There’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that you’re probably thinking negatively about yourself way more than you know. The good news is that realizing that is the first step to stopping it.
Our brains are amazing things. Each second, we subconsciously review 11 million pieces of information. That leaves our conscious mind free to focus on about 40 pieces of information in a second. Whew.
The magic is that our brain takes over really crucial but monotonous tasks (like breathing, making our heart beat, blinking our eyelids) so that our present mind can focus on current environmental tasks (not getting hit by cars, making lunch, Netflix). It would be impossible for us to be aware of the trillions of inputs and tens of thousands of micro-decisions we each make each day just to stay alive.
We know that our brains are really great at taking tasks and patterns that it sees repeated over and over and moving them from our awareness into our subconscious.
Where do all those subconscious thoughts go? To get all neuroscience-y for a second, the short answer is a lot of different places. But when it comes to how we perceive or think about ourselves, those around us and our future, our Default Mode Network is a group of interacting brain regions that become active when we’re resting or let our minds wander. So… basically half the time.
When we’re not paying attention, our default mode of thinking is busy analyzing how we think about ourselves, how we think about others, our memories of the past and envisioning the future instead of the task we’ve got in front of us. It’s the scientific understanding of daydreaming. It’s how we talk to ourselves about ourselves, also known as self talk.
We know that: a) our brain is designed to take repeated thoughts and actions and move them to our subconscious, and b) we’ve got a Default Mode Network that controls how we think about ourselves primed and ready to create a default way of thinking. We don’t even need to notice that we’re doing it!
Our friend the brain is doing this to be helpful, not a jerk, but here’s where the twist comes in: for many of us, our experiences or past histories lead us to think negatively about ourselves while our passive default mode is engaged.
And this is an ideal recipe for negative self-talk.
If you look in the mirror and think something ugly about yourself, your brain hears it. If you think of an upcoming test and how you’ll flunk it, your brain hears it. If you land an important interview and you think about out how you’ll be terrible, guess what — your brain hears it.
It’s estimated that we have up to 70,000 thoughts each day and that a whopping 80% of those are negative. That means lots of us are having an many as 56,000 negative thoughts each day.
As we think negatively about ourselves over and over, our brain sees the repetition, believes it to be something we don’t need to be conscious of to survive, and saves it to our Default Mode Network.
More than just repetition, the type of information we’re regularly exposed to is is also key. Research has shown that our Default Mode Network is highly active when we read a book, watch a movie or listen to a story. We use our default mode to comprehend the story we’re involved with and, after that, to file it away into our memory of how we experienced the story.
The way we talk to ourselves is a story. One that our default thinking is expert at listening to and utilizing to form the very basis of how we see ourselves. If left unchallenged, our negative self talk becomes so regular and pervasive throughout our daily experience of life that it has a tremendous impact on who we are and what we achieve… even though we don’t know it’s there.
Any of this sound familiar?
The very workings of our brain make it simple for us to begin to default to incredibly harsh self talk. Add in more recent societal shifts around the harmful effects of social media and personal isolation and you can see why the crisis of negative self talk is affecting more of us than ever before.
It can be exceptionally difficult to change something that we don’t know we’re doing — that in fact our brain is designed to make us not notice. That’s how, over time, negative self talk becomes so damaging.
We don’t notice how it slowly eats away at us until we are being consciously impacted in our regular lives. It’s like having the symptoms but not knowing there’s a disease.
“Whoa, this is bleak” might be what you’re thinking right now. But this is all just to set us up with two basic realities around negative self talk that are great for us to know before we begin to take action to fix it.
We know our brains are designed to shift to default thinking wherever it can. This means it’s not our fault and it’s not something we could have prevented. It’s scientifically documented and isn’t something that you’re making up.
And, because it’s increasingly common, we know that we’re not alone.
Now that we’re all on the same page, here are some of the most effective ways you can work to identify and then redirect your own negative self talk.
There are mountains of real scientific research on why meditation is one of the very best things we can do for ourselves. When it comes to negative self talk, meditation can be extremely beneficial because of how it help us become more present and aware. The more mindful we can be, the easier it is to be consciously aware of our thoughts in the moment and unearth the negative thinking that’s been buried for so long. When we begin to see the scope of how we’re thinking then we can start to redirect it to the more compassionate self talk that can help change our lives.
Just starting to practice meditation is valuable. Don’t worry about trying to do it perfectly. Studies have shown you can begin to get positive benefits from meditation with as little as three minutes each day.
Think of meditation and sleeping as your dream team for building a healthy outlook. Meditation not only helps you sleep better, but sleeping better is the key to giving your brain and body time to heal itself. Even better, sleeping has been documented by neurologists to be one of the best ways that you can alter your default thinking. So as you begin to recognize your negative self talk and redirect it, with a strong sleep schedule and well-rested mind your Default Mode Network will be more adaptable to change.
Think This, Not That
Coach and speaker Mel Robbins is an expert on how to address negative self talk by creating redirects that you can repeat to yourself whenever you notice a nasty thought pop in your head. She calls these proactive anchor thoughts “Think This, Not That.” It’s difficult to know what to do without a plan, so use these like a blueprint so that next time you have a negative thought you know exactly what new thinking you’re going to evolve toward.
Robbins says “Anchor thoughts are a powerful tool that help prevent your limiting beliefs from growing into worry or anxiety. They do that by keeping you anchored to the present moment. Repeating anchor thoughts is how you become a more deliberate thinker. It takes a while to rewire a brain, so have patience. Research finds that it takes, on average, 66 days to form new and sustainable habits. Your negative thoughts are bad habits just like any other, and the best way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a good one.”
(Try To) Stop Predicting
Also a common facet of anxiety and depression, many of us feel a compulsive need to negatively think or worry about the future. This can be especially harmful because when we’re focused on the future we’re less likely to see what we’re thinking and doing in the present. This sets up the perfect environment for negative self talk to run wild.
Meditation and other forms of mindfulness training can make it much easier to learn how to be aware in the present moment and not feel so much of a need to think about the future or negatively in the present.
Start With Kindness To Others
Everyone knows that, in theory, we should be kind to ourselves. But this is easier said than done. When we’ve been involved in cycles of negative self talk for months or years it can be almost impossible for us to just flip a switch and treat ourselves more kindly. That’s the ultimate destination — to be loving, kind and positive to ourselves — but depending on how we currently think about ourselves we might have to take a different way to get there.
Even though we might not feel worthy of kindness ourselves, one of the best ways to bring an element of compassion into our own lives is to start with being kind to others. This doesn’t need to be an action or something you “do” or be for people you already know. Start by internally noticing other people, even strangers in public, and wishing them well and hoping for them to find happiness in their lives. Even better, come up with a short list of trigger situations, like getting on an elevator or waiting at a stop light, and commit to thinking kindly about those around you whenever you find yourself there. Once you get into a habit of thinking well of others, the desire to act on those thoughts will follow. Before long you’ll find yourself being kinder to other as well as yourself.
Think positively and Prosper.