People who always respond to your expressions of worry or struggle with “think positive!” can be more than a little annoying. In fact, there’s a new phrase that describes this tendency to suppress or minimize painful emotions in yourself or others: toxic positivity. Read more about that here, if it intrigues you.
Still, for those of us who constantly berate ourselves for how we could have done better, or how we could have made a better choice, or how we just can’t seem to get it together, etc., it can be helpful to consider the concept of negative self-talk.
What is Negative Self-Talk?
Self-talk refers to the automatic thoughts our mind generates pretty much constantly, often as commentary on what we did, what we are doing, or what we plan to do. Those thoughts can be positive or negative, and if they tend toward negative (which they often do), that can have detrimental effects on our mental health.
For someone in addiction recovery, negative self-talk can be especially dangerous, as it can prime the mind for relapse. Some possible negative self-talk that might arise in relation to sobriety could be:
- I’m not cut out for long-term recovery.
- This feels too overwhelming.
- I’m so boring (and bored!) when I’m sober.
- I can’t believe I let addiction take away X years of my life. What a loser.
- No one will be able to trust me again.
- It’s too late for me to achieve what I want in life.
It’s normal for people to have negative self-talk sometimes. It becomes dangerous when it becomes your primary way of thinking. It’s pretty easy to see how self-defeating thoughts like these will make it difficult to stay sober, much less create a life that you enjoy.
(And now your next negative thought might be, “I’ll never be able to stop thinking negatively.” We’ll get to that…)
Types of Negative Self-Talk
The first step toward counteracting negative thinking is to recognize it. There are four main categories of negative self-talk:
- Filtering – focusing on only the negative aspects of a situation (even situations that have a positive outcome)
- Catastrophizing – automatically anticipating the worst (e.g., you didn’t sleep well, so you predict that you’ll feel awful all day and not be able to get all of your work done)
- Personalizing – blaming yourself for everything, even things that are out of your control (e.g., it’s my fault that we lost our softball game – I couldn’t get a hit)
- Polarizing – you see things as either all-good or all-bad, leaving no room for middle ground
Once you start to recognize how you talk to yourself, you can take steps to change it. This isn’t some magical process of “manifesting” or trying to ignore the painful or embarrassing events of your life. Instead, it’s about gently correcting yourself to a more realistic way of thinking.
How to Combat Negative Self-Talk
Not sure how to think “realistically”? Here are some tips:
- Talk to yourself like you would talk to a good friend. If your friend has a difficult experience, it’s highly doubtful that you would berate her for how badly she handled it and tell her to give up hope because she’ll never change. Instead, you would sympathize with her feelings, assure her it’s normal to feel that way, and then help her remember her good qualities.
- Don’t use negative self-talk as motivation. This isn’t boot camp. Talking meanly to yourself will not push you to get up off the couch and do something. This kind of self-talk has the opposite effect – it creates more negative emotions, making it harder to do the things you want to do.
- Keep track of the positive. Consider keeping a journal or scrapbook where you can note your accomplishments, compliments you’ve received, things you’ve overcome, work that you’ve done, etc. The more you boost yourself with these memories, the easier it will be to balance your thinking.
- Practice meditation. Sitting quietly while paying gentle attention to the breath helps us realize that our thoughts are just…thoughts. The mind generates them automatically, and they have little do with our reality. The more you can get still and observe what your mind does, without taking it too seriously, the easier it will be to notice negative (or even positive) thoughts, give them a nod, and then let them go.
Negative Self-talk versus Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
An important distinction: Some people suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental health disorder in which negative and distressing automatic thoughts are generated on hyper-drive. An effort to escape or control these thoughts is what can lead to compulsive behaviors. The obsessive thoughts are so pervasive that they interfere with the person’s daily functioning. If you believe you might have OCD, talk with your therapist. Medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes can help.
If you know you struggle with negative thinking, therapy can help. Cognitive-behavioral therapy in particular focuses on identifying thinking patterns, seeing how thoughts impact behavior, and working to shift toward more realistic and helpful thinking.
If you are in recovery and struggling to stay positive and hopeful, reach out to your recovery support group. You are not alone, and those who are also in recovery can offer wonderful insight into how they’ve dealt with negative thinking.
Finally, if you have relapsed or fear that you will, reach out to our treatment team at St. Gregory Recovery Center. The staff at our Iowa facility are compassionate, nonjudgmental, and skilled in helping clients find the foundation they need for a lasting recovery.