We all have an inner critic. At times inner voice can be helpful and keep us motivated toward goals—like when it reminds us that what we’re about to eat isn’t healthy or what we’re about to do may not be wise. However, this voice can often be more harmful, when it is excessively or repeatedly negative. This is known as negative self-talk.

Negative self-talk can take many forms. It can sound grounded (“I’m not good at this, so I should avoid attempting it for my safety,” for example) or it’s downright mean (“I can never do anything right!”). It may seem like a realistic appraisal of a situation (“I got a C on this test. I guess I’m not good at math.”), only to devolve into a fear-based fantasy (“I’ll never be able to get a good job”).

The musings of your inner critic may sound a lot like a critical parent or friend from your past. It can follow the path of typical cognitive distortions: such as catastrophizing and blaming.

Negative self-talk is an inner dialogue you have with yourself that may be limiting your ability to believe in yourself and your abilities and reach your potential. It is any thought that diminishes your ability to make positive changes in your life or your confidence in yourself to do so.

Negative self-talk can affect us in some pretty damaging ways. One large-scale study found that rumination and self-blame over negative events were linked to an increased risk of mental health problems.

Focusing on negative thoughts may lead to decreased motivation as well as greater feelings of helplessness. This type of critical inner dialogue has even been linked to depression.

How Not Thinking About Something Can Make You Think About It

While it may sound like a good strategy to not think about the negative thoughts you are thinking, it isn’t. Here’s an example:

Think about anything you want in life over the next 15 seconds, but whatever you do, avoid thinking about the pink elephant. Not the one, in particular, that is riding a blue bicycle and striking the bell with its trunk.–” ring-ring.”

Did the thought of a pink elephant riding a blue bicycle come to mind after reading this? Perhaps you even imagined a bicycle bell ringing in your head.

What to do if Negative Thoughts Arise

A good strategy is to ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this a fact or a thought?
  • What is the proof that this thought is correct? What proof is there that this idea is false, and why?
  • Is what I’m thinking true an emotion or a fact?
  • If a friend had this thought, what would I say to them?
  • What are some different perspectives of the situation I’m thinking about?
  • What are the results of thinking the way I am thinking?
  • Am I seeing thinking about the situation in strictly black and white terms?
  • Am I seeing the big picture or just a small piece of it?
  • Am I using “ultimatum” words like “always,” “never,” “everyone,” “no-one,” “everything,” and “nothing?”
  • Am I exaggerating the importance of the situation?
  • Am I assuming I can’t do anything to change the situation?

Asking ourselves questions can activate both our cognitive processes and our subconscious mind. Your brain becomes more active as it reflects when you ask yourself insightful questions rather than giving yourself the answer. This reflection causes serotonin to be released, which helps your brain relax.

Additionally, if you tend to think in pictures, you can alter the image in your head to make it less powerful. Similar to how the Riddikulus spell in Harry Potter was used to transform the picture of the boggarts—which would be the image of one’s deepest fears—into something silly or humorous, rendering it no longer frightening. Or making the image smaller and fade into nothing.

Always keep in mind that thoughts are just that—thoughts—and that they may and do change. The notion itself is less significant than how y

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