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Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA

Addressing Negative Self-Talk

As a therapist, I am always interested in my clients’ inner monologues. We all have an inner voice, and its messages profoundly inform and impact self-worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem. The way our clients talk to themselves about themselves influences their emotional states, subsequent thoughts, and the behavioral choices they make throughout the day. Whether they are conscious of it or not, they lead from this internal tape. It activates and regulates their moods. It tells them if it’s okay to take risks. It guides what they think and feel when they look in the mirror and catch their own reflection gazing back. 

The impact of negative self-talk.

Positive self-talk motivates, inspires, and empowers us. Negative self-talk judges, criticizes, chastises, and shames us. The tricky thing about our clients’ negative self-talk is that they probably don’t acknowledge, analyze, or re-evaluate it. No matter how hurtful negative self-talk is, it gets normalized and remains unchallenged. Clients act from it and accept the messages as irrefutable truths without considering the possibility that those messages are inaccurate and even harmful. 

This is because the earliest and most important messages that defined their sense of self and self-worth came from trusted caretakers. No child entertains the idea that input and feedback from parents, teachers, extended family members, clergy, even peers, could be wrong. So, they assume and accept that the criticism, judgment, unreasonable expectations, harsh demands, and shaming, is justified.

The difference that comes from changing the messaging.

Imagine what might change for your clients if they considered the possibility that  messages they were given about their worthlessness were inaccurate. Like every other child, they saw their reflection in the mirrors their caretakers held up to them, and those reflections became the “truth” about who they were and how they deserved to be treated. What if, rather than going through life with the belief that their image was defective, they entertained the possibility that the mirror was defective: blurred, cracked, or distorted?  In other words, the messages they got from caretakers were not objective or accurate.  Maybe they got filtered through their own mental health issues, traumatic experiences, addiction, poor parental role models, or lack of self-esteem.

It’s never too late to make a new, more tender, and more accurate tape.

Whatever caused the important people in their life to pass on a negative monologue, helping clients understand that they have the power, ability, and choice to change those messages is a major step in helping to increase self-compassion. It’s equally important to notice the tone of voice that accompanies the messages. Despite popular belief, clients will never be motivated by bullying or shaming. The more they put themselves down, the less likely it is that they will achieve inner peace or success. Once they recognize the harsh nature of their words you can invite them to experiment with giving themselves messages in kinder ways. 

At the end of the day clients get to decide how much power they want to turn over to other people and the messages they were given that formed the core narrative and tone of their self-talk. It’s never too late to make a new, more tender, and more accurate tape. Once clients discover how much better it feels to talk to themselves in ways that are compassionate and kind, it will no longer resonate to be relentlessly critical and unkind.

Clinician's Tips:

Invite your clients to become more aware of their inner monologue by taking time during the day to pause and notice how they talk to themselves about key issues that commonly impact their lives. These can include:

- The messages they give themselves about whether they can achieve a goal.

- How optimistic or pessimistic they approach new challenges.

- How warmly versus critically they evaluate their accomplishments.

- How deserving they believe they are of success, safety, respect, and kindness in all

- How judgmental, critical, or shaming their messages are versus compassionate and kind.

- The extent to which they can acknowledge and celebrate their strengths versus focusing instead on what they perceive to be their “weaknesses.”

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