What if I told you there was one simple technique that could improve every aspect of your life? No, it’s not a green juice, or the newest superfood, or even meditation, though those all have their benefits. It’s a mindset shift called reframing.
I am a huge fan of hyperbole. Why tell someone I am hungry when I can tell them I am wasting away as we speak, punctuated by as many dramatically place swears as possible, accompanied by a gif? While this approach might be amusing when deployed positively, it can also backfire in negative situations. Using that same mentality, a setback at work can become a career-ender, a holiday weight-gain can turn into berating yourself for lack of self-control, and an unexpected breakup can lead to an internal monologue about how unloveable you are.
Negative thinking is so pervasive in our culture that we often don’t notice this running commentary in our heads, undermining our success. There are different kinds of ways to engage in negative self-talk. The most obvious is by directing harmful statements at ourselves. This includes looking in the mirror and saying, either out loud or in your head, something insulting. Some examples: “I look disgusting.” “I’m so fat.” “Nothing looks good on me, I might as well give up.” Women are told constantly how far they are from attaining the moving target of perfection, to the point where even goddess/model Chrissy Teigen is getting her armpit fat sucked out to look better in dresses. No wonder we internalize those messages and direct them at ourselves.
The next kind of negative self-talk is deflecting compliments, lest we appear full of ourselves (aka confident). Rather than graciously saying “thank you,” we scramble to find a way to delegitimize the statement. We respond to “I love your jeans.” with “They were on sale!” as if we are apologizing for having good taste and making up for it with a bargain. This kind of deflection isn’t limited to our bodies or physical appearances, either. Women regularly preemptively apologize for having a thought or opinion, both verbally and in emails. This may not seem like negative self-talk, but how much less confident can you get than prefacing your contribution with a qualifier that says your thoughts really aren’t that important?
The last common kind of negative self-talk is so subtle we usually miss it. It is the momentary gut reaction that says we are not good enough. How many times have we caught a glimpse of ourselves in a reflection from an unflattering angle and thought, “Ugh.”? Or how many times have we ordered something to eat, silently judged ourselves while eating, and then felt sick and remorseful afterwards? There’s no further commentary to it, no long diatribe towards ourselves and our choices, but that feeling in the pit of our stomachs does not vanish instantly. That pervasive feeling of self-judgment is probably the most insidious version of negative self-talk, because it feels like a mist we can never put our fingers on. If asked how often we engage in negative self-talk, we would probably not even remember that moment, and if we are not aware of all the ways it can show up, it is impossible to change the habit.
So then, if it’s everywhere, how DO we change this? With a technique called positive reframing. Positive reframing is not pretending everything is fine when it isn’t, or stopping yourself from experiencing negative or painful thoughts and emotions. Start simple. Have you ever declined plans, only to see your friends having fun on social media and immediately experience extreme FOMO? Positively reframing an idea like “I’m such a loser for staying in when everyone else is out having a good time” helps it become “I love that my friends are such extroverts and allow me to have my introverted moments.” Notice that it doesn’t erase the negative feeling, nor does it designate any one choice as the correct one. Positive reframing looks at a situation and rather than assigning blame or judgment, simply makes observations about what has happened and what it might mean if it is used constructively for the future.
So how do you break this habit?
Stop and notice when you are having a negative conversation with yourself. Refer back to the examples above to remember that not all negative self-talk is direct and verbal.
Identify what evidence supports this idea. For example, if you tell yourself that you are not qualified for a job you want, ask yourself “Do other people with my qualifications have similar positions? Do I have a passion for this work and a willingness to learn? Does the job description have non-negotiable requirements in it that I do not meet, or more general desires for the position?
Start to identify patterns. Are there consistent situations you find yourself in, or behaviors in others, that set you off on criticizing yourself? These are your triggers. Spend time thinking about where these might come from. Perhaps you had a parent, sibling, friend, significant other, coworker, or boss in the past who treated you a certain way and you felt powerless to respond, so you turned inward to try to regain a sense of control over the situation.
Change “I” to “You” in your negative statements. Rather than saying, “I am so lazy” when you skip the gym again, say “You are so lazy” and notice the difference in how it feels. You would never tell your best friend, “You look fat and awful” upon seeing her in an outfit, so why is it okay to do the same thing to yourself? Externalizing the criticism can make it sound as harsh as it is because it implies telling someone else you love that they are not good enough, which you would never do.
Practice positive reframing every time you notice yourself engaging in negative self-talk. It can show up in any situation, in a variety of statements. Here are some examples to help you start practicing:
“I can’t believe I ate the whole thing, I’m so disgusting. No wonder my pants don’t fit.” ---> “I ate the whole thing and don’t feel so well now. I am not going to beat myself up over it but hopefully next time I am tempted, I’ll remember this unpleasant feeling.”
“I haven’t lost any weight, even though I’ve been working out. If it’s not even going to work, I might as well save the money on a gym membership and lie on my couch.” ---> “I’ve been working out because I value my body and want it to be strong and powerful, and to keep me healthy for a long time. Fitness is an investment in my future, even if I don’t see immediate, aesthetic results.”
“I hate going to the gym. I should skip it today.” ---> “I always feel so great after working out that I look forward to that endorphin rush. It takes the hard work of actually getting there for me to reap that reward, but it’s worth it.”
“I hate my job, I hate my coworkers, I hate everything. I don’t want to adult anymore.” ---> “Things are tough right now and I’m feeling pretty disconnected from work. I wonder if I can change anything about my job, my situation, or even my expectations about my job, and start to feel better.”
“I got ghosted, again. Obviously I’m worthless and no one will ever love me. I’m just going to die alone.” ---> “I learned some lessons about what I do and don’t want in a relationship, and every experience gets me closer to finding the right fit.”
“I’m in so much debt. I’m so irresponsible. I’m never going to climb out of this hole so I might as well treat myself.” ---> “This mountain of debt can feel insurmountable when I look at the whole thing, but there are probably small steps I could start taking to improve my situation in the long run.”