Watch What You Say to Yourself

Many of us have a near-constant internal monologue running in our head. Sometimes the content is as dull as listening to someone read the dictionary, other times it is joyful or entertaining, but all too often the content contains harsh criticisms toward ourselves. As Ethan Kross noted in a recent interview with NPR’s Life Kit this kind of negative self-talk can get in the way of creating strong relationships with ourselves and others. Researchers of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have studied this phenomenon for some time, and much of CBT focuses on techniques such as Socratic questioning to begin to address this. In the above linked article, Kross and others summarize several of this techniques in six tips for quieting that harsh critic, summarized below.

  • Get Perspective – Assessing a situation from different angles can help you avoid the unproductive thought loop that can prevent our ability to move on. Try coming up with as many different explanations for something that is bothering you, regardless of how unlikely they initially feel, then way the evidence for and against each.
  • Be Your Own Best Friend – The next time you’re tempted to disparage your looks or criticize your decision-making, ask yourself: would I talk this way to my best friend? If not, practice using the same kind and gentle language that we use with the people we love, because we’re also people who we hopefully love, right?
  • SIFT – The acronym SIFT (source, impact, frequency and trends), developed by research scientist Mike Caulfield, can help you figure out whether you should listen to feedback from others or just ignore it. Say someone calls you out for poor email communication. Did that criticism come from someone you trust and value? Is it demanding a big change or a minor tweak to your behavior? Is this something you’ve heard from other people? And have you heard this from different communities in your life, or just at work? Consider these points before deciding to act.
  • Focus – The mind is a tricky thing. It can lead us to fixate, for example, on one bad aspect of a year-end review from a manager instead of their positive feedback. This is called “negativity bias,” says Yale psychology professor Woo-kyoung Ahn, and it illustrates our propensity to weigh negative events a lot more heavily than an equal amount of positive events. This “thinking error,” she says, is dangerous because it can lead us to make the wrong choices. Find out how to counteract this bias here.
  • Talk It Out – If someone you love is causing you distress, don’t be afraid to communicate with them about it, says psychologist Adia Gooden. It may help clear up any assumptions you may have and offer new perspectives about the incident. For example, instead of jumping to conclusions if your partner is always on their phone at dinnertime, you might say to them: “Because you’re always on your phone, I feel like you don’t think I’m worthy of your attention,” says Gooden. “And they might say, ‘Oh, shoot, I didn’t mean to be on my phone. Or, you know, I’ve been kind of frustrated with you and I didn’t know how to bring it up. So I’ve been looking at my phone instead of making eye contact. Let’s talk.”
  • Focus on Growth – Instead of defining yourself by your failures or limitations, consider every loss as part of your learning process. This idea, developed by psychologist Carol Dweck, is called a “growth mindset,” and it can help bolster that internal dialogue when you’ve taken an L and can’t stop kicking yourself about it. Let’s say you lose a round of pool. Those with a fixed mindset, she says, think that talent and intelligence are static: I give up, I’ll never get good at this! Growth-minded people believe that effort can lead to mastery: Hey! I’m getting a lot better at putting some power behind the ball! It’s all about finding the right perspective.