Why are you so mean?

A man in a suit walks purposefully along a city pavement

Self-talk can be very negative, why is this?

At ICC, almost all of us regularly listen to podcasts. Whether on the way to a meeting, walking the dog, training in the gym, or cooking dinner, there is usually a podcast in the background. This usually results in a lot of ‘nuggets’ being noted down and discussed the next day.

One such recent ‘nugget’ came from a podcast guest bemoaning the manner in which we talk to ourselves. She said, “What we often say to ourselves would be so offensive if someone else said it to us”. Sadly, this rings very true! We lean towards being our own worst critics: we beat ourselves up about not being good enough, not trying hard enough, not running fast enough, giving up too quickly, not creating a Michelin star-worthy meal, or not looking our best….. the list goes on.

Do we ever stop and think about how we would feel if a friend said these things to us? At best, it could be received as constructive support. At worst, it might feel offensive and upsetting.

So, what prompts this harmful self-talk, and why is it such common behaviour?

Internalised Criticism: Sometimes, we internalize criticism from external sources, such as parents, carers, peers, managers or society. When we repeatedly hear this, or similar, type of critique, we can start to believe it and incorporate it into our own self-perception which leads to negative self-talk.

Self-Esteem and Self-Worth: If we don’t value ourselves highly, we may be more inclined to engage in self-criticism about how we could and should be better, reinforcing any limiting or unhelpful beliefs we may hold about ourselves.

Perfectionism: Perfectionists routinely set unrealistically high standards for themselves, often as a form of procrastination or avoidance. When they inevitably fall short of these standards, the self-criticism narrative kicks in and plays on repeat (out of a mistaken belief that it motivates them to improve). The narrative transfers into conditioning and is ultimately counterproductive.

Cognitive Biases – Our brains are wired to focus on negative or threatening information as a survival mechanism. This negativity bias can lead us to pay more attention to our mistakes and flaws, ignoring all the good things that we are doing.

Social Comparison: Constantly comparing ourselves to others can lead to negative image and self-talk. If we perceive others as being more successful, attractive, or accomplished, we may criticise ourselves for not measuring up.

Habit: Negative self-talk can become a habitual way of thinking. Over time, these thought patterns can become automatic, and comfortable, making it challenging to break free from them.

During many of our client coaching sessions, we discuss, de-construct and analyse the reasons behind this style of self-talk. It is a very common topic and, those who experience it are not alone.

Positive mental attitude (PMA) is a concept that was first introduced in 1937 by Napoleon Hill in the book ‘Think and Grow Rich’. The book discusses the importance of positive thinking as a contributing factor of success, yet almost 100 years later, we are still trying to improve in this area.

So how can we attempt to downshift the negativity, insert some positivity and start being supportive to ourselves?

Ask others for feedback: It’s likely that they will identify our strengths and point out some positive aspects that we may not have considered.

Self-awareness: Pay attention to how we talk to ourselves – our inner dialogue can be very demeaning. Let’s check ourselves and turn the thoughts around.

List our achievements: When was the last time we congratulated ourselves on what we have achieved? Or thought about how far we have come? This can be revelatory!

Self-compassion: Let’s treat ourselves with the same kindness and understanding that we would offer to a friend facing a similar situation.

Make use of resources: There are so many resources available to us now, from books and magazines to podcasts, TED talks and documentaries – perhaps listening to experts or hearing from others who have had similar experiences to us will help balance our thoughts.

Changing entrenched thought patterns takes time and effort, but the reward is well worth it. Why not focus on generating some supportive and positive self-talk for the remainder of this week and see how it makes us feel. Who knows, it might even result in a higher level of performance….

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