Negative Self-talk—Stop the Tape!
Negative Self-talk - Stop the Tape! There it goes again—that voice. That often quiet, sometimes screaming voice in your head that judges your every move, accusing you and those around you of all sorts of imperfections and generally bringing you down.

It isn’t a tangible sound, yet its destructive power should weigh in with mighty decibels. It also has the power to lift your mood and brighten your day, if you allow it to. This “voice” has a name—it’s called self-talk. Try to imagine it as a tape that plays constantly in the background of your thoughts. What does your tape play? Is your self-talk full of negative messages that cause you to feel even a few of these emotions regularly?:

  • anxiety
  • guilt
  • insecurity/self-loathing
  • bitterness
  • frustration
  • despair

The list truly is endless, isn’t it? Before you read on, understand that you are designed to feel a wide range of emotions, pleasant as well as very uncomfortable ones. It’s simply part of being human. But have you ever wondered whether you might be able to experience less misery and claim more peace in your life? Perhaps you can. Read on to learn more about negative self-talk and what you can do about it.

What feeds the tape?

As you consider the nature of your self-talk, you might wonder where themes such as pessimism or perfectionism first took root in you. That voice has been fed over the years by:

  • your parents or guardians
  • your other family members
  • authority figures in your life
  • your peers
  • the media and your culture
  • your circumstances, good or bad
  • your own responses to all of the above

In her book, Your Body Believes Every Word You Say, Barbara Levine explains that what you tell yourself about you, and your life, continues to shape you even now. Then, just to make it even tougher to think brighter thoughts, that self-talk tape is influenced by:

  • your mood
  • your health
  • sleep, nutrition, exercise, etc.

What's playing right now?

Are you ready to take a close look at your self-talk? Don’t try to change it, just listen to what you say to yourself throughout the day. Sometimes it takes a negative emotion to help us catch the voice more easily. Are you feeling anxious? See if you are thinking, “What if this terrible thing happens?” or “I know something catastrophic will happen to me.” Kind of hard to relax with those thoughts lurking about, isn’t it? Dr. David Burns, author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, would say that you are “fortune-telling”—anticipating unpleasant or even disastrous future events. To discover what self-talk messages lie underneath your worst moments and lowest moods, spend a few minutes writing down your thoughts when you feel miserable.

Changing the tape

Now that you have some sense of your negative self-talk, what should you do about it? First, get this much into your beliefs about thoughts—they happen. Good ones, boring ones, bizarre ones, you name it. The last thing you need to add to what you tell yourself is “I must have complete control of every thought and be perfect emotionally.” Why not rest in the knowledge that, just because you think it, doesn’t mean it’s true? Thoughts are full of errors, untruths, distortions and more. That’s another aspect of your human nature. One simple change can be to accept that a low mood generates negative thinking and that neither the mood nor the thinking has to be taken so seriously. You can also try these suggestions:

  • Talk to the negative voice (out loud or mentally)—tell it to stop!
  • Tone down the message—If you think in extreme terms such as “always” or “never,” try changing the message to “sometimes.” Here’s an example: change the thought, “My spouse is always late” to “My spouse is sometimes late.” 
  • Keep a journal—You can write out a dialogue between your negative self-talk and whatever you imagine that someone who loves you unconditionally would say about the situation. For example, “You sounded so ridiculous talking to that person,” could be countered with “Relax. That person might have been just as concerned about how he sounded to you.” Be sure to record all the good things that happen to you.
  • Feed the tape—Expose yourself to uplifting people, books and environments as much as possible, and try out a few positive messages now and then such as “It’s OK to have flaws,” or “I have so much to be thankful for.”
  • Laugh at the negative voice, if possible—Picture your worries as a naughty child and shoo them into a corner for “time out.” They can’t come back until they’re ready to behave!
  • Practice relaxation—Use deep breathing techniques, stretches, warm baths, whatever relaxes your body and eases the tension that can bring about troublesome thoughts.
  • Ask for proof—Psychologist Robert Miller would have you ask yourself, “Where is the proof that these negative thoughts are true?”

Getting started

Does it all sound too complicated and overwhelming? That’s your self-talk going again, saying “But I can’t change” or “I’m beyond hope and could never see myself differently.” Remember, first, get to know what’s on that tape. No pressure to change, just try to acknowledge that you think a few self-defeating thoughts now and then. If you then can accept that not every negative belief you have about yourself and others is true, you are ready to grow into a new level of peace and emotional maturity. Tell yourself “Yes, I can!”


Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns, MD. Morrow, William and Company, 1999.

Self Help Stuff That Works by Adam Khan. Youme Works, 1999.

The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. Hutchinson Children’s Books, 1990.


Tackett, Chad. “Avoid Negative Thinking—Choose to Be Positive.” Global Health and Fitness

Pedwell, Susan. “Banishing Negative Self-talk.” Canadian Living (1999)

Bond Doyle, Cathryn. “Negative Self-talk: Why Do We Torture Ourselves?” (2001).

Robert P. Miller, PhD, clinical psychologist, Charlottesville, Va.

By Laurie M. Stewart
© 2003—2010 Achieve Solutions®