Changing Your Negative Self-Talk: “Going Through the Motions” to Retrain Your Brain
I used to co-lead a body acceptance group, and part of the “check-in” for the group was that each member had to say something positive about the way their body looked. It was a difficult exercise for them because most of them were so used to mentally berating their bodies- they were engrained in their negative self talk. Many of them would “go through the motions” of the check-in, and others would struggle intensely with this part.
Inevitably, someone would begrudgingly check in with something like, “I like my thighs” and then immediately say, “I said it, but I don’t BELIEVE it.” I would say, “That’s ok. You don’t have to believe it yet, but you have to practice saying it.” The point is, by going through this mental exercise, their brains had to do something drastically different than what they were used to doing.
When we think the same thoughts again and again (for example, “I hate my thighs”) it creates well worn neural pathways in our brains that become our automatic ways of thinking. After all, if we do something repeatedly like driving a route to work every day, it becomes second nature, whereas if we have to learn a new route it takes practice and awareness. Walking ourselves through the process of positive self talk when we are used to our inner voice being negative requires mindful awareness, and many times we must go through the motions even if we don’t believe it yet. You’ve heard the saying “fake it ’til you make it,” -- this is exactly what I am talking about.
At times I find that I am speaking to myself in a negative way; for example, if I make a parenting mistake my mind might tell me “I’m a bad mom.” It can spiral into more negative thinking...“I’m terrible at this. My children deserve better. I’m not cut out to be a good mom.” Then I’m in a really negative place mentally. But I can try to catch that first thought and challenge it with something like, “Making a mistake doesn’t make me a bad mom. I’m a loving mom who is going to make mistakes just like everyone else.” I may not always believe it in the moment, but deep down I know it is true.
One practice that has helped me is affirmations. Some positive affirmations can include: “I am a good person who cares about people” or “Perfection doesn’t exist and I am enough just as I am.” What affirmations can you come up with to practice daily in order to help you with your negative self talk? Make sure they are realistic or it can tend to backfire and create more negativity. For example, if I came up with an affirmation like, “One day I will be a perfect mom if I just try hard enough!”, then I’ve just set an unrealistic expectation for myself (or anyone), and I will never meet it.
Identify your negative self talk and come up with some positive affirmations that you can practice daily. Post them around your house, on your mirror, set up reminders on your phone to practice them. There are affirmation apps that you can download. These are helpful ways to assure that you are exposed to this positivity regularly, and every time you read your affirmations, you are working on rerouting those neural pathways toward a different way of thinking and being.