5 tips to squash your inner critical voice : Life Kit Being self-critical comes naturally for a lot of people. It's easy to focus on the one bad review or the tiny flaw in an otherwise perfect presentation. Psychologist Joy Harden Bradford walks us through some strategies to quiet down those negative thoughts, including how to monitor and interrogate your negative self-talk and replace it with positive self-talk.

Stop being so mean to yourself. Here are 5 tips to help you break the cycle

Stop being so mean to yourself. Here are 5 tips to help you break the cycle

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Kristen Uroda for NPR
Illustration of a person looking at themselves lovingly in a mirror. The mirror is adorned with sticky notes covered in positive affirmations meant to help combat negative self-talk.
Kristen Uroda for NPR

Everybody has those inner gremlins talking to them, bringing up the worst thoughts, second-guessing their instincts and being generally unkind.

Where exactly do those critical voices come from? And why are they so mean? If you're reading this, you probably know what I (TK) am talking about — it's negative self-talk, and no one is exempt from it.

So we talked to one of my faves, Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D. (more commonly known as Dr. Joy), an Atlanta-based clinical psychologist and the host and founder of Therapy for Black Girls, about a few ways to quiet those voices down.

Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, speaker, author and the host and founder of the podcast Therapy for Black Girls. Carol Lee Rose, Colurwrk hide caption

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Carol Lee Rose, Colurwrk

Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend

A lot of our negative self-talk comes from messages we've heard out in the world and internalized — maybe from a hypercritical caregiver, a school bully or the media.

When we beat ourselves up over mistakes, disparage our own appearance or talk ourselves out of great ideas, we're not giving ourselves the grace and care that we would give others. Try practicing some self-compassion and replacing that negative inner voice with a kinder one.

"We're talking about using the same kind and gentle language and approaches that we do with the other people we love in our lives with ourselves," says Dr. Joy. "Because we're also people that we hopefully love, right?"

When you realize you're talking down to yourself, ask, "Would I say this to my best friend?" Then remind yourself of who you really are. As a best friend to myself, I try to remember that we all make mistakes, no one is looking at my zit and I am a delight to be around!

Monitor and collect evidence

Before you can shut down that mean little voice, you have to be aware of how it operates. "We want to monitor and keep a log of what kind of negative self-talk we're having," says Dr. Joy. Pick a half day, notice those negative thought patterns and write them down.

Then, you gotta gather receipts. Once you notice that you're telling yourself not-so-nice stories, collect evidence on whether those things that you're telling yourself are actually true.

Dr. Joy walks us through an example. Say your negative self-talk is, "I never accomplish anything." Ask yourself: "What evidence do I have to support that? Have you never accomplished anything, or did you get a promotion last year? Did you get yourself out of bed on time this morning?"

Write that evidence down. "There's something about physically writing something down that allows you to kind of see, 'OK, this isn't actually true, right?' " says Dr. Joy. Once you've subverted the case of the gremlins ...

Find affirmations that fit

Coming out of a negative self-talk episode can be hard. Our lack of self-worth in the moment won't allow us to believe the affirmations from people around us or ourselves. Positive self-talk is a crucial step in changing our patterns, but telling ourselves that we are the bee's knees might be too grandiose at the moment.

It's OK to tone down your affirmations so they feel authentic to you. "What we're wanting is something that you actually feel like you can grow into. So 'I commit to loving myself a little bit more each day,' or 'I commit to doing my best each day,' or 'I'm better than I was.' "

Spend less time on social media

Studies show that people around the world spend three hours (and climbing!) a day on social media. I'm definitely guilty of losing 30 minutes here and there swiping through all my feeds. Inevitably, I end up on what I call "Therapy IG," where all the free mental health advice lives. It can feel uplifting at first, but sometimes it makes me second-guess myself, and I have to ask, when is all that input too much input?

Dr. Joy agrees that lots of therapists are offering great insights and resources, but she also says all that info can be overwhelming. "When you're already somebody who is struggling with negative self-talk ... the last thing that you need is a bunch of social media accounts telling you you're doing it wrong."

She suggests auditing how much time you spend on social media and being cognizant of what kind of information you're consuming.

"Even if it is helpful, it's just not good to constantly be in a place of looking at all the things you could be doing better, as opposed to like, 'I'm good enough as I am, even if there are some things that I want to work on.' "

Don't think less of yourself — think of yourself less

One obvious (but difficult) way to stop being so hard on yourself is to just stop thinking about yourself so much. "Something that a lot of times happens with depression and anxiety is that we feel like people are paying way more attention to us than they actually are," says Dr. Joy.

If you feel stuck obsessing over all your supposedly horrible failings (Dr. Joy calls that perseverating), she says doing something with your hands can help take you out of that space. Gardening, knitting, a coloring book, Play-Doh — you get the idea.

Life Kits to help you get out of your head

Or, try getting outside and observing the world around you. "If you feel comfortable taking your shoes off and putting your feet on the ground, or if you're near water, being able to hear waves or hear the waterfall — anything that you can do that really connects you to the fact that there's something bigger than us," says Dr. Joy, "can be a really helpful way to kind of just shift your perspective a little bit so that you're not so focused on yourself."

A quick recap

The key to rejecting negative self-talk lies in how we practice affirmation. Surround yourself with positive influences; reinforce them with reminders like sticky notes or voice notes reminding yourself of all your accomplishments and goals. Try limiting your time on social media, or at least scroll over to the puppies and kittens side of TikTok. Take stock of how amazing you are growing to be every day, and never let yourself tell you otherwise.


The podcast portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle.

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