What to Do When Negative Self-Talk Hijacks Your Mind

By Salina Grilli, LMSW

A couple weeks ago I ran a half marathon. I planned on training, but other commitments took precedent. My ego barked, “If you can't beat you last years time, then it's not worth the effort." I did end up putting my ego aside, in part, for a friend who recently suffered a difficult loss and needed a healthy distraction; and, in part, because I always had fun at this race. 

It was cold and raining heavily when I arrived on race day. By the time I crossed the finish line, I was soaking wet and shivering. I spent the first half of the race wondering if I could even make it to the finish and the second half trying (and failing) to reframe my thoughts. Needles to say, I let my inner self-critic take over and finished much slower than I did the previous year. I could make excuses for my time, but the reality is that my attitude and negative self-talk was the culprit.  

After crossing the finish line, I not only felt disappointed with my time, but also frustrated with myself for how mean I had been to myself throughout the race.  Did I really need to spend a few hours of my life bullying MYSELF? No, not really. 

This is where the concept of self-compassion comes into play. Kristen Neff describes self-compassion as the following: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”

This race reminded me of how difficult it can be to practice self-compassion in challenging moments, yet how crucial it can be to success. Had I spoken to myself with kindness and compassion during the race, I would have felt less discouraged and would likely have competed at a higher level. Even though I was unable to change my attitude during the race, I made a commitment to practice self-compassion afterwards.

Here are some self-compassion techniques I used to challenge my inner critic:

  1. Ask yourself, “What would I say to a close friend or a young child?” 
    • Practice reframing your thoughts by asking yourself, “If my friend had this thought, what would I say to them?” My guess it that you would be much more compassionate and less critical than you are being to yourself. 
  2. Practice mindfulness.
    • The “five senses countdown” is one mindfulness technique that shifts your attention away from distressing, unhelpful thoughts to the present moment. To practice, first take a few calming deep breaths and then proceed with these five steps: 
      1. Note five things you see around you.
      2. Note four things you can touch. 
      3. Note three things you can hear.
      4. Note two things you can smell. 
      5. Note one thing you can taste.
  3. Reach out for support.
    •  If you continue to struggle with judgmental, critical thoughts, try reaching out for support. Another perspective might help you look at your situation differently and with more compassion.
    • After the race I texted my Dad about my disappointment. His response was something along the lines of, “stop being so hard on yourself, I can’t do 13 miles of anything.” That quickly put me in my place. I began to remind myself that finishing in and of itself was an accomplishment. 

Remember self-compassion takes time and practice. As I sit here writing this article, I still feel a tad disappointed with my results, and that's okay. Every time I practice self-compassion these thoughts and emotions continue to dissipate allowing for new thoughts. 

Salina Grilli is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.