We all have that sabotaging voice in our heads uttering not-so-encouraging remarks from time to time. This inner critic pops up in all sorts of inconvenient moments: when we’re about to give a major work presentation, meeting someone new for a date or just glancing in the mirror on the way out the door. But in any situation, hearing these negative thoughts about yourself can be bothersome at best and demoralizing at worst. That’s why we turned to the experts to find out how to turn down the volume on this unproductive chatter for good — or at least learn how to deal with it effectively. Follow these tips to keep the voice in your head from getting the best of you.
1. Realize that negative thoughts are normal.
Go ahead and make peace with the fact that you’re never going to have completely positive thoughts all of time. “The negative voices will never go away, at least as long as you are alive. They are simply part of being human,” says therapist and clinical hypnotist Nancy B. Irwin. How you choose to deal with this inner voice is up to you, however.
2. Be mindful when your thoughts turn dark.
Something helpful you can do when negative thoughts enter your inner dialogue is to acknowledge them for what they are. “The first step to getting a handle on self-critical thoughts is just to notice that they are happening,” says licensed clinical social worker Fara Tucker. “This negative inner monologue can become so familiar that we don’t always recognize it’s happening.”
She explains that negative self-talk is most powerful when you aren’t aware of it because you are more likely to believe what you’re thinking and identify with those thoughts as if they are true. Catching yourself in these moments — and calling out those thoughts for what they are — will help you overcome that negative voice.
3. Counter the voice with daily affirmations.
A quick trick you can use when a negative thought starts endlessly looping in your mind is to respond with predetermined positive statements. “Identify your three top negative, self-destructive comments — for instance, ‘I’m not good enough,’ ‘I’m too fat,’ ‘I’m never going to get married’ (sound familiar?) — and find affirmations that reinforce positive opposites of these,” suggests nutrition, health and lifestyle coach Bec Weeden, whose practice focuses on actionable steps on how to tame that inner bully.
Following her examples, these three positive thoughts might be something like: “I am good enough and worthy of everything I wish for,” “I love and appreciate my body” and “I will attract the right partner at the right time.” Repeat these statements when your negative voice enters your mind and keep them handy.
4. Ask for help in identifying your best attributes.
Another exercise Weeden uses with her clients who are struggling with negative self-talk is to create a survey on an online free survey application with just one question: What are my three best attributes?
“I then ask clients to send it to a minimum of 20 people, but the catch is they must be all different types of relationships: partners, friends, family, colleagues, fellow students, teachers, coaches and so on,” she explains. “Tell people it is part of an assignment you have been asked to do for work or school so you don’t feel so nervous about what people will think.”
After you get the results, identify a few of the most popular characteristics people mentioned and put them somewhere you will see them every day.
5. Jot down the negative chatter.
“One the most effective strategies to eliminating negative thoughts is to pull them out of your head and put them on paper,” says women’s empowerment coach Courtney Sanders.
To make this exercise even more effective, cross out each negative thought and write down something more empowering below it. (You should have many options to choose from if you complete one of the previous suggestions!) “It only takes a few weeks of doing this for you to notice yourself catching your negative thoughts before they’re even fully formed,” Sanders adds. Often, writing down the thoughts in your head can help take away some of their power.
6. Counter the inner critic with a response.
Don’t let your negative self-talk have the last word, Sanders advises. If you’re not in a place where you can journal or see your trusty affirmations, simply say “thanks, but no thanks” to those unhelpful thoughts.
“One of the biggest struggles with negative self-talk is that people often identify their thoughts as themselves,” she says. “By acknowledging the thought (thanks) and then immediately rejecting it (no thanks) you build awareness that all the random thoughts in your head aren’t you, and you develop the power to consciously choose to accept only those beliefs that serve you.”
7. Humanize your inner critic.
You could also try getting to know your inner critic better to understand where the negative voice (and the thoughts that come with it) stems from, suggests therapist Jessica Gada.
“Ask it questions and just see what comes up,” she says. “Ask: ‘Who do you sound like in my life?’ A critical friend or partner? An overbearing parent or sibling? Ask: ‘What are you trying to protect me from by being so harsh all the time?’"
Visualization can also help you understand and release this critic more effectively, she adds. “You could draw your inner critic to see what it looks like when it talks to you,” she says. “You could also imagine how you might send your inner critic away. Maybe it needs a plane ticket and a suitcase.”
8. Practice self-compassion.
Countering the negative chatter by being kind to yourself is an important habit to practice, Tucker says. “Self-compassion is the antidote to self-criticism,” she explains. “We all are desperate for our own acceptance and compassion. If we notice ourselves believing an inner critic, we can intentionally shift toward offering ourselves a kind word, such as ‘I’m sorry you’re hurting; I care about you,’ or ‘You are not alone.’” This process begins to shift the relationship you have with yourself and allows you an alternative to going down a negative road.
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9. Celebrate your small accomplishments.
Giving yourself props, even for the little things, is another way to ensure that your critic doesn’t overpower the positive in your life. “Focus on small accomplishments instead of worrying about big challenges or failures,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Tracy Asamoah. “For example, instead of thinking, ‘I will never lose the weight,’ tell yourself, ‘I am really proud of myself for not having a second serving at dinner tonight.’” Once you get in the habit of doing this, you’ll start patting yourself on the back more instead of tearing yourself down.
10. Get ahead of your critic.
Certain situations can definitely trigger that negative voice — and you can start identifying what those are so you’re better prepared in the moment. “You’ve got years of experience living with yourself and your inner critic. You also know where you could use some propping up,” says life coach Caryn Gillen. “Those weaker places are your inner critic’s playground. Make sure you have a good plan in advance to support yourself when things can get dicey.”
For instance, family meals may be times when you typically compare yourself to your sister or take personally comments from your mother-in-law. Before the event occurs, give yourself a pep talk about how you’d like to feel during the gathering and practice some specific affirmations you can say to yourself when those moments arise. Always be prepared.
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