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Neurohacking Your Negative Self-Talk

Written by: Dr Pamela Stoodley, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


The language we use in our everyday lives plays an extremely significant role in our mental well-being. Self-talk is the monologue we have with ourselves, sometimes inwardly and at times, out loud. This monologue can turn into a dialogue between the internal competing personae that I would like to call the Critic and the Guru.

The Critic

As the name suggests, the Critic criticizes. It critiques the way you are, look, work, eat, breathe or even just your worth or how you exist. The Critic often becomes such an integral part of our lives that its voice is commonly mistaken for the voice of truth – its words, a fact of our lives.

The Guru

This persona is the compassionate one who speaks out with kind words and can, at times, even provide advice. Those trained to listen to their inner Guru more often than the Critic find it easier to have a positive outlook on life, have better relationships with others and more importantly, with themselves.

The birth of the Critic and the Guru

Scientifically speaking, the Critic stems from our subconscious minds that have been well-primed with our beliefs, values, past experiences, biases, and external criticism – all of this ultimately feeding into our Automatic Negative Thoughts.

Amid this all, the Guru’s positive talk gets overridden due to a mental habit of putting the Critic at the forefront ‒ without actual awareness.

What does the Critic sound like?

"Today is going to be a terrible day!"

"That was not my best performance."

"I'm just not cut out for this."

"Why does this always happen to me?"

"I can never be on time."

"If only I were as lucky as she is."

"I'm not very intelligent like some of my friends."

Sometimes, we subconsciously become so habituated with language that personifies the Critic that we use it in conversation with other people too. I remember a rather awkward encounter where I asked someone how they had been. Their immediate response was, 'not bad'. That to me spelt worry so, in a knee-jerk reaction, I followed it up with, "Oh no! What happened?"

At first, they looked at me utterly confused, and then it dawned on them that perhaps their response was what misled me. They promptly said, "Oh nothing! I've been good."

This incident simply demonstrates the choice of words we habitually use to describe ourselves, our situation, and our life events. If someone has been good, why wasn't that their response? Why did they choose the phrase, not bad instead? 'Not bad' generally implies that the situation could have been worse, but it isn't. 'Not bad', however, doesn't automatically imply 'good'.

Does negative self-talk really impact us?

If the Critic is allowed to reign the majority of your self-talk, it eventually leads to fostering shame, your confidence takes a hard hit, and you limit self-growth. Habitually being in this state results in depression and anxiety where the incessant talks, and ultimately thoughts, become dysfunctional and destructive. It skews your perception of the self and the world and creates a false sense of reality ‒ a reality you find yourself stuck in with no escape.

Five neuro hacks to change your negative self-talk

1. Attention

The only way you can pay attention to something is by being aware ‒ a state of being many tend to struggle with. When you are in a state of awareness, you are able to pay attention to your inner Critic's monologue, your automatic negative thoughts and the language you use in everyday conversation.

2. Observation

Monitoring your self-talk reflects a visible pattern. Does your Critic speak the loudest to you when

  • you are about to face a challenge?

  • you've lost something?

  • you're anxious, nervous or fearful?

  • you're ruminating on a past event or someone else's words?

3. Inspection

When you've observed the language of those talks ‒ introspect its validity by asking yourself something along the lines of ‒

a. Am I making assumptions? Do I have all the facts?

b. Am I catastrophising based on a single event in my past and predicting the fate of my future opportunities?

c. Is it really as big a deal as I am making it out to be?

d. Am I labelling myself with words I would hesitate to use to describe my loved ones?

e. Am I creating an all-or-nothing reality for myself? If I say 'I never win' is this a factual statement?

f. If my friend came to me confessing they had these thoughts, would I say this to them?

4. Implementation

I often encourage my clients to implement my 3S Rule

Stop | Sigh | Switch

When you routinely pay attention, monitor, and analyse your self-talk and thoughts, you are able to be more compassionate with yourself and let the Guru takeover.

STOP - As stated before, paying attention requires awareness. The moment you catch your Critic's words, simply stop. Catch yourself being convinced with negative self-talk.

SIGH - Take a deep breath (or two). Inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply not only calms your system but also helps with bringing your mind to the present moment.

SWITCH - Reframe your talk/thoughts with kind and helpful words. This generally becomes easier as your ability to validate your negative self-talk comes naturally to you.

For example:

Instead of, "That was my worst performance!"

Try, "Given how prepared I was and how I had been feeling, I did the best I could. Next time, I'll prepare better and perhaps ask an expert for tips."

Instead of, "I will never reach my target weight!"

Try, "I've come this far and have hit a roadblock. Maybe I'll reach out to my friends to see if they have any advice to help me do something differently."

5. Repetition

Repeating any behaviour strengthens the neuronal connections making the effort you are putting into the behaviour, easier and easier. The stronger the neuronal connection, the thicker the myelin sheathing over it and the faster the nerve impulse of the activity. Over time, the Critic lays dormant and the inner Guru speaks out more confidently.

Some may argue that their inner critic helps motivate them to achieve their goals, however, the brain is unable to discern positive and negative self-talk and/or thoughts. Repetition of anything can cause a thickening in the myelin sheath ‒ so you are better off using it for positive self-talk than strengthening your neuronal connections with destructive monologues.

Note: If you or anyone you know experiences negative self-talk in a way that is destructive, then I strongly advise you to seek professional help or utilise your local resources.

“Your only limitation is the one you set up in your own mind!” ‒ Napoleon Hill

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Dr. Pamela Stoodley, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr Pamela Stoodley is a polymath with her range of specialties in being a general physician, child and adolescent psychologist, neuropsychologist, counsellor in addictions psychology and a nutritionist. Dr. Stoodley's first book 'Cracking the Happiness Code' teaches people the way our minds work and how best to use it to our advantage. Her life's mission is to show people how they can break the myth of a hard-wired brain and leap forward into the world of neuroplasticity for their own mental (health) agility. Her wish is to be able to empower every human on this planet ‒ from toddlers to retirees, the weapon of Mastering our Minds.



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