top of page

Why Negative Self-Talk Doesn't Work

It’s 2018 and I’ve just opened my private practice. I sit at my desk looking at my work calendar for the week ahead. Insecurity and Anxiety take over, asking me about why I don’t have a waitlist even though I’ve only been open for a month. In their usual fashion, Insecurity and Anxiety tell me I’m simply not good enough. I’m not working hard enough. I should be doing better.

On my not-so-great days, such negative, distorted thinking patterns still get the best of me. And I’ve noticed that these are the very patterns that get the best of the people I work with, too. I can’t help but wonder: what is it that we think we’re accomplishing when we think this way? And are there any benefits that come with negative self-talk in the first place?

First Thing’s First: What is Negative Self-Talk?

Self-talk refers to the things we tell ourselves on a day-to-day basis, which can be positive or negative. While positive self-talk involves thoughts that are accurate, realistic, and compassionate, negative self-talk involves beating ourselves up, being overly harsh, and exaggerating our faults.

Reasons People Do It

1. “I’m just trying to motivate myself.”

In a study of over 200,000 employees at 500 different organizations, a company called TINYpulse sought to learn what motivates employees. Among the most powerful motivators were feeling encouraged and recognized, experiencing a sense of camaraderie, and having a positive supervisor/senior manager.

In another study, researchers watched the self-talk that tennis players engaged in during their tournament matches. They discovered that negative self-talk was associated with losing, and that the athletes who practiced positive self-talk scored more points overall.

In other words, there’s actually nothing motivating about negative self-talk whatsoever, and it can even hinder performance.

2. “I deserve it.”

The main word that comes to mind here is proportionality. In other words, if you make a mistake, it’s understandable that you don’t want to celebrate or give yourself a high-five. That said, some of the hurtful things people tell themselves when they’ve made a minor slip-up are simply horrible. They’ll forget to pack their charger to work and berate themselves for being “useless.” In these moments, I like to ask people, “What would you say to a friend in this situation?” If your friend forgot their notes for a presentation, would you tell them that they’re an awful employee who deserves to be fired? Of course you wouldn’t.

We can usually think more compassionately when we imagine that someone other than ourselves is on the receiving end of our sentiments. So, ask yourself what you’d say to a friend and keep things proportional. Instead of saying you’re “the worst employee ever,” a more accurate thought is, “Argh, it’s frustrating when I have my forgetful moments!” We are keeping the language specific to the event and reminding ourselves of the temporary nature of the mistake rather than assuming it’s something permanent that says something about our personhood.

3. “It will prevent me from making the same mistake again.”

fosters emmy rossum gif

Unsurprisingly, negative self-talk is linked to poorer self-esteem, and there are a plethora of studies that highlight the negative consequences of having poor self-esteem. For example, one study showed that children with low self-esteem relied on coping strategies that were counterproductive and unhelpful like bullying, quitting, cheating, avoiding, and more.

Lower self-esteem also causes our confidence to deteriorate along with the trust we have in ourselves to make good decisions. So, we end up feeling insecure and unsure of ourselves, which can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to finding a good-paying job we love or a partner who respects us. Indeed, I often see that people with low self-esteem come to feel like they simply don’t deserve anything good for themselves, which causes them to make decisions that deteriorate their happiness even more.

In other words, with every nasty comment to yourself comes another blow to your self-esteem. And when you don’t think highly of yourself, it becomes harder to make healthy decisions. In reality, then, negative self-talk is actually making it more likely for you to repeat similar mistakes again rather than the other way around.

4. “I don’t want to be cocky.”

lindsay lohan mean girls gif

I have noticed that many people equate confidence and/or healthy self-esteem to cockiness. Recap: healthy self esteem is thinking that you are no better or worse than the person sitting next to you. Additionally, confidence can be defined as the feeling or belief that you can rely on yourself to do something. At its core, seeing ourself in a positive, healthy way means being on our own team rather than our own adversary.

For people who have this fear, I often will ask them to differentiate between confidence and arrogance in session so that they have their own mental checklist of what to watch for that would indicate that they have, in fact, become cocky. That said, most people’s self-talk is so negative and frequent that it would take a heck of a lot of positive self-talk for them to swing from being insecure to cocky overnight. In fact, I encourage people to actually go overboard on the positive self-talk if they can as a way of compensating for all of the negative propaganda they’ve been giving themselves for so many years.

Finally, it is worth noting that when we look at the psychology of narcissism, we can group narcissists into two categories: grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. While grandiose narcissism refers to people who genuinely believe that they are perfect, vulnerable narcissism refers to those who use arrogance to compensate for insecurities. In other words, one could actually make the argument that perpetually engaging in negative self-talk puts you at the same risk of being arrogant as having healthy, positive self-talk does.

The Bottom Line

As author Shad Helmstetter writes, “It makes no difference how harmless the words seem at the time, they are the backbone of everything which works against us and stands in our way.”

It's 2019. I sit at my desk wondering why I'm behind on my notes. Anxiety and Insecurity tell me it's because I'm not organized enough and that other people would be doing a better job than I am. I take a deep breath, remind myself that I'm doing the best I can, and show myself some self-compassion instead. This is how I overcome the many challenges of being a business owner. This is how I stay on my own team. And if I can do it, you can do it.


bottom of page