Note: Abby Bleistein is a primary care physician board certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. She is also a Kidpower Board member. In this article, Dr. Bleistein describes how she uses the Kidpower skills of protecting ourselves from hurting words to combat negative self-talk.
I often have patients come to me for advice on losing weight. They will come in having thought about wanting to make a positive change and have even thought about a plan. What strikes me is, quite frequently, these patients who are looking to improve their health, are very negative towards themselves. They are almost apologetic in their explanation to me about how they have arrived where they are with their health, and they openly speak with negative self-talk.
Negative self-talk is when we are critical and demeaning to ourselves. For example, if I ask what the patient is doing for exercise, he may tell me that he is not engaging in any exercise. If I pursue why not, he might tell me, “I am just lazy.”
It is rare for me to find a lazy patient in this day and age of go, go, go, and I will set him right, explaining with many examples of how he is not lazy. More to the point, however, is that this negative language we use towards ourselves is damaging and unsafe. We say things to ourselves that we would not allow anyone else to say to our friends or our families without getting protective and offended. Importantly, when we do this in front of our children, we are modeling this behavior for them.
Recently, at a softball game for a friend’s daughter, I noticed girls engaging in this negative self-talk behavior. One girl in particular was being very hard on herself for not catching a ball in the outfield or not hitting when she was at bat. This girl is a charming and sweet child who often comforts her own team members when they don’t get the hit they expect, but for herself, she turns away compliments to criticize the one thing she felt she did wrong.
We can unlearn this behavior but, like changing any habit, it takes practice. The first step is noticing when we do it. Most of us respond in such a “knee-jerk” fashion with negative self-talk. We don’t even realize we are doing it. At Kidpower, we coach students of all ages to practice how to respond to compliments from others with “thank you,” and try not to discount the compliment by explaining what we see as wrong with ourselves. Instead of beating up on ourselves when we make mistakes, we all practice reminding ourselves that mistakes are how we learn: “That didn’t go how I expected, but next time I will know to…”
For my patient who is not exercising, discounting the behavior as “lazy” does not help because she is not identifying the real cause of why she is not exercising, and she is making herself feel badly as well, neither being helpful. She might work on saying, “ I am not exercising now because I don’t like to exercise, but if I had support of a friend, I might be able to get more motivated or engaged.”
Kidpower teaches that, when others use mean words towards us or use use them towards ourselves, we can treat these hurtful words like trash. We practice throwing them away, replacing the mean words with positive words. When my patient has identified that she has engaged in negative self-talk, she might throw the word “lazy” away, and say to herself, “I am a hard working person, and I am making a positive choice to be healthier. I am proud of my decision to take care of myself.”
We can also help children identify when they are engaging in negative self-talk. Suppose you give a compliment: “You had a great hit at bat today.”
And they negate the compliment by responding, “Yeah, but I dropped the ball in the outfield.”
Instead of letting this go by, we can stop them and remind them of the Kidpower technique of taking in kindness. We can say, “Yes, sometimes you will drop the ball in the outfield, and we can think about what went wrong when that happened, but your hit was very good. Can you practice saying thank you with me and enjoying that compliment? Put your hand on your chest and acknowledge, ‘I had a great hit todaym and I am proud of it.’”
To unlearn this behavior and teach our children differently, we need to use these skills in our daily lives.
- Role-model positive self-talk and how to accept and take in compliments.
- Identify when we are engaging in negative self-talk, and when we realize we have done it, throw the negative words away and replace them with positive words—even if we realize sometime later that we had put ourselves down. Slowly, over time and with practice, we will start to realize more quickly what we did. If we continue to notice and correct, eventually, we will not be engaging in the behavior as much.
- Help children by setting clear boundaries with them. “We do not allow others to put us down, and we certainly won’t do that to ourselves!” Practice throwing the mean words away and replacing them with positive words.
- Remember that mistakes are how we learn. If we never make mistakes, we can never grow and improve. Rather than being critical of ourselves, identify what went wrong and how we can make it right the next time.