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Depression and the harsh and hurtful things we say to ourselves

Humans innately engage in self-talk. You can see it when you observe a young child at play. The constantly narrate their actions and experiences. You might even have noticed that some children make up songs that verbalises everything that they do.

As we grow older, we start to learn that talking to ourselves is not socially acceptable, and we start to internalise our narration. But the self-talk is still there. It is that voice in your head that is your constant companion. Sometimes we call it our thoughts.

Your self-talk has a massive influence on how you engage with the world, and how you engage with yourself. If you slow down and pay attention, you will notice that the voice is encouraging and cheerful when you are in a good mood. You will also realise that that voice can be your harshest critic. It can be mean and hurtful, especially so at times when you need to be gentle with yourself the most.

When your inner dialogue becomes negative, it influences your thoughts, feelings, and mood. It can make you experience fear, anxiety, and depression.

Where did your negative self-talk come from?

You didn’t wake up one day and started being mean to yourself. Your negative self-talk is an accumulation of ideas and opinions that you have absorbed throughout your life. You might have had a parent who was hard on you – or on themselves – and became conditioned to think the way they used to. Your negative self-talk is an accumulation of all the negative things that people have said about you and the bad experiences that you have lived through. All of this has been ingrained in your psyche and in your soul. It has become your default way of experiencing life and of relating to yourself.

You are your own constant companion. That also means that you are always surrounded by the things that you say to yourself, even if the people and situations that initially inspired your negative self-talk are no longer in your life. You cannot escape your own mind, no matter how much you wish you could.

But you can change the way you speak to yourself.

In Descartes’s words: “I think; therefore I am”. The crux of his philosophy was that you are not your thoughts; you are the being that is observing your thoughts. Therefore you also have the power to change your thoughts. By observing and paying attention to the harsh and hurtful things you say to yourself, you are able to cultivate healthier ways of engaging with yourself.

Negative self-talk and depression

Self-talk that includes self-criticism and encouraging feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem has been linked to the development and severity of major depressive disorder[JP1]. Individuals who undergo psychotherapy show fewer instances where they engage in negative self-talk. This treatment (often in conjunction with medication) leads to more self-acceptance and improvement of depressive symptoms. Generally, people who live with depression engage in more negative self-talk than other individuals[JP2].

While self-talk cannot be isolated as the cause of depression, nor can depression be the identifying factor for self-talk, the two are intrinsically linked. Changing your negative self-talk could assist you in dealing with depressive symptoms.

Challenging your self-talk

Investigate your triggers.

We don’t just go into a negative self-talk spiral for no reason – although it is often our default mode, and we return to this over and over. Have you ever had a fantastic day just to have one incident spoil your mood? Cognitive behaviour therapy explains how it is not the event that makes us feel bad – but what we tell ourselves about the event. It is the thoughts that we automatically generate around the experience that influence how we end up feeling about it.

So what does this have to do with triggers? Triggers are specific situations or events that set off your negative self-talk monologue. These events mimic something that you have experienced in the past, and you say to yourself, ‘Well, it turned out awful then, so it must be awful now again’. By doing this, you engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy where you expect an inevitable outcome and, perhaps inadvertently, contribute to that expected outcome to manifest.

Notice how you react to these triggers.

Once you have identified your triggers, you can start to pay attention to how you react to those triggers. An excellent and tangible place to start is by noticing your physiological reactions. Perhaps you become antsy or get sweaty palms. It is possible that your heart rate increases or that you have an urge to remove yourself from the situation. Essentially your body senses a threat and is deciding whether to stay and fight or to flight and escape the situation.

More abstract responses include your thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Pay attention to what is going through your mind and how it makes you feel. It could be useful to find a quiet space after the situation is over where you can sit and reflect on your inner workings. Spend time and write down what you experienced and how it made you feel. Write down your immediate reactions and sit with it for a while.

Stay in this space and keep expressing yourself until your deeper thoughts, feelings, and emotions reveal themselves. As you do this for different trigger events, you will start to see that patterns emerge. Your self-talk is usually looped to repeat cycles of hurts that have not been healed. Make a list of negative things that you say to yourself when you encounter a trigger situation.

Reflect on your self-talk.

Sit time to analyse your self-talk. Ask yourself whether it is helpful or whether it is causing you (or those around you) harm or hurt. Question whether your self-talk is valid, honest, and accurate or whether it is inaccurate, exaggerated, or infused with negativity. Challenge your self-talk might naturally lead you to more rationalised and positive ways of thinking and speaking to yourself.

Find a positive alternative for your negative self-talk.

Find a positive alternative thought for every phrase of negative self-talk that you use. These positive phrases do not have to be long and eloquent. In fact, try to create phrases that feel natural to you and that you can easily access when you find yourself in a situation that triggers you.

Stop and intentionally change your thinking.

When you are in a situation that is triggering you, stop. Take a few deep, conscious breaths to slow down your thoughts and direct your thoughts to where you want them to go. Remember that you are not your thoughts and that you alone choose what to think. You are able to change your negative self-talk – no matter how comfortable the old thought pattern seems to be.

Listed as they are above might make this process seem effortless. It isn’t. It takes hard work and dedication, the will to face your own bad habits. It takes you away from the comfort of the thought pattern that you have been engaging in for years. It takes 21 – 30 days to break a habit, and that includes the habit of negative self-talk. During this time, you will likely feel uncomfortable. It might feel like something is missing or that you are doing something wrong – that is called learning and growing and healing.

A word on positive toxicity

There is such a thing as extreme positivity. Positive toxicity is when you are so focused on the positive that you suppress and ignore anything that you might see as being negative or undesirable.

In order to lead a balanced life [JP3], we need to accept the bad with the good. Ignoring negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions keep us in a cycle of being on guard. We avoid our selves and our authenticity.

Psychologist Carl Jung dedicated a large part of his life’s work to what he refers to as a person’s shadow side. He believed that you could only achieve healing once you explore, accept, and heal the parts of yourself that you find unacceptable… that others might find unacceptable.

The thing about your shadow self is that it craves attention and healing. It wants to be brought to the light, and if you are continually avoiding it by forcing your focus on positivity, it will never be healed. These shadow bit of yourself will emerge as the patterns you observe when you start sitting with your negative self-talk. These are the things that you have been carrying around with you through life, even if you didn’t realise it. These are the parts of yourself that are asking, begging you to heal them in order to live a happier and healthier life.

You can be your harshest critic, beating yourself up when you are already down on the ground. It takes strength and resilience to face that nasty voice that keeps telling you that you are not good enough, that you are a failure, that you are worthless. You also have the power to change how you speak to yourself through paying attention and actively pursuing and engaging in more positive self-talk.



[JP3]Link to Balance article.

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