Negative Self Talk: What It Is and How to Reverse it

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Like most people, you may have struggled to ignore that voice in your head trying to convince you that you're not good enough or that you won't be able to accomplish your goals. While it's not possible, or even healthy, to only think positive thoughts, excessive negative self-talk can damage your self-esteem, quality of life, and athletic performance.

If you find negative self-talk is taking over your thoughts, you may need to interrupt it with some helpful strategies. And if you find it's beyond your control, reach out to a therapist for guidance. Below is more on negative self-talk, why it happens, and strategies to combat it.

What Is Negative Self Talk

Negative self-talk can take many forms in different situations. Perhaps you're training for a sports competition or trying to stick to a health goal. Sometimes the anticipation of a big event will cause self-doubt to creep in, and you may think you don't deserve to do well, that you aren't good enough, or that a good outcome can't happen for you.

Negative self-talk is common in athletes and those pursuing health goals. According to the American Psychology Association, negative self-talk involves internal dialogue that reinforces negative beliefs, attitudes, and fears. This dialogue can impact your thoughts, feelings, and reactions, which can affect your motivation and performance.

Why People Engage in Negative Self Talk

Negative self-talk is your brain considering every possible dangerous or risky outcome. Throughout history, this likely helped humans survive in a threatening world. Today, the instinct to focus on the negative can help you examine potential pitfalls and areas you may need to work on.

Negative self-talk is not always destructive; many engage in it on purpose. Some people view negative self-talk as a motivational tool that challenges them. In sports psychology, athletes can feel more stimulated and motivated to overcome roadblocks when they use negative self-talk.

However, negative self-talk may happen along with other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, especially when it becomes obsessive and repetitive. If this is the case for you, it's wise to seek help from a mental health professional.

Impact of Negative Self Talk

While not all negative self-talk will have a damaging impact, it can certainly interfere with your self-esteem and motivation.

In fact, research shows that self-criticism may improve cognitive performance by reducing confidence and increasing internal motivation and attention. As well, negative self-talk has been shown to improve physical performance.

However, negative self-talk can be damaging, especially when it is unwarranted or starts to affect your motivation. If you are an athlete or focused on a health goal, negative self-talk could lead to feelings of hopelessness and cause you to give up. You may also damage your self-esteem, and your mental health may deteriorate.

As well, some research indicates negative self-talk can lead to ill effects on performance. Negative self-talk has been linked to increased anxieties, including fear of failure and making mistakes, especially if a mistake was made in the past.

How to Reverse Negative Self Talk

If negative self-talk is more of a problem than helpful for you, there are ways you can reverse it. Sports psychologists use specific tactics to reframe self-talk, using it as a motivational tool. Here's how.

Recognition and Awareness

The first step of taming negative self-talk or using it constructively is recognizing it and being aware of when it occurs. You need to be conscious of unwanted thoughts to make changes.

To do this, you can try writing down the unhelpful thoughts and when and why they occurred. Try to be neutral and factual when recording your thoughts. It could be something like "I'm not strong enough to compete at this level," or "last time I made a mistake, so I'll probably mess up again."

Write down the thought and what you were doing at the time. Keeping a daily log is best to help you gain a clear picture of how often negative self-talk occurs and may reveal patterns.

Negative Self-Talk as Motivation

Always trying to avoid negative self-talk is not realistic. If and when negative thoughts occur, you may feel added pressure and anxiety around trying to avoid them. But complete avoidance is not helpful or necessary. Instead of pretending they don't exist, labeling negative self-talk as thoughts and not facts can be helpful. Changing negative self-talk is not always easy, so just acknowledging it as just thoughts can be very powerful.

Negative self-talk can be used positively with some reframing depending on your personality, motivating factors, and self-efficacy. Reframing negative self-talk involves using unfavorable thoughts to push you and increase motivation.

Research shows that reframing negative self-talk works well for many people. Instead of trying to avoid or replace negative self-talk, you can acknowledge the thought and add a challenge statement to boost your performance. Below are some examples.

Reframe With a Challenge Statement

  • Instead of "my legs feel weak," add "and I am strong enough."
  • Instead of "last time I messed up," add "and I've practiced more and I'm ready."
  • Instead of "my lungs are burning," add "and I've pushed through the threshold before."

Reverse Listing

Reverse listing involves creating an opposite or reversed thought to replace negative self-talk.Like reframing, reverse listing offers an opposing view to common negative thoughts. However, with reverse listing, you aim to replace negative self-talk completely.

This strategy can be helpful if the negative thoughts aren't able to have a challenge statement added as easily. You can also prepare ahead by using your list of common negative self-talk statements. For every statement, write an opposing positive thought. When the thought arises again, repeat the positive version to yourself instead. It may help to say it out loud.

Thought Stopping

To practice thought stopping, you'll use a cue word to immediately respond to unwanted negative thoughts. The word can be the same every time and can be as simple as saying "stop" to yourself internally or out loud.

Other versions include visualizing a stop sign or snapping a rubber band on your wrist when you have a negative thought. You could also replace the thought with a visualization of something positive, such as performing well or winning a competition.

The idea behind thought stopping is to interrupt patterns of repetitive negative self-talk. It's a long-used method in cognitive behavioral therapy but may not work for everyone or in every situation. If you have obsessive thoughts that intrude, no matter if you tell them to stop, this method won't work. Seek care from a health care provider if you are experiencing obsessive thoughts.

Thought stopping may help reduce negative self-talk in the moment, but it is unlikely to address the root cause if your unwanted thoughts go deeper than just some competition jitters. In this case, you'll want to get help from a therapist or sports psychologist.

A Word From Verywell

Negative self-talk is common for those participating in sports at any level or if you are trying to improve your performance or working toward a goal. Not all negative self-talk is damaging and it can even be helpful. Additionally, trying to completely avoid negative self-talk is not realistic and could increase anxiety.

Try the methods above to help you reframe or reduce negative self-talk. If you struggle with intrusive or obsessive negative thoughts that impact your quality of life and performance, seek the care of a qualified mental health practitioner.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the first step to combating negative self talk?

    Experts say the first step to combating negative self-talk is recognizing it and being aware of when it occurs. To help with this, you can keep a log of negative self-talk or a daily diary that notes common negative thoughts.

  • How do you become a more positive person?

    Becoming a more positive person is a challenging goal. You can try reframing some of the negative thoughts you have with positive counter-thoughts or adding a challenge thought. For example to "I messed up last time," you can add "and I'm more prepared this time." If you find that your negativity impacts your daily living, speak to a mental health care provider.

  • What traits do positive people usually have?

    People who appear as positive people are not always positive, even if they claim to be. Always trying to be positive is not realistic or even ideal. It's essential to validate and acknowledge all emotions, including negative ones. If you find that negativity impacts your daily living, speak to a mental health care provider.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. DeWolfe, C. E. J., Scott, D. & Seaman, K. A. Embrace the challenge: Acknowledging a challenge following negative Self-Talk improves performanceJ. Appl. Sport Psychol. doi:10.1080/10413200.2020.1795951

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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.