Contribution from Shobha Nihalani

Did you know that our brains are not wired to understand the difference between negative or positive? Well, it’s true. Let’s test the theory.

Don’t think of that tiger!

You are picturing a tiger in your mind right now.

This means that all the statements we say, every moment of every day, create an impression in our minds. That’s what leads me to share, in the next four weeks’ column titled ‘Turn Critical to Compassionate’, that how we communicate with ourselves is relevant in how we face life.

What is the inner critic?

The inner critic is a critical inner voice that tells you that you are not good enough. Believing the inner critic can lead to feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and lack of confidence in pursuing new goals. This negative voice focuses on weaknesses rather than strengths. The inner critic cannot be silenced, but it can be reframed with kindness. We have the power to change the way we feel about ourselves.

The real-life impact of negative self-talk

Many of us often speak to ourselves in ways that affect our self-esteem. The negative self-talk happens when you beat yourself up, or berate yourself for making a simple mistake, or when you compare yourself to others, and feel that you are less important than they are. We criticise, shame, and put ourselves down. Some examples of internal statements we tell ourselves are:

  • Don’t do that or you will embarrass yourself!
  • Don’t speak up or people will find out you are ignorant!
  • Don’t act that way, they will laugh at you!
  • I will never be as smart/successful/rich as him/her!
  • I can’t do this!
  • I am so ugly!
  • Everyone hates me!
woman sitting on the ground sadly
Negative thoughts reinforce negative beliefs about the self (© Joice Kelly via Unsplash)

Studies show that our unconscious mind generates a picture of what we are thinking and helps us to realise the truth of the statements that we constantly repeat to ourselves. These repeated thought patterns reinforce our beliefs, and our beliefs then define our actions, which become who we are, our reality. Our automatic thoughts have a direct and immediate impact on our feelings or emotions, and on our behaviours.

Therefore, the way we communicate with ourselves is so powerful that it can affect our choices and decisions in life. We tend to take this inner chatter for granted and presume that it doesn’t create an impact.

Recognize that worrying is a survival instinct

Let’s explore deeper. What is this inner dialogue and how does it affect us?

Self-talk is known as intrapersonal communication, which is the internal use of speech and language. It appears in the form of thoughts that we can ‘hear’ with the auditory part of the brain. This self-talk goes on all day in different situations. Sometimes we are aware of it, and other times it is on auto mode, and we hear it as a running commentary like a sports commentator, remarking as events unfold.

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Ian Tuhovsky explains in his book The Science of Self-Talk that there are two kinds of talk: constructive or dysfunctional. Are the words critical or a form of praise? Inner talk can border from being pleasant to toxic, leading to feelings that can be empowering or crushing. Constructive talk helps you to move in the right direction such as achieving a goal or developing skills. Dysfunctional self-talk, on the other hand, results in an unproductive mindset or feelings of misery and helplessness.

happy face and sad face on balloons
Intrapersonal communication can be positive or negative (© Hybrid via Unsplash)

Some forms of the negative talk are short-lived. They act upon us for a while and then dissipate. Another form of negative talk is more malicious because it involves repeatedly going over worries and concerns. Psychologists call this rumination. It can lead to depression, anxiety and other severe disorders.

Tuhovsky explains the various ways we create a toxic inner world. When we face routine difficulties, they feel like threats. The self-talk then distorts our perception of what has happened and treats it as a catastrophe. We become prone to imagine the worst, overanalyse, and/or create a worst-case scenario. When we filter out the positives and accentuate the negatives, this creates fertile ground for engaging in harsh self-judgment.

But wait, does that mean that the inner talk is all bad?

Tuhovsky also points out that the negative effect is not necessarily the enemy. The self-talk is alerting you to a situation that needs attention, that could lead to pain. The dialogue need not be de-motivational, that is, if we take steps to be aware of it and make it useful.

In fact, this inner critic tries to keep us secure, it acts like a safety instinct, a warning signal. For example, if you want to speak in public or share an innovative idea with your boss, you might hear your inner critic saying something like, ‘You’ll make a fool of yourself,’ or ‘Wait until you are more experienced.’ This safety instinct is trying to help us and, in a way, protect us from the stress and anxiety.

Challenge your inner critic

The problem is that everything that brings us the most fulfilment – personally and professionally – involves taking the kinds of risks that the ‘safety instinct’ doesn’t like. That’s why we’ve got to learn to be aware of the negative inner voice, but not allow it to become our boss.

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It is time to challenge the critic. Even a small change in how you talk to yourself will bring about a big change externally. Notice the effects on your body when you are in critical mode. Do you breathe shallow? Do you hunch your shoulders? Do you notice your gut clench, or a tightness in your chest? Your body’s reaction is an indicator to become aware of your internal dialogue.

For example, if the inner critic is telling you, ‘You are an idiot, how can you fail at this, you are nothing like the others, you should just give up!’, your body will react in some way to the negativity. In the heat of the moment, you may agree with your inner critic, lose courage, and cower in fear.

boy looking out the window
Be aware of the inner critic’s motive to help you survive (© Laurenz Kleinheider via Unsplash)

How does one rethink the talk?

The way to do this is to reframe your mindset. This is a proactive approach to recognising when the inner critic leads us to not feeling good enough. If the inner critic continues, then your thoughts become an automated talk of self-deprecation, which becomes a feedback loop of negative energy. Then you wonder: why am I feeling this way?

Often, we tend to distort and generalise the situation to fit the sub-text of the critical inner voice. But, in actual fact, the way we see the world is only through our personal lens of values and beliefs. And if we believe we are not good enough, we assume everyone thinks the same.

Scott Mautz, a business speaker, suggests following the ‘90 Percent Rule’ to cut the inner critic’s influence. He explains that when you catch yourself engaging in negative self-talk, it should immediately trigger the reminder that 90% of it will be unhelpful, misguided self-destruction, although 10% might actually be something worth thinking about as a way to improve.

Reframe the negative talk

First, instead of falling apart, mentally stand courageous and face the critic. Respond with: ‘Why should I give up? I was not that bad, I can try again, I made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean I am an idiot.’ Keep doing this whenever the inner critic releases its venom, and you will notice the negative voice will eventually lose its power.

Secondly, learn to identify this kind of self-talk. Sometimes it is difficult to notice, especially if it has been going on for years on autopilot. Once you understand the negative internal dialogue, you can then reframe the talk to be positive. For example, ‘I made a mistake, but I will learn from it. This is a lesson that will help me improve. I am strong and capable.’ Choose words that are in the affirmative. Focus on your body’s tense muscles, relax, and breathe deep for a few moments, and let the calm words wash over you.

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Observe from a distance: ‘I feel’, not ‘I am’

When the inner critic gets hostile, we get knocked down not by the words, but the emotions that flood in. We then get stressed, anxious and demotivated. Not just our body but our minds feel drained of energy. At this point when you feel this low, ask yourself, ‘Am I the feeling, or am I the observer of the feeling?’

The point is, when you take a step back, and become the observer, it then becomes easier to handle the flood of feelings. Try not to say, ‘I am stressed,’ rather ‘I am feeling stressed.’ This will disassociate your experience and enable you to understand what’s going on in your mind and body. Then you will be able to find a positive way to spin the talk.

woman with hands outstretched to falling snow
Reframe negative thoughts and emotions (© Andi Rieger via Unsplash)

Kirsten Neff, associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin, USA, is a leading proponent of self-compassion, who quite simply suggests choosing to be kind to yourself. In 2014, in her post-doctoral work, Neff conducted some studies on students. Among other findings, she discovered that self-compassionate students are more likely to respond to disappointing performances by rethinking their self-critical thoughts, rather than avoiding them.

She conceptualizes that we all have at least three inner personalities: the criticiser, the criticised and the compassionate observer. Neff says that mentally, we can sit in three different chairs, allowing the self-critic to speak first, then switching chairs and articulating how the criticism makes us feel. Finally, we can take the third chair of the compassionate observer to address both the critic and criticised. Try this; it will help you to think differently, and bring about a balanced and kinder approach to situations in the future.

Summing up:

  1. Rethink the talk.
  2. Reflect with courage.
  3. Reframe as an observer.
  4. Reenergise with self-compassion.

“Of all the judgements we pass in our lives, none is as important as the one we pass on ourselves.” — Writer and psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden

💡 Read more advice from Shobha Nihalani on self-esteem 💡


Shobha Nihalani is a multi-genre author, ghost-writer, and mindset coach. She has been writing for over 25 years. Her recent book on self-esteem – Reboot, Reflect, Revive: Self-Esteem in a Selfie World – has become popular and is recognised for raising awareness on self-esteem.

Shobha believes that the way we communicate with ourselves, and others, has the power to impact our lives. Her expertise as a writing consultant and writer’s coach has given her the opportunity to guide people to acknowledge their own amazing potential to be unique, creative, and resilient in achieving their goals.

Learn more about Shobha Nihalani at www.shobhanihalani.com or contact her at shobhanovels@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of The HK HUB.

Header image credits: Vitolda Klein via Unsplash

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