Challenging Negative Self-Talk: Strategies and Tips

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Chatter" by Ethan Kross. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is your mind overwhelmed by negativity? How can you stop negative self-talk and train yourself to think more positively?

According to neuroscientist and psychologist Ethan Kross, we can’t stop negative self-talk completely, but we can quiet it and therefore reduce its power over us. In his book Chatter, he shares five research-based strategies for challenging negative self-talk.

Here’s how we can prevent our negative self-talk from interfering with our success, happiness, and health.

Strategy 1: Pursue Amazement

According to Kross, you can quiet your internal cynic by directing your attention away from your negative self-talk and toward something amazing. Kross explains that amazing experiences can quiet your inner cynic because they reduce brain activity associated with self-immersion: getting lost in your thoughts, including negative self-talk. 

Here are four of Kross’s tips for seeking out amazing experiences:

1) Notice everyday, incredible moments. Enjoy the moment when your child uses a new word they’ve learned, or revel in the miraculous taste of your morning coffee. (Shortform note: In The Book of Delights, poet and essayist Ross Gay offers a strategy for noticing and appreciating everyday, incredible moments (which he calls “delights”): Write about them. He resolved to write every day about delights, from a bright red flower shooting up from a crack in the asphalt to getting a cheerful text message from a friend. He claims that the act of noticing and writing about delights led him to notice and appreciate even more everyday delights.)

2) Enjoy some art. Read a work of fiction, see a play, or attend a live performance. (Shortform note: Consider not only appreciating amazing art but also creating your own. Research reveals that making art (such as writing a song) increases blood flow to your brain’s reward center and lowers stress. Given the aforementioned links between experiencing stress and engaging in negative self-talk, stress-reducing art projects may also quiet your inner cynic.)

3) Witness something mind-blowing. Have a conversation with someone who survived a life-changing disaster or read a book about the neuroscience of octopi. (Shortform note: Research shows that mind-blowing experiences can increase your desire to connect positively with others. One study found that after participants viewed panoramic videos of Earth’s natural beauty, they were more social, more likely to volunteer, and more likely to donate money. This research suggests that witnessing something mind-blowing could prevent the social isolation negative self-talk creates.)

4) Spend time near nature. Go on a walk, visit an aquarium, or gaze at the night sky. (Shortform note: A recent study reveals that spending time in nature also improves your body image. Researchers theorize that being outdoors distances you from sources that tend to trigger negative thoughts about your body (such as social media). Improving your body image may in turn help to silence your inner critic, as critical thoughts about your body often manifest as negative self-talk.)

Strategy 2: Seek Out Actionable Empathy

When we’re struggling with something, many of us seek out others for emotional support. But Kross warns that seeking support from other people can sometimes make you feel worse and increase your negative self-talk. 

Why does this happen? Kross explains that support-seeking often results in what psychologists call co-rumination: when the person supporting you asks too many questions about your challenge. Excessive questioning makes you re-experience the pain of the challenge and resurfaces related, painful memories. This is because brains process thoughts by making associations: When you recall one negative memory, your brain resurfaces other, related negative memories. When you re-experience all these memories, your internal cynic grows louder, intensifying your negative emotions.

(Shortform note: Research supports Kross’s claim that co-rumination can make you feel worse. A recent experimental study found that co-rumination makes the person sharing their problem feel more stressed and upset. Researchers also found that co-rumination causes a physical threat response that may harm your health in the long term, underscoring Kross’s claim that you should avoid it.)

According to Kross, you can limit co-rumination and quiet your internal cynic by seeking out actionable empathy: when someone offers you empathy and provides solutions to your challenge. They show empathy by validating the difficulty of your situation and the emotions it’s giving you. Then, instead of engaging in co-rumination by asking you too many reflective questions about your situation, they instead offer advice. This advice prevents you from revisiting painful memories and directs your attention toward a more hopeful future.

(Shortform note: Kross describes the method and benefits of actionable empathy, but he doesn’t provide strategies for explicitly requesting this specific type of support. According to experts, you should use direct, assertive language to specify what type of support you need. For instance, imagine that your friend is providing you with emotional support after a rough breakup, and you notice the two of you are co-ruminating. You might tell your friend, “I think I’m done re-hashing the breakup. Can we shift to brainstorming ways I can make it through the next several weeks?”)

Strategy 3: Adopt a New Perspective

Seeking out actionable empathy works if you have access to others—but what if you’re by yourself and you need relief from your internal cynic? Kross claims that you can quiet your internal cynic by adopting a new perspective. This allows you to get outside of your head, bringing you clarity and a break from your body’s threat response. In this section, we’ll share four of Kross’s tips for quieting your internal cynic by adopting a new perspective.

Tip 1: Think of Your Problem as a Project. First, according to Kross, studies reveal that you can reduce your brain’s threat response by thinking of your problem as a project instead of a threat. When you approach your problem as a project that will develop your skills, you call upon your internal mentor, whose encouragement can drown out your internal cynic. 

For instance, imagine you’re an organizer for housing justice and you’re feeling discouraged by your city’s lack of affordable housing. Instead of framing this as a threat to your coalition’s goals, think of it as a project that’ll push you and your coalition to develop new skills and tactics.

Tip 2: Compare Your Present to the Past. Kross claims that you can also quiet your internal cynic by comparing your present situation to other challenges you’ve endured in the past. Remembering these past successes offers hope that you’re capable of persisting through your current challenge. These feelings of hope can transform your internal cynic into an internal mentor.

For example, imagine you’re having trouble setting boundaries with a family member and your internal cynic is chastising you for being a pushover. To counteract this negativity, remind yourself of times in the past when you’ve effectively set boundaries with other people.

Tip 3: Imagine How You’ll Feel in the Future. If comparing your current situation to the past doesn’t provide relief, look to the future instead. Kross claims that you can quiet your negative self-talk by imagining a positive future. Consider how you’ll feel about your current situation in one month, a year, and 10 years. Contextualizing your present in your future can trigger the hopeful realization that your current situation is temporary. As previously noted, hopefulness hushes your internal cynic. 

Tip 4: Avoid Using the “I” Pronoun in Your Self-Talk. A final way to adopt a new perspective is to shift the pronouns your internal voice uses. Kross claims that the pronouns you use in your self-talk affect the power of your internal cynic. People who address themselves using the first-person pronoun “I” experience more negative emotions than people who address themselves using different pronouns. Pronouns other than “I,” such as “he,” “she,” “they,” and “you,” give you distance from your current situation, preventing you from losing yourself in negative emotions that fuel your negative self-talk. When you use these other pronouns, your brain’s threat response is less activated.

Strategy 4: Increase Your Sense of Control. According to Kross, you can also quiet your internal cynic by increasing your sense of control. Any time your internal cynic takes over, you feel overwhelmed by its voice and lose your sense of control. Strategies that replenish your sense of control give you hope that you can steer your future toward a positive outcome. 

One way to regain control, Kross claims, is to organize your time and your physical space. For example, organize your time by making a schedule for your day or week. You can organize your space on a small scale (such as sorting your desktop files into folders) or on a large scale (such as cleaning your home).

Strategy 5: Engage in Rituals

Finally, according to Kross, rituals—from wearing a lucky hat to uttering a prayer—quiet our internal cynic. Kross explains that rituals combine the benefits of multiple other strategies that also reduce negative self-talk. Let’s explore three reasons why rituals are effective at quieting your internal cynic.

Reason 1: Rituals Often Involve Our Communities. Kross claims that rituals that involve other people, such as religious ceremonies, quiet our negative self-talk. This is because other people can reduce feelings of isolation and help us cope with negative emotions.

Reason 2: Rituals Direct Our Attention Elsewhere. Kross also argues that rituals require you to channel your brain power away from negative self-talk and toward the steps in the ritual behavior. For instance, imagine you’re one half of a comedy duo. You and your partner engage in the following ritual before every performance: You drink a shot of soju, do a secret handshake, then look into each other’s eyes and exclaim, “You’re the funniest person I know!”  This ritual distracts you from your internal cynic’s worries that you’ll freeze on stage and fail to deliver a funny routine.

Reason 3: Rituals Give You a Sense of Control. Finally, according to Kross, rituals give you a sense of control. As we discussed earlier, having a sense of control reduces your internal cynic’s power over you. Kross elaborates that rituals create a sense of control because they’re a type of placebo. A placebo is something that you believe will help you, even if there’s nothing specifically about the placebo itself that helps you. Believing in a placebo reassures you that the future will be better, which quiets your internal cynic’s pessimistic worries. Furthermore, when you believe a placebo will make things better, your brain’s threat response decreases.

For instance, imagine that you’re in the process of searching for a new job, and you develop the ritual of listening to your favorite song before each interview. Even if there’s nothing about the song itself that reduces your nerves, your belief that it reduces your nerves gives you a sense of control. This sense of control quiets your internal cynic before and during your interviews.

Exploring and Questioning the Idea of Trying to Quiet Your Internal Cynic

Kross doesn’t fully explain why quieting your internal cynic is the best way to manage it, nor does he explain why we can’t silence our internal cynic completely. Let’s further explore these two claims.

Claim 1: Quieting your negative self-talk is the best way to manage it. We can infer that Kross believes quieting your internal cynic is an effective approach because doing so reduces the negative effects that we explored in the previous section. However, quieting your internal cynic isn’t the only way of challenging negative self-talk: Some experts argue that you should spend time processing your negative self-talk, either instead of quieting it or before quieting it.

For instance, rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) is a type of therapy in which you investigate the beliefs that underlie your internal cynic’s words. A therapist who uses REBT may ask you to identify where those beliefs may have come from (such as a verbally abusive parent) as well as determine whether those beliefs are irrational or rational. Then, the therapist teaches you strategies for forming new beliefs. A possible benefit to this approach is that it pushes you to question and reformulate the underlying causes of your negative-self talk, which may help prevent negative self-talk in the future.

Claim 2: You can’t silence your internal cynic completely. Neuroscience supports Kross’s claim that you can’t turn off your internal cynic. Research reveals that your subconscious thoughts tend to bubble up into conscious thoughts without you directing them to do so. You can’t choose which thoughts bubble up—but you can choose how much attention you give them. This research particularly supports a strategy Kross shares for quieting your internal cynic: directing your attention elsewhere. We’ll explore this strategy next.
Challenging Negative Self-Talk: Strategies and Tips

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  • How negative self-talk interferes with your happiness, health, and success
  • Research-based strategies for managing negative self-talk
  • Four actionable tips for quieting your internal cynic

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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