Feeling low? We caught up with psychologist Meg Tuohey to discuss the harmful role of the negative self-talk and how to free yourself from your pesky inner critic.

The most important relationship you have is the one you have with yourself. You may have heard it a thousand times – and seen it on countless Pinterest boards – but according to the experts, this phrase really does ring true.

A greater sense of self worth allows us to achieve our goals, build positive relationships with others, and enjoy a happier and more meaningful day-to-day existence. Sometimes though, treating yourself with kindness is easier said than done.

As the experts tell it, one of the most harmful blocks to fostering a great self-relationship is negative self-talk; that is, the stories that we tell ourselves about why we’re not good enough, pretty enough, popular enough, outgoing enough… the list goes on.

We spoke to relationship psychologist Meg Tuohey on the roots of negative self-talk, and how we can minimise the voice of our toxic inner critics.

What is negative self-talk?

Negative self-talk is the process of responding to yourself in ways that are critical, blaming or are full of disgust or contempt. Most people have responses that are negative, and they become particularly noticeable when we make a mistake or experience a negative emotion.

Negative self-talk typically comes from a person’s childhood. As children we think everything is about us, when it’s not. Negative self-talk can become circular and deeply ingrained if it is not noticed and challenged through an adult lens.

Where does this talk come from?

Children internalise moments and feedback both directly and indirectly from their parents primarily, but also in other key moments, like an aunt saying “isn’t she shy”. It’s in that moment the child sees they as a person ‘are shy’. There may be any other combination of reasons as to why they presented that way to the aunt (they may be sick, upset or tired, for example) but that particular messaging about being ‘shy’ sticks.

What tends to happen is that later in life that same person approaches an event, say a significant birthday, and feels some normal feelings of apprehension about being the centre of attention. They then critically speak to themselves, saying things like “Gosh you’re always so shy! Why can’t you be normal and just enjoy this party.”

This of course does a terrible disservice – it is perfectly normal and natural to approach a big event with some butterflies or trepidation. This is the nature of negative self-talk.

What negative self-talk patterns have you experienced?

These days I tend to talk to myself in a really calm, kind and compassionate way, but only because I have made a commitment to myself treat myself in a way that is uplifting and demonstrates acceptance for who I am as a person.

I once had a senior position in a company which was a stretch role for me, and I was struggling to grow in competence in the role. During those darker times I would speak to myself horribly, thinking things like ‘Why do you make so many mistakes, your colleagues are so much better than you’. These words were all true for me, and resulted in me becoming even more debilitated and unable to reach that elusive level of ‘success’ I thought I was missing. These thoughts further damaged my confidence and I became my own worst enemy.

Of course they [the thoughts] weren’t entirely true, as most negative thinking isn’t. If you put your detective hat on and searched for evidence that these thoughts aren’t true, you are likely to find a lot.

How can you manage this inner critic?

The first thing to do is to notice your thinking. Write it down and try and think about what you would say if you were being kind and compassionate.

For example, if you were learning a new skill like how to play soccer and you expected yourself to be competent straight away, negative self-talk would be to say ‘Just kick the ball, it’s not that hard. Why are you always so slow?’ This is not going to improve your performance, in fact, it will have the opposite effect. Instead, replace those negative thoughts with something like ‘Learning something new is hard, and it’s great that I’m showing up and practicing’. What an empowering statement.

The key is in catching the negative thought and replacing it with something constructive – a sentence that makes you feel empowered. It feels so much better to be a support to yourself then it does to be self critical. Try it and see!

Are there any books or media sources on this topic that you would recommend to our readers?

Here’s an article from the University of Sunshine Coast on reframing your thinking, and this article from the Mayo clinic is great too. It goes into more detail about negative thinking and the constructive things you can do to manage it.

To find out more about relationship psychologist Megan Tuohey, head to her website.