See if this rings a bell: You care about your happiness and wellbeing, so you work really hard to eat wholesome foods, get some exercise every day, build in down time and educate yourself on how to stay healthy. Maybe you're so knowledgeable that you have a job helping others look and feel their best (we know there are lots of coaches out there!).
But you can't help noticing a feeling that something's missing. You've kicked the sugar habit, the sitting-too-long habit, the Diet Coke habit, the wine habit and — long ago — that horrific social-smoker habit. That final habit we all share — and we all want to get rid of? Internal trash talk.
In the psych world, it's called "negative self-talk;" the rest of us know it as a little voice in our heads, bashing anything and everything—from the food we ate today to how we acted on a date. You can do everything in your power to be happy, but the self-talk persists and you're down on yourself.
Thing is, trash talking yourself isn't just depressing. It can also cause a vicious cycle that actually results in not-so-great outcomes. There's some evidence that when you bash yourself (i.e. I skipped yoga class because I lack self control) you're actually less likely to try to change your behavior (What's the point of signing up for yoga again if I know I'm not disciplined enough for it?), and less apt to find resilience when life's challenges arise. The things you say about yourself in your own head — whether they're true or not — become reality.
One thing's for sure: None of us are alone. This self-directed trash talk is one of the most common sources of psychological malaise.
Luckily, that means there are also a lot of tips for fighting that nasty voice in our heads — and finally feeling the contentment and satisfaction we deserve. Try these:
Train your inner voice.
We're all going to talk to ourselves—it's just a question of how nice we're being. Research shows that people who are down on themselves tend to assume blame when something doesn't go their way, and dismiss success as a fluke. Optimists? They take full credit for wins. Keep on the sunny side where possible.
Temptingly simple as affirmations may be, repeating I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful (shout out, What About Bob!) won't get you too far—and may even make you feel worse by highlighting how far from wonderful you're actually feeling. Some research indicates that asking yourself questions is more effective. Saying Will I maintain the diet I know is healthiest this week? invites self-exploration (and probes for answers), putting you in control.
Let memories guide you.
One way to inspire yourself—and drown out the inner trash talker trying to drag you down—is to think about times in the past when you succeeded at something that was important to you. In one recent study, college students who recalled a positive memory related to exercise were subsequently more likely to work out than a control group that didn't do the memory exercise (negative recollections worked, too, but to a lesser degree). Remembering makes the desired behavior seem like more a part of you, so it's easier to follow through on in the future. Neat!