hopefully all prompt me to change my behaviour to maintain the connection with my friend.
But my self-talk can equally get in the way – for example, if I’ve had a history of being bullied and rejected, I might be more tuned into things my friend does that could signal rejection (sighing, facial expressions, giving me short answers), my advisor interprets all this as her not liking me, and then act on it in ways that actually damage our connection, like clamming up, lashing out, or avoiding her texts. But I might have missed that she’s tired, busy, or all the times she gave me positive signals like smiles and laughter and empathy.
Is negative self-talk something we learn from our parents?
It is one major influence on our self-talk, simply because we have a lot of time and experiences with them in the early years of our lives. Research shows that these early environments powerfully impact our developing brains, in particular the areas associated with regulating our emotions and processing social information. There’s a survival value to being able to absorb the things your parents say and do.
Some people say that their advisor or self-talk sounds like the things their parents have said to them.
Sometimes our parents don’t have to even say something explicitly, but from our lived experiences we come up with rules about what we should do. I was talking to someone recently where they used to get really anxious and upset as a child, and their parents either didn’t help them out or punished them for expressing emotions. So over time, this person has learned that emotions are dangerous and that it’s best to shove them down and try not to show emotions as much as possible.
On the flip side, children might see a parent coping well with emotions, by dealing with it constructively, talking to people, breathing deeply, taking some space – and this would likely give a child the message that emotions are okay.
For women, does negative-self talk go hand in hand with imposter syndrome?
Absolutely, I guess it goes to the question of how we learn this stuff – we learn a lot from the messaging we get from our parents, our past experiences, and society. There are lots of societal messages about how we should look, think, and behave. Our self-talk or advisor may then absorb these messages and come up with helpful rules - in my experience as a cisgender woman in Australia, the rules women often learn are to be quiet, don’t put yourself forward or else it would be seen as bossy, and to try to take up less space. We also have societal messages for men. In Australia, they are generally: don’t cry, don’t show emotion, you have to be tough, you have to succeed to be a good provider.
The advisor might then look for problems within us, minimise our successes and amplify our failures, compare ourselves to others – all in the name of protecting us from a perceived threat like failure or rejection. But it can lead us to think we’re a fraud, which is at the heart of imposter syndrome.
Is it something we can train ourselves out of? Or grow out of it?
I would say that we don’t ever grow out of it because of the survival value of it – but the great thing is that once you know what’s going on, you can then start to untangle your usual patterns of thinking and behaviour and therefore respond more helpfully.
Clients sometimes come in with the idea that I will remove the negative self-talk, but we don’t want to remove this defence system entirely because it is still really useful. It is also impossible to remove our self-talk. But we can learn more compassionate ways of responding to ourselves and acting in ways that enrich our lives.
What’s your advice for when negative self-talk does pop into your head?
It’s really hard to do this without the context and specifics of someone’s self-talk, but generally, it’s important to start noticing that you do have some sort of self-talk. Start noticing patterns, like what your mind says to you, what situations it comes up in, how your body feels, where you think you learned it from – just like if you’re versing someone else in a game or sport, it helps to be able to spot the other team’s tactics so you can respond helpfully.
Some people find it helpful to name or describe what is happening for you when it comes up, like, “Oh, there goes my self-talk” or “wow my advisor is getting really loud”, “my heart is beating really fast and my chest is getting tight”. You could think of it as a sports commentator in their box up high, looking over the action and reporting what they see. It is not the same as a player on the ground who is in the thick of the action.
You might be able to throw in something compassionate, like, “It makes sense that I feel this way because….(fill in the blank)” or “this response is fight or flight, totally understandable” or “it’s normal to feel this way, I learned it from such-and-such an experience”. The aim is to normalise how you feel, not shame yourself for it. A good way to be compassionate is to think of what you would say to someone you care about, or what they would say to you. You could also think of what a good teacher would say if you had made a mistake - the chances are that they will not label you or attack who you are as a person (e.g., "you're stupid"), but they'd be kind and fair about it by describing what you did neutrally and help you think of ways to constructively address the issue.
It’s cliched, but it’s good to do things like taking a few deep breaths because this can slow your fight or flight system down and give you the space to think more clearly. Our physical responses are so automatic and hard-wired, and sometimes our bodies need a physical circuit breaker like breathing or a drink of water to get our rest-and-digest system going again.
As I wrote above, your self-talk is an in-built survival system - it is just doing its job! It's how you act on your self-talk that causes problems, not the self-talk itself. It's possible to learn how to carry your self-talk with you and still do the thing you need or want to do. Therefore, it's useful to think of the smallest things you are willing to do even though you think/feel a certain way - and do it. Taking action will provide an experience your advisor/brain can learn from, and it also will show you that you can have thoughts and feelings yet still do the thing you care about. Your actions are more important than your self-talk.
I would encourage people, if they’re stuck with this, to seek help. Talk to someone supportive in your life who listens to you. Talk to someone who can be objective like a counsellor or psychologist, because they’re outside your situation. You can work together with them to spot your thinking and behaviour patterns. We all deserve someone to help us through this stuff.
I will add more here as I think of things. The things I wrote and spoke about draw heavily from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Compassion-Focused Therapy. If you want to learn more about these things, you could try...
Free online resources
Thriving Adolescent free resources, by Dr Louise Hayes and Dr Joe Ciarrochi - as the name suggests, these resources are geared towards young people and their families (or professionals who work with them) but I like how they break things down in easy to understand terms.
Act Mindfully free audio recordings by Dr Russ Harris
The power of vulnerability, TED talk by Brené Brown
The Happiness Trap free videos by Dr Russ Harris
Talk nicely to yourself, a video interview with Paul Gilbert
The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. Russ has also made some free worksheets (PDF) that one can use alongside the book.
I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't): Making the journey from "What will people think?" to "I am Enough", by Brene Brown. There might be other good books of Brene's because she wrote a guide: Which book do I read first? Some of these books are on my to-read list!
The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk (a particularly good book about trauma)
Your Life, Your Way by Joseph Ciarrochi and Louise Hayes (aimed at young people and coming out in early September 2020)
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Look up psychologists or counsellors who are trained in these areas - if it doesn't say on their website, you could enquire.
Find a Psychologist by The Australian Psychological Society. After doing your initial search, you can refine your results by therapeutic approach (e.g., ACT) and other aspects.
Sonny Jane from the Lived Experience Studio wrote a great guide on finding the right therapist (PDF) for you.
Hayes, L. & Ciarrochi, J. (2015). The thriving adolescent: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and positive psychology to help teen manage emotions, achieve goals, and build connection. Context Press, Oakland, CA.
Kolts, R. (2016). CFT made simple: A clinician's guide to practicing Compassion-Focused Therapy. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. Penguin Books, Great Britain.