How To Overcome Negative Self-Talk
We all have an inner critic. It's the voice inside your head that tells you are doing something wrong, discourages you, or puts you down. And while it’s perfectly normal to have this inner critic, listening to it too much and letting it rule your life can affect your mental health and increase stress.
For many people, negative self-talk, or listening to your inner critic, can be a significant deterrent from exercise, enjoying life and feeling well. If you are struggling with negative thoughts it's important to remember that most negative thoughts are exaggerated or untrue.
You can overcome these thoughts and patterns of thinking with simple techniques that give that voice less power over your actions, and allow you to exercise in the way that you want to and feel better about yourself overall.
Understanding your inner critic
Negative self-talk can come in a variety of forms and severity: say you scored poorly on a test at school and you tell yourself, “I got a bad score, so I’m obviously not good at writing”, or more severe criticism such as “I got a bad score, so I’m an idiot who can never get anything right”.
Your inner critic is the mental dialogue that can lead you to believe that you’re not good enough or that you’re unable to do certain things to a particular standard — even if this isn’t true. The inner critic can be limiting and prevent you from doing the things you really want to do out of the belief that you might not be good enough to complete the task.
You might find when it comes to exercise that negative self-talk makes you feel like you can’t do a particular exercise, or that you don’t feel confident in yourself or your body to go to a particular gym class.
It’s important to learn that these thoughts are not you, and learn to differentiate between them and yourself.
How to bust through negative self-talk
The way negative self-talk manifests itself is different for everybody. For some people it is intense and hypocritical, for others it might be less so. Not every technique for busting through negative self-talk will work for everyone — so it’s worth trying out different methods to see what works for you.
And remember, if you are really struggling with your inner critic, you don’t have to do it alone. There is no shame in seeking out external guidance from a health care or mental health professional.
Label (and accept) your inner critic
Giving your inner critic a name is just one way to separate yourself from this negative dialogue. Because in reality, the inner critic is not actually you — but it is difficult sometimes to separate yourself and who you are from the negative thinking.
When it comes to health and fitness, your inner critic can sometimes be the barrier between you and beginning a new form of exercise or getting a workout done — thoughts like “I’m not fit enough”, “I’ll never get the exercises right”, might come up.
Each time those thoughts come up, give them a name. The name could be something funny or silly like “that dumb voice”, or just simply “the inner critic”. This technique is not meant to silence the inner critic or make it go away, but to give this negative self-talk less power and influence over your decision making.
For example, say you have the thought: “I’m not strong enough to do this workout, everyone will laugh at me”. A way to respond to this might be, “here it is again, the inner critic”. This technique isn’t designed to silence or even argue with the inner critic, but simply accept it and allow it to be there.
This is a technique known as “acceptance and commitment therapy” — whereby we don’t argue with our negative thoughts but learn to accept them and let them go.
In 2004, a qualitative study by La Salle University in the US, published in Behaviour Therapy, suggests that mindfully accepting, rather than controlling or suppressing, any adverse feelings, thoughts and physical experiences can have benefits for athletic performance.
This technique works best when a mindful awareness of negative self-talk is combined by focussing on the goals set and the external cues, such as physical movement, touch and sight, that will allow for better performance.
Question the critic
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) uses practical strategies to help you overcome the cognitive distortions or automatic beliefs that can be part of your inner critic’s dialogue.
Triggered or automatic thought patterns can include but aren’t limited to:
jumping to conclusions
Often the negative thoughts you’re having about yourself are an exaggerated version of the truth, but they can also have no basis in fact.
A 2015 systematic review by Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, published in Sports Medicine, found that cognitive strategies like goal setting, imagery, self-talk and free choice were reliably associated with increased muscular strength and endurance.
One technique that CBT teaches is to catch a negative thought as it arises, and logically critique its validity. You could also try actively encouraging yourself with motivating, positive self-talk to help improve exercise performance.
These techniques may not work instantly, but with practise, you can begin to master your thoughts and self-talk.
Imagine what you want to achieve
This cognitive behavioural technique involves picturing yourself achieving your goal. Visualising your path to success, picturing yourself overcoming the barriers that might get in the way, can provide motivation to begin your journey and to continue when you reach an obstacle.
A 2016 study by Maastricht University School of Business and Economics in the Netherlands, published in Basic and Applied Psychology, found that PETTLEP imagery, which stands for physical, environment, task, timing, learning, emotional and perspective, was effective in preparing an athlete to achieve mastery and performance goals.
To use this technique, picture the physical state such as what you will be wearing or any equipment you hold; the environment such as the gym, your yard, or the place in your house you work out; the specific movements of the activity; the speed of the activity; the movement adapted to your current skill level; the emotions you expect to experience; and finally, the entire activity from your own perspective.
Incorporating mindfulness into your life and workout routine is another proven way to combat negative self-talk and negative internal experiences. A 2018 randomised controlled trial by University College in the UK and the University of California in the US studied 238 employees from two large businesses in the UK over a period of eight weeks. Each participant was asked to complete one guided meditation on an app each day.
The study found that participants experienced an overall improvement in wellbeing, distress and job strain after the 8-week period. More research is needed to determine whether this form of meditation helps with wellbeing in the long term, however, the evidence from this study suggests that by simply using a meditation app you may be able to improve your overall wellbeing in a relatively short amount of time.
Adding some mindfulness into your routine may help you to quiet the negative self-talk you experience with exercise and in day-to-day life. Whether that’s daily meditation, or incorporating mindful yoga into your workout routine, you may experience some benefit in quieting the negative thoughts through this type of mindfulness.
Tips for cultivating positivity during exercise
How you think about yourself and your inner thoughts while exercising is extremely important. But it can also be beneficial to set up your exercise environment so that it’s as easy as possible to get started with your workouts in a stress-free way.
Surround yourself with energising things
If you can, try working out in an environment that makes you feel good. If you work out from home it might be beneficial for you to put up posters with quotes and sayings that inspire and motivate you, or simply play music that you enjoy or that makes you feel happy.
This is a simple way to put yourself in an environment when exercising that is conducive to positive thinking and enjoyment. Exercising in nature can also be highly beneficial for your overall well being, so if you can, take your workout to a park, walk outdoors or simply train in your yard or on your balcony.
Develop a routine/schedule
Your inner critic can make it difficult for you to get workouts done by discouraging you from starting. A simple and helpful way to give your inner critic a little less power is to develop a workout routine or schedule that you can stick to easily, and that works with your current lifestyle.
This might simply mean plotting out your workouts into the week ahead, around your work or life schedule. This means that even when discouraging thoughts come up, you have a plan in place that you don’t have to think about — which can help you with goal setting in the long run.
Talk to yourself with kindness, just like you would talk to a friend.
When it comes to working out and making a lifestyle change, it’s important to be patient and kind with yourself. Whether you’re trying to get fit, or develop healthier lifestyle habits, try to remember that there will always be ebbs and flows: sometimes you will be motivated, and other times not so much.
Learning to quiet the inner critic and be gentle with yourself takes time, but you are not alone in the experiences you might be having. Always seek help from a professional, or talk to friends and family if you need to.
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.