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Negative Self-Talk During COVID-19

For a lot of people, being mean to ourselves comes naturally – it’s our default way of speaking to ourselves. If you’re noticing that you’ve been especially hard on yourself during the pandemic, you aren’t alone. Even if you’ve worked on this in the past, COVID-19 has come with a lot of stress that makes it harder to stay positive.

What is negative self-talk?

We all talk to ourselves in our heads (an inner dialogue), and sometimes that voice can be pretty harsh. It judges you, doubts you, and picks out all your flaws that no one else would even notice. Negative self-talk is exactly what it sounds like: talking to yourself in a negative or mean way. We often tell ourselves things that we would never say to a friend – my hair looks stupid today; I can’t do anything right; no one likes me.

Negative self-talk is really common. The human brain reacts more intensely to negative events than to positive ones and is more likely to remember insults than praise – it’s part of how we’re wired. It may not seem like that big of a deal (don’t most people struggle with confidence?) - but everything you say to yourself matters. Putting yourself down chips away from your self-esteem, and left unchecked those thoughts can become even more ingrained and contribute to mental health challenges, like depression and anxiety. 

Okay…but what if it’s true?

It’s probably not. We often make big, sweeping statements about ourselves like “I’m dumb,” and while you might believe it to be true, it’s way too general to be a fact. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, good days, and bad days. You can feel dumb about something you’ve said or done, but that doesn’t mean you are dumb.

Regardless of how right or wrong your negative self-talk is, it still doesn’t benefit you. Say you mess up on a presentation at work or school – telling yourself “I did terribly today” doesn’t help you do any better next time. Once you start talking to yourself like that, it’s easy for it to snowball – “I did terribly” can turn into “I’m so dumb,” which can turn into “I can’t do anything right,” and so on. Even though it may be true that you didn’t do well, try to focus instead on what went right and what you learned from the mistakes that you did make. 

Why am I being so mean to myself lately?

Everyone is experiencing some loss of control right now. We weren’t prepared for a pandemic and we don’t quite know when things will return to “normal.” With so much uncertainty, it’s easy to turn that nervous energy inwards and feel insecure. For a lot of people, pointing out your own flaws or hating on yourself is comfortable; it’s not enjoyable, but it is familiar and often easier than challenging your automatic thoughts.

Your pandemic social life (or lack thereof) may be influencing how you talk to yourself, too. Positive social interactions help you feel good about yourself, but it’s hard to get that same feeling from texts, phone calls, or even video chats. Without in-person social time, you’re not getting concrete proof that other people accept you; while your worth doesn’t depend on that acceptance, questioning if others like you or care enough to be in contact with you can really impact your self-esteem. More time alone often means more time to think, and it’s easy for negative thoughts to spiral out of control when you give them too much attention. And feeling lonely can make your mental health challenges harder, which often makes your negative self-talk meaner, more frequent, and harder to push back against.

If you’ve been in therapy, you might have worked on negative self-talk before. If it’s harder to deal with now than it used to be, it doesn’t mean you’re going backwards. You’re in a very different situation now than ever before, so some of your typical coping skills may not be working. When everything feels out of your control, it’s a lot harder to push back against those automatic negative thoughts.

How can I stop my negative self-talk?

Negative self-talk may be a habit for you, but it’s a habit you can break.

Pay attention to what you’re telling yourself. The first step in being kinder to yourself is noticing when you aren’t so kind. With the stress of COVID-19, you might be picking out different flaws in yourself than you have before – which means you may not even be aware of some of your negative self-talk.

Be realistic. Perfectionism typically leads to stress, but especially so during the pandemic. There’s no guide for how to feel, think, or act right now. Set realistic expectations for yourself – COVID-19-times realistic – to avoid feeling like you’re always falling short. 

Practice self-compassion. We all mess up or disappoint ourselves, even on good days. Remind yourself that nothing is normal right now – it’s okay to make more mistakes than usual or feel like you don’t have your act together. Forgive yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing your best in a really tough situation.     

Set boundaries – and stick to them. Many people are feeling pessimistic, anxious, or frustrated right now. It’s easy to pick up on other people’s negativity, so set some limits for yourself. If you have a friend who is always sending you scary news stories, don’t open their message right away. If you’re talking to someone who is always insulting their own appearance, steer the conversation to something more uplifting.

Make time for things you enjoy. It’s natural to feel your best when you’re doing something you like. You may feel a lot of pressure to be productive during this time, but it’s important to do things that make you happy. It adds more positivity and fun to your days and will likely boost your self-esteem too.

If you can’t seem to get your negative self-talk under control, take a mental health screen to see if you’re experiencing signs of anxiety or depression. For some extra support, try out teletherapy, call a warmline, or text MHA to 741-741 to reach a trained crisis counselor.