Self-esteem grows when you learn to stop listening to the negative inner voice that prevents you from believing in yourself.
I talk to myself a lot. The conversation is usually a dialogue between the me that I love and the me that wants to bring me down. Over the years, I’ve learned to pay much less attention to the latter because it’s usually fake news.
When I make a mistake, instead of letting that negative voice tell me what a failure I am, I listen to the more positive voice so that I can put things into a better perspective. If I feel doubt creeping in, rather than spiralling into the ‘I’m useless’ monologue, I remind myself of my strengths.
When I feel low, I avoid licking my emotional wounds and recall some of the things I have achieved in my life. This kind of self-talk helps me to boost my confidence and the belief in my abilities, filling me with a healthy level of self-esteem. It’s something I have learned to apply no matter what the circumstances and you could say that my inner voice is my best friend.
What is Self-Talk?
We all engage in self-dialogue, although many of us are stuck in a pattern of having a negative conversation with someone who thinks the worst of us. This negative inner voice is an expert at pointing out weaknesses, faults, and imperfections, and it does it all the time.
As women, we are masters of this habit and are the first ones to criticize ourselves or be judgmental. We do it so well that we don’t need to hear it from anyone else. Here’s a good example: someone pays you a compliment today by saying how nice you look in your new dress.
What do you do? Rather than saying, “Thank you,” and leaving it at that, you are more likely to reply with something like, “Thanks, but do you think it’s too tight?” or, “thanks, but I feel so fat in it.” The inability to accept a compliment gracefully isn’t your way of seeking flattery. It’s you telling yourself that you don’t deserve the compliment and you would rather settle for a negative remark.
Most of our interactions are based on how we feel about ourselves and if you ooze self-confidence, you will take praise or positive feedback in your stride. But if you lack that sense of worth, you will be constantly telling yourself that you are too fat, too short, too old, too young, or too anything and no amount of well-intentioned words are going to make you believe otherwise. Your inner critic rules and when it tells you that you are too anything, you believe it.
Where is all of this negative self-talk coming from and how can you overcome it? Those are the nitty-gritty questions that I want to talk about in this chapter because what you tell yourself is directly linked to your sense of self-esteem. If self-esteem is the ability to feel good about ourselves, then negative self-talk is a toxic arrow that aims to sabotage that feeling. It wants to burst your bubble and manages to do that pretty well most of the time.
There are many, many reasons why you may lack self-esteem, some of which can be traced back to the way you were brought up. You may have had very demanding parents who were never satisfied with your behavior or academic performance, leaving you feeling inadequate. You could have had neglectful teachers who didn’t encourage you or help you to develop self-confidence.
Maybe you suffered a traumatic experience or were a victim of abuse, leaving you feeling powerless and unable to control your life. Even if you grew up in a very nurturing family, your self-esteem could have taken a knock after a particular event much later on in life, such as failing some important exams or losing your job. It’s possible that you were involved in a romantic relationship that left you feeling rejected or used after it ended.
How To Use Positive Self-Talk To Improve Your Sel-Esteem?
Like I say, there are an infinite number of variables that could have contributed to the way you feel about yourself today. It will be useful if you take some time to think about anything that you feel has shaped your level of self-esteem and confidence as you were growing up.
You probably already have a good idea, but if not, work through it gently and if anything comes up that you are unable to deal with right now, that’s also fine. This process may take some time but it is essential if you want to eventually get rid of any baggage from your past that is weighing down your present and future.
Most experts agree that about half of our personality comes from our gene pool and life experiences help to shape the other half. This means that at least 50% of who you are as flexible and can be affected by how you handle life. Basically, you begin with a label of yourself such as ‘I’m the weak one in the family’ and then you work at fitting your experiences into that mould.
This is because your brain works best when it can organize everything into clearly defined boxes so the more you tell yourself you are weak, the more you will seek to reinforce that fact. Of course, it works both ways. If you were constantly hailed as ‘the bright kid’, then your brain will try to justify that label too whenever it can.
I am sure that you can recall very clearly a negative comment made about you ten years ago yet have great difficulty bringing to mind something positive that you heard in a similar scenario.
No doubt, when your first boyfriend told you that you are fat, that comment was etched into your memory, while you can’t remember being told by your second boyfriend that he loves how curvy you are. This has got to do with a thing called negative bias and if we were more aware of it, we could make our lives a whole lot easier.
When you find yourself fixating on an ill-spoken remark by a friend or keep going over and over your mistakes in your head, it’s because negative events impact our brains more than positive ones do. The fancy term for this is positive-negative asymmetry, which basically means that we tend to dwell more on the bad than the good. This explains why it is so difficult for many people to overcome past traumas or forget unpleasant experiences.
It’s a human trait, so you don’t have to feel bad about it, but it’s refreshing to know that we can work on overturning it and focus more on positive experiences rather than negative ones. It all begins when we pay too much attention to these negative soundbites, instead of putting them into a realistic and healthy context.
You know that negative bias is controlling your life when you can relate to the following examples:
You were supposed to pick up your partner’s dry cleaning on the way home but forgot. You feel terrible and remind yourself how unreliable you are and wonder what he/she sees in you.
You have a row with your best friend and afterwards, go over all her flaws, rather than focusing on her positive qualities and remembering how much she means to you.
You receive your annual job appraisal and, although it’s great overall, there are one or two remarks about areas that you need to work on. You fixate on those remarks and go home feeling upset and deflated.
Your personal trainer tells you that you need to work more on your abs. You take this as meaning you are imperfect, flabby, and never going to get that fabulous beach body, no matter how hard you try.
Do any of those responses sound familiar? It’s not surprising if they do, because we are wired that way. Ever since the days when we had to be on a constant state of alert in a world full of threats, we have become used to paying attention to warning signs to ensure survival.
It’s just the brain’s way of making sure we are kept safe and even though we don’t need to have that heightened sense of awareness anymore, old habits die hard. The problem is that focusing on the negatives can seriously affect your mental state, well-being, relationships, and decision-making abilities.
We are not going to get rid of that negative bias, but what we can do is shut down that inner voice when it starts to go into overdrive.
The truth is that you are what you think you are and if you see yourself through a negative lens, that is exactly the person you will become. On the other hand, by adopting a positive self-dialogue, you can begin to develop a better self-image, build healthier connections and enjoy life more. It isn’t about creating an unrealistic, fantastical image of yourself.
It’s about self-acceptance, self-esteem, and self-love, and you can begin by using the following strategies:
1. Shift the narrative
This takes some practice and it’s not easy, because you will be so used to listening to that hostile chatter in your head every time you do or say something. Whenever an event occurs, you will automatically start going through what happened and wishing you had said this or done that.
As soon as you realize that you are going down that rabbit hole, just stop.
You can’t change the past — it’s gone — so focus instead on how you would handle the same situation in the future. Here’s an example of what I mean:
I had invited a few friends around for a Mexican night and wanted to show off my culinary skills. Unfortunately, I added way too much chili powder to the con carne, making it impossible for anyone to eat it.
Of course, they all laughed about it in a good-hearted way and said it was no big deal. This could have gone one of two ways: either I immediately tell myself that I am careless, inconsiderate and an extremely bad cook or I laugh about it and make a mental note to ease up on the chili powder next time.
If I went down the first road of chastising myself, this would reinforce my existing beliefs that I am careless and make me think twice about organizing such an event again. I will end up telling myself I am incapable and this will have lasting effects on how successful I will be when faced with a future challenge.
A bit over the top? I agree, but that is how our negative thinking works. It joins all the dots together and ultimately controls what you do or don’t do in life, affecting your sense of self-worth and your relationships. Bearing that in mind, I prefer to laugh it off and maybe make Italian next time!
2. Tell a positive story
The way that you describe your life and who you are says a lot about how you shape that perception of yourself. When something ‘bad’ happens to you, your inner voice may begin telling you that it’s all your fault, or that you brought it on yourself.
Don’t listen to that; most things in life are out of our control and it’s the way we react to them that matters, not who is to blame. People who look on the bright side have a much healthier way of dealing with misfortune or mishaps and will learn from any mistakes.
They focus on getting back on track and don’t sit dwelling on what went wrong but concentrate on making things right.
Give your story a happy ending too instead of it being all doom and gloom, because that is exactly how you will feel.
3. Stop thinking and start doing
Whenever we are physically inactive, our brain starts to take over. It finds all of this empty space to fill so, being a brain, wants to make itself useful. If you find yourself chewing over the past or worrying about the future, then you need to do something in the present. Rather than creating opportunities for negative thoughts to pop up, do something active and be fully engaged in that. It could be anything, from going for a walk to a trip to the local mall.
Do whatever it takes to disengage from negative dialogue and you will see the benefits immediately. Physical activity of any kind gets your brain focusing on other functions, leaving you to relax and have some peace from the constant inner critic inside you.
4. Cherish the present moment
You may be tired of all the hype about mindfulness, but there is a reason why it is so effective. Remember what I said about negative memories staying with us longer than positive ones?
What you need to do is reset that balance so that your brain gets used to more positive experiences, which will eventually outweigh the negatives. You can’t change what went on in the past but you can certainly take control of your present, and that is a great opportunity to grab those positive vibes.
As you begin to stock up your long-term memory with pleasurable memories, the bad things will eventually lose their position in the pecking order. We know that if you take a moment to enjoy something in the now and replay it several times in your mind, it will become embedded in your long-term memory and that’s a wonderful resource for moments when your self-esteem is low.
There is an area in your brain that’s dedicated to negative thinking called the anterior cingulate cortex and it’s very judgemental. It’s the part responsible for your emotional reactions and has been built in this way to respond effectively to the needs of others. Some research suggests that, as a woman, this area of your brain is slightly larger than that of a man’s, meaning that you come equipped with an extra superpower by design; enhanced emotional sensitivity.
This could be a blessing or a curse, depending on your viewpoint. In general, the differences between a man’s and a woman’s brains are microscopically minute so I don’t want to insist that gender and biology make a massive difference here.
Suffice to say that if we women tend to react more emotionally than men, this could be a biological characteristic and it could also be linked to several other factors such as how we are brought up, our character, and, of course, social conditioning.
What I can say for certain is that when your inner critic is constantly calling you stupid, unattractive, deeply flawed, and unlovable, that causes a great deal of anxiety and seriously affects your stress levels.
If that negative voice is always pointing out perceived flaws and faults, dismissing your achievements, and filling your head with self-hate, it’s no wonder that you feel stressed out, emotionally down, or even depressed.
All of the negative feelings that you have ever had about yourself are perpetuated by the myth your thoughts have created surrounding your capabilities and potential.
You are not to blame for that, and criticism is not my intention. What you can do is begin to love yourself and introduce self-dialogue that is compassionate, encouraging, kind, and caring. Think of how you talk to your loved ones — that’s the way you should be talking to yourself.
Do you chastise them for their mistakes, make discouraging remarks, keep dredging up their past failures and wilfully cause them to feel guilt, shame, or anger? I am sure your answer is a resounding ‘NO’ so why are you doing that to yourself? Think about it.
5. Challenge your inner critic
One of the best ways to begin talking to yourself with self-love is to challenge your inner critic. You can do this by giving it a name, or referring to it as a third person. When you stop referring to it as ‘I’, you disassociate yourself from whatever it says and it begins to lose its power.
Call it whatever you like, but position it so that it’s not you talking – it’s a third person. Here’s an example: instead of saying, “I always choose the wrong guy” (a common self-complaint), reframe that into, “Inner critic says that I always choose the wrong guy.”
This statement then becomes an opinion — not your opinion, but that of someone else, and gives you leverage to reflect on it and either agree or disagree. You don’t have to believe it.
Another example may be when your thoughts tell you, “I’ll never be successful in my career, I’ll never pass that exam, I’ll never find a boyfriend,” or whatever…. Don’t let those thoughts become written in stone — your inner critic isn’t in control of your life, you are. Simply let those thoughts pass by with a response like, “Oh, there goes my inner critic again sounding off.” If you can learn to let it have its say without paying too much attention to it, it will soon realize that it doesn’t have that much influence over you.
Come in with a strong counter strike whenever you hear those kinds of discouraging remarks with words like. “Hey, I can do this, I am capable, I am worthy.” If you want to give your inner critic a name, feel free. Mine is called Mosquito; she flits around my head, annoyingly so, and I wave her away whenever she starts to really bother me. I’ve got to admit, I don’t see as much of her as I used to, but when I do feel her buzzing in my ear, I am more than ready to deal with her negative small-talk.
On occasions when I fear that I have made a bad decision or feel guilty about how I treated someone, Mosquito pops up, always ready to have her say. I immediately think about my words and actions and if I come to the conclusion that I have indeed made some kind of error or truly caused distress to someone, I find a way to fix it rather than internalizing it.
I don’t want to be a bad, sad person because it isn’t good for me. I don’t think you want to put yourself in that position either, and now there is no need to.
Truth versus fiction
I know that you have grown up believing that you are like this or like that because someone has told you so, and you believed them. It’s time to learn how to separate truth from fiction because when you live according to how other people see you, you are not being truthful to yourself.
Words are just words, whether they are coming from an external source or from within. Other people’s opinions of you are just that – opinions, and you don’t need to accept them as gospel.
When words are internal, they represent our beliefs but they aren’t facts. You only have to think of someone with an eating disorder who sees an obese person when they look in the mirror, even though their body is dangerously underweight.
This kind of distorted belief mechanism is extremely harmful and can cause you to suffer from a lot of mental, emotional, and physical anguish.
By defusing unhelpful thoughts that try to convince you something is true, you will be able to have more clarity about who you really are.
There is a big difference between thinking ‘I am stupid’ and thinking ‘My inner critic says I’m stupid’. The first one is almost like a reflex or bad habit, and the second one is a result of you distancing yourself from the superficial layers that have been piling up for so long. Take it from me — you are not stupid, so stop believing that you are.
Friend or foe?
Your inner voice is not always working against you. It is the part of your brain that alerts you to danger and tells you that something is not quite right in your environment. The problem comes when you don’t have a yardstick by which to measure when it is protecting you and when it’s the inner critic kicking in to cause unnecessary suffering.
One easy way to tackle this is to stop every time it happens and ask yourself: Is this a person I would like to hang out with or is it someone who is making my life a misery? The inner critic is the latter one and is not someone you would wish to spend much time with.
Why would you want to stick with anybody who abuses you, taunts you, and demeans you? I am sure that you wouldn’t call that person your friend. A true friend will be honest but kind, compassionate despite your failings, and supportive when you are down.
6. Change the conversation
There is another very simple trick to deal with your negative self-talk when it arises and that is by changing what is said. You will find some examples below and I can tell you that this is an extremely effective way to win that argument with yourself.
Not only will you feel good afterward, but you are helping your brain to make new neural pathways that allow you to embrace self-love.
Your negative self-talk: “I’m such an idiot! I scratched the car when I was parking and now it’s ruined.”
Your positive self-talk: ‘I shouldn’t have tried to park in such a tight spot. I’ll avoid doing the same thing in the future and be extra careful next time.’
Your negative self-talk: “I can’t get my head around this new project. I’ll never be able to understand it.”
Your positive self-talk: ‘This is something new that I need time to digest. I‘m sure I will get the hang of it if I go through it again.”
Your negative self-talk: “I don’t want to go to the party. I won’t know anyone there and will probably end up standing in a corner all night.”
Your positive self-talk: ‘It’s always nerve-racking meeting new people, but I’m a good conversationalist and I’m sure I’ll find someone interesting to talk to.’
As you can see, it doesn’t take much to turn that inner conversation around to something more positive. Even if you only half-heartedly believe what you are saying at first, keep repeating it until it becomes your new reality.
7. Practice self-compassion
Self-compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for yourself and saying poor me. It is about being caring and loving, just as you would treat your nearest and dearest. Imagine what you would say to a good friend who is struggling with low self-esteem and consider how you would talk to them.
Would you be mean and harsh, or understanding and encouraging? This is the way you should talk to yourself, with genuine care and kindness. By forgiving yourself for your blunders and inadequacies, you will nurture a more loving appreciation for all of your qualities and accomplishments.
We women are very good at giving and caring for others but often, we forget about caring for ourselves. This can easily escalate into putting ourselves last or seeing ourselves as less than worthy.
If you feel like that, talk to your best friend — the positive person inside you who is just waiting to give you all of the strength and support you need.
Self-esteem is a seed that is embedded deep within you. You only need to water it and make sure it gets plenty of sunshine to grow and flourish.
The steps that you need to take to go from negative self-talk to a place of positive reinforcement are easy to apply, once you set your mind to it.
I’m not going to allow you to set yourself up for failure, so don’t even think about it. Take a deep breath in, breathe out and keep going with a brave heart and a mind made up to succeed. You are doing great!