Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
May 18, 2019
How to Detox from Negative Self-Talk
It’s springtime here in California. And it’s noticeable – not just because of the longer days filled with sunshine, the insane amounts of pollen and allergies, or the warmer weather.
I’m noticing it because of the swimsuit ads, diet and weight-loss centers promising a “beach-body”, and fitness centers boasting free trials.
Also, my social media feeds are flooded with clean eating challenges.
As a society we recognize the importance of physical health – eating healthy, exercising and moving our bodies regularly, and cleansing our bodies of toxins and impurities. Whether we are doing these things to have more energy, identify a food allergy, or just feel healthier, we place a high level of importance in detoxing our bodies.
But this has me thinking: when was the last time you paid that much attention to the negative gunk that clutters up your mind?
As a gender therapist that supports individuals in living authentic lives, I hear about how prominent these negative messages can be. However, it’s not just LGBTQ folks that struggle with negative self-talk. I’m sure if you really thought about the things you tell yourself, you could identify at least one or two negative messages that cycle through your mind.
Often times these negative thoughts are so automatic we don’t notice them. They become the junk swirling in our head that becomes “truth” to us, regardless of whether we understand logically that it’s completely false.
Things we tell ourselves, like “I’m not good enough”, “I really suck at this”, or “No one likes me anyway” get stuck on repeat. These messages can sometimes be so persistent they form a filter that surrounds us at all times, that changes how we perceive the world, and changes how others perceive us. This is where the negative self-talk detox comes in!
Just like we can do a physical health detox for our bodies with healthy foods and daily movement, we can do a mental health cleanse to allow space to clear out the negative self-talk and junk that accumulates in our brains. Here are a few steps to get you started cleaning out the negativity.
As you begin the process of detoxing from negativity, you first need to be aware of how negative self-talk impacts your life. Through this awareness you will start to gain a clearer understanding of the impact of these negative thoughts, how inaccurate they are, and possibly how they came to be/exist in your mind in the first place.
Our default reaction to unpleasant things tends to be to ignore, look away, or pretend it isn’t there. I believe this is why most of us don’t realize how pervasive these thoughts are. With attuning more clearly to these thoughts, they may seem briefly more intense or present in our minds; however this does settle. It’s through this awareness that we are able to start to change and confront the thoughts.
Think of it as similar to completing a food journal: until you realize all the unhealthy foods you’re snacking on, it’s hard to actually create meaningful changes to your diet.
Creating a self-talk journal is a start. Jot down the phrases and beliefs you tell yourself each day, positive and negative. Pay attention to phrases, themes, and meanings in the words you use.
One of my favorite techniques to dig deeper into awareness of thoughts and feelings is taught by Tara Brach, world renowned meditation teacher, in the RAIN for Self-Compassion Meditation. This activity focuses on four steps that help you build awareness around your thoughts and emotions, and feel more settled in them:
R: Recognize –
Get tuned in with what the thought or feeling is that you are currently experiencing – pay attention to the physical sensations, emotions, thoughts.
A: Allow –
Let the experience rest for a moment in your mind, find the balance between clinging to the experience and pushing it away.
I: Investigate –
Start to get in touch with what underlies this experience. Is there a trigger; is this rooted in something unrelated to the situation?
N: Nurture with Self-Compassion –
Find ways to support and care for yourself by noting how challenging this thought is to deal with; allow space to be kind and gentle with the challenge you are dealing with.
As you’re getting started, I find that this process can work best when written out or through following a guided meditation. With practice it gets easier to do it quickly in your mind and it will become more automatic. I can’t emphasize enough: practice makes perfect!
Ultimately, the goal of this negative self-talk detox is to create long term shifts in the way we talk to ourselves. Generally, this is created by making consistent, sustainable changes over time.
As you dig in to this negative self-talk detox, you might find it gets exhausting spending time in self-evaluation. The balance for this is to create a safe space away from these toxic thoughts.
It’s OK, in fact it’s encouraged, that you give yourself time each day to allow your brain a space free from negative self-talk. Just like when focused on a physical health detox it’s almost best if we have occasional free days. It’s important that you give your brain a break from the intensity of self-evaluation.
This could be allowing yourself a period of time each day where negative self-talk is off limits, it doesn’t have to be long; five minutes may be a solid start for you. Catch yourself if during that time a negative thought pops in. Remind yourself “Nope, not now. This is my free time. I will think about that in five minutes. Right now I get to think about _____ (fill in with thoughts of anything that brings you joy, happiness, peace, comfort, contentment).”
I realize it may feel somewhat forced to do every day, but shifting to choose joy starts to rewire the neural pathways that help us sustain gratitude and contentment. Often when our brain is bombarding us with negative self-talk, those neural pathways are strengthened so powerfully they are like highways. By doing the opposite it’s strengthening the pathway for joy and counterbalancing the brain.
Finally, we need support and connection in our lives. Humans are not meant to be solitary creatures and our need for companionship, touch, support, and love is very real. Particularly because many of the negative messages in our self-talk come from relational experiences (self-criticism of how we interacted with people, things others said to us and we believed), we need relational support to rewrite the negative self-talk we learned.
When it comes to our negative self-talk, we often don’t share because we don’t want the negativity to be validated by our loved ones. Being transparent about yourself and your challenges makes you feel scared and vulnerable. Frankly, it’s terrifying! However, the opportunity it provides is learning (and really understanding in your core) that you aren’t alone.
An effective tool for fostering this openness is using I feel/I need statements.
I feel ________ when _______happens. (The feeling)
I could use your support with ________. (The need)
“I’m really sad right now, can I get a hug?”
“I’m so anxious. I got in a huge fight with my partner and I’m worried we are breaking up. Can we talk a bit? I need to feel more settled and supported”
“I’m feeling insecure right now because I’m struggling at work. I’m worried I’m going to be fired. Would you help me figure out a way to talk with my manager?”
Another way to connect with others is by sharing your negative self-talk. This can provide an opportunity to open up a conversation and help your head and heart realize just how inaccurate that statement is. There’s powerful stuff that happens when we say things out loud.
“My negative self-talk keeps telling me that I’m stupid to have even applied for that job, and that I’ll never get hired. It really has me spinning right now. I could use your support; do you have time to go for a walk with me to help me clear out my head?”
Beyond a Detox
While none of these are quick fix ideas, they are all steps toward detoxing your mind from negative self-talk. The increased awareness, compassion, and connection that are gained in these steps will slowly strengthen and shift how you view yourself, releasing negativity.
And just like getting your physical health on track, there is no better time to start attending to and getting rid of the negative gunk in your mind than right now!
If you are ready to expand upon these skills, there are lots of free resources online to help you shift your negative self-talk. However, if you find you would like a guide, therapy may be the next step. Think of it as a personal trainer for your brain, a way to take your negative self-talk detox to the next level!
Adriana Joyner (pronouns: she/her/hers) is a Sacramento Area licensed therapist specializing in gender, sexuality, and advocacy for the queer / LGBT community. Her office is located in Gold River, CA (off highway 50 between Sacramento and Folsom). You can find more of her writings, activities, and information at: www.adrianajoynertherapy.com.