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How to handle negative self-talk

People are funny sometimes. We talk about the power of possibilities and our potential, but we still doubt ourselves. We can imagine that the limits of human potential are boundless, but we often forget this as we go about our daily lives. It all seems real, just not real to us. The result is that sometimes we place ourselves in a box. We convince ourselves that success, peace, and happiness are for other people, but not us.

We have trouble believing in ourselves.

When we restrict our vision of ourselves, we tie our own hands. We convince ourselves that it is impossible to do anything successful outside the safety, security, or confines of our self-defined box.

We have to realize that the boxes we all live in are shaped by how we think, how we talk to ourselves, and our cognitive bias about who we really are. Our self-image is mosaic. It is a collection of all our past experiences, the present moment, and the vision we have of our future selves. But it is colored by how we think and talk to ourselves.

We talk to ourselves like a critic, not a coach.

The problem is this. We do not see ourselves clearly. We struggle when we try to see ourselves through a positive, no negative, lens. Not only do we not see ourselves clearly, we keep reminding ourselves of our own shortfalls. Many times, the voice in our head is more of a critic than a coach. Our inner dialogue tells us we cannot succeed, reach our goals, or triumph over our challenges. The result is inevitable. We don’t succeed. We lose confidence in ourselves and the motivation to move ahead.

For most of us, our inability to succeed isn’t because we can’t succeed; it is because we believe we can’t succeed. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “The worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself.”

We build the wrong pathways in our brain.

Over the course of our lives, we develop specific neural pathways in our brain that reflect entrenched thought patterns. We can over-burden ourselves with negative thought patterns. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our negative thoughts lead to negative outcomes. Fortunately, we can change our internal messaging. When we nurture positive self-talk and positive thought patterns, we are more likely to build faith in our positive side.

There is a hidden danger. Over time, our neural pathways and negative thought patterns become automatic. They lead to what are known as core beliefs. These beliefs are the ones you and I have about ourselves, even if we are not aware of it. Negative thought patterns, if not balanced, can lead to negative core beliefs. Like dripping water filling a cup. We slowly fill ourselves with unhealthy thoughts that become who we are without even realizing it.

Negative core beliefs lead to trouble. They are an unstable foundation that prevents us from being happy, solving problems, and living the life we deserve. When our beliefs and thinking patterns are negative, we can be more anxious or depressed and less likely to believe that we can achieve our goals. This becomes a dangerous cycle as depression and hopelessness bounce off one another within a cyclone of negative self-talk. We can become emotionally drained and unable to act.

So, what can we do to combat the negative beliefs and negative thought patterns that have already cemented themselves in our brains?

We must recognize that our brains are elastic. They are changeable. They respond to the input they receive from both our external environment and our internal environment. Like a bank account, we can generate a negative or a positive balance. When we shift the input from negative to a more healthy balance, we teach ourselves to think in new ways.

It is hard to teach ourselves a new way to think.

We can take advantage of our ability to shape our thought patterns. This is often called cognitive restructuring. This means recognizing our core beliefs and being mindful about when they affect our decisions and our actions. Self-aware is self-armed. We must challenge ourselves. We can begin to teach ourselves why our negative core beliefs are not true.

For example, if one of your core beliefs is that you can’t be in a successful relationship, ask yourself why this is true. Why exactly do you believe this? Once you determine an answer, tear that answer apart by arguing from the opposite point of view. We may point to our broken history and simply say, well, all my relationship failed, so this one will fail as well. But it is a false logic. We cannot take one event, relationship, or emotion and apply it across our entire lives. We must be honest with ourselves. We must fight back and force ourselves to work with the problem at hand, without prejudging either the problem or our own ability to act.

This can be difficult, especially since your mind is not used to thinking this way. It will feel a bit like you’re trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe.

The good news is this, the more you use positive thought patterns, the easier they become. As you practice using these new pathways, they become the preferred pathways in your brain. Old, negative patterns begin to fade as new, positive ones take hold. Over time, automatic negative thinking can become automatic positive thinking.

Thinking positively can be hard work. It may feel impractical, if not a bit pointless, especially when we consider ourselves to be realists. But don’t give up. We are not trying to be mindlessly positive; we are trying to create a new, balanced way of thinking. In the end, it will stop self-defeating thinking patterns and open up new options.

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

For more insights see my books and blog at



YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at

Image credit is Unsplash

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