Negative Self-Talk


All of us have some type of inner chatter that we’ve learned to listen to and usually we take it very seriously. A fortunate few of us have an inner cheerleader, who tells us all sorts of lovely and encouraging things about ourselves. But most of us have a stream of dialogue going on in our minds that is continually evaluating our behaviors, reactions, and interactions. Often, this inner evaluation comes up short of an unspoken standard and the results can impact our moods horribly.  Dr. Edmund Bourne categorizes negative self-talk into four categories and explains what can result from such talk.

  • The Worrier promotes anxiety

“What if…”

  • The Critic promotes low self-esteem

“That was stupid! How could you….”

  • The Victim promotes depression

“I could never do that. How could this happen?”

  • The Perfectionist promotes chronic stress and burnout

“I should. I ought to….” (pp. 164-66)


How does negative self-talk impact you? What does it promote in you? We can make the mistake of thinking that we are stuck swimming in these thought streams forever. But this isn’t the case. Interestingly, “negative self-talk is a series of bad habits. You aren’t born with a predisposition to fearful  (or negative) self-talk; you learn to think that way.” (p.164) The reasons we have negative self-talk are complicated. Family messages, traumatic events and personal hurts can all contribute. Over time, the habit of these thought processes becomes so ingrained that they take on a life of their own. In other words, our brains become used to taking these trains of thought very seriously and we live more and more of our lives in the resulting states that Bourne describes; anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, chronic stress, and burnout. In other words, our brains teach us to live in misery.

The power of recognizing our own negative self talk is that when we understand the process of our thinking and its impact, we can decide whether to offer our inner worrier, critic, victim, or perfectionist our attention or whether we would benefit from shifting our attention away from their negative thought streams. Learning to do this takes intentional effort and consistent practice, just like undoing any other deeply engrained habit. Creating a new neural pathway in the brain is no small task!  Learning to notice the negative self-talk is the first step in living a transformed life.

Quotes from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 4th Edition by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD.               Photo credit, click here


  1. I think a good question that needs to be asked is: why do we have all this chatter in our brains in the first place? I often say to people, you think you have control over your thoughts, but why can’t you stop them? Why stop at ignoring these negative thoughts? Shouldn’t our brains be working for us and not against us? As you say it is a difficult habit to change.

  2. Excellent info Janice…I know you are probably staying away from striclty spiritual things, but obviously all that negative self-talk often has spiritual roots, in not being “good enough” for the free gift of God’s grace. Do you work with those who struggle with this? Would love to chat sometime!

  3. A counselor friend recently told me that a very simple but clinically tested way of combatting negative self talk is to literally say out loud, and forcefully, “stop!” And it will actually silence those voices (at least for a whole). It’s not a deep cure but it’s a good place to start. Good stuff, Janice.

  4. My friend Jerry Mayer posted a link on FB, and I’m glad he did. I’ve long thought that attitudes have inertia, and it takes a lot to replace them once they’ve lingered too long. (I’ve heard that depressed people’s neurotransmitters eventually hard-wire defeatist beliefs.) Believing you can be better should be more prevalent: it’s free and it can drastically improve your life. But it’s really hard, as the self-help industry can happily attest.

    Thanks for reminding me that I can control my attitude and outlook.

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