Our brains are amazing things. Each second, we subconsciously review 11 million pieces of information. That leaves our conscious mind free to focus on about (only) 40 pieces of information in a second. Whew.
The magic is that our brain takes over really crucial but monotonous tasks (like breathing, making our heart beat, blinking our eyelids) so that our present mind can focus on current environmental tasks (not getting hit by cars, making lunch, Netflix). It would be impossible for us to be aware of the trillions of inputs and tens of thousands of micro-decisions we each make each day just to stay alive.
So we know that our brains are really great at taking tasks and patterns that it sees repeated over and over and moving them from our awareness into our subconscious.
But where do all those subconscious thoughts go? To get all neuroscience-y for a second, the short answer is a lot of different places. But when it comes to how we perceive or think about ourselves, those around us, and our future, our Default Mode Network is a group of interacting brain regions that become active when we’re resting or letting our minds wander.
When we’re not paying attention, our default mode of thinking is busy analyzing how we think about ourselves, how we think about others, our memories of the past and envisioning the future instead of the task we’ve got in front of us. It’s how we talk to ourselves about ourselves, also known as self-talk.
This means that: a) our brain is designed to take repeated thoughts and actions and move them to our subconscious, and b) we’ve got a Default Mode Network that controls how we think about ourselves, primed and ready to create a default way of thinking. We don’t even need to notice that we’re doing it!
Our friend the brain is doing this to be helpful, not a jerk, but here’s where the twist comes in: For many of us, our experiences or past histories lead us to think negatively about ourselves while our passive default mode is engaged.
And this is an ideal recipe for unconscious negative self-talk.
It’s estimated that we have up to 70,000 thoughts each day and that a whopping 80% of those are negative. That means lots of us are having as many as 56,000 negative thoughts each day.
If you look in the mirror and think something ugly about yourself, your brain hears it. If your kid throws a tantrum and you think you’re a horrible parent, your brain hears it. If you land an important interview and you think you won’t get hired before you even begin, then guess what — your brain hears it.
Any of this sound familiar?
It can be exceptionally difficult to change something that we don’t know we’re doing — that in fact our brain is designed to make us not notice. That’s how, over time, negative self-talk becomes so damaging. It’s like having the symptoms but not knowing there’s a disease.
“Whoa, this is bleak” might be what you’re thinking right now. But this is all just to set us up with two basic realities around negative self-talk that are great for us to know before we begin to take action to fix it.
We know our brains are designed to shift to default thinking wherever it can. This means it’s not our fault and it’s not something we could have prevented. It’s scientifically documented and isn’t something that you’re making up.
And, because it’s increasingly common, we know that we’re not alone.
Now that we’re all on the same page, here are some of the most effective ways you can work to identify and then redirect your own negative self-talk.
7 Days to Overcome Negative Self-Talk
There are mountains of real scientific research on why meditation is one of the very best things we can do for ourselves. When it comes to negative self-talk, meditation can be extremely beneficial because of how it helps us become more present and aware.
Just starting to practice meditation is valuable. Don’t worry about trying to do it perfectly. Studies have shown you can begin to get positive benefits from meditation with as little as three minutes each day.
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Think of meditation and sleeping as your dream team for building a healthy outlook. Meditation helps you sleep better, and a solid night’s rest is the key to giving your brain and body time to heal. Sleeping has been documented by neurologists to be one of the best ways that you can alter your default thinking. So as you begin to recognize your negative self-talk and redirect it, with a strong sleep schedule and well-rested mind your Default Mode Network will be more adaptable to change.
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(Try To) Stop Predicting
Also a common facet of anxiety and depression, many of us feel a compulsive need to negatively think or worry about the future. This can be especially harmful because when we’re focused on the future we’re less likely to see what we’re thinking and doing in the present. This sets up the perfect environment for negative self talk to run wild.
Building a regular practice where you proactively tackle your own anxiety can make it much easier to learn how to be aware in the present moment and not feel so much of a need to think about the future or negatively in the present.
Start With Kindness To Others
Everyone knows that, in theory, we should be kind to ourselves. But this is easier said than done. When we’ve been involved in cycles of negative self-talk for months or years it can be almost impossible for us to just flip a switch and treat ourselves more kindly.
Start by internally noticing other people, even strangers in public, and wishing them well and hoping for them to find happiness in their lives. Even better, come up with a shortlist of trigger situations, like getting on an elevator or waiting at a stoplight, and commit to thinking kindly about those around you whenever you find yourself there. Once you get into a habit of thinking well of others, the desire to act on those thoughts will follow. Before long you’ll find yourself being kinder to others as well as yourself.