Cathryn's Articles for Stepmom Issues and Relationships

Negative Self-Talk: Why do We Torture Ourselves?
Negative Self-talk: Why do we torture ourselves?

By Cathryn Bond Doyle.

This summer I had an experience that made me acutely aware of the toxic impact of negative self-talk. I also noticed that recently several clients have had similar experiences with this issue so the purpose of this article is to use my story as a model, share the insights gained and offer alternatives to the practice and habit of negative self-talk. As we become aware of the way we talk to ourselves, we can make conscious choices to nurture, instead of torture, ourselves when we most need the support.


This summer (2001) we moved out of one house and into another, spending an interim four weeks at an extended stay hotel. With all the tasks to be handled, I knew I had to be super-organized and I was. I had post-it notes and lists all over the place and everything was going along very well. The night before the first closing, I felt exhausted but fantastic that everything was ready. I had worked hard to make sure the new owners felt welcome and that my family (and my cats) felt comfortable during are brief hotel stay. I was pleased with myself and looked forward to a couple of days off in celebration of all my hard work. My self-talk was positive and supportive.

The next morning, at the pre-closing walk-through, my husband called me from the house to ask me where the front door keys were, as they were not on the counter as I told him. I was stunned for a moment. I was sure they were on the counter. I would have bet on it. (I would have lost.) Within seconds I went from feeling great to shredding myself with negative self-talk:

“How could I be so stupid?”

“Where the heck are those stupid keys?” (Suddenly the keys were bad!)

“How humiliating! With all I’ve done well, I go and lose the front door keys!”

“I’m such an idiot!”

You get my point. The verbal battering I inflicted on myself was cruel!

I’m happy to say the keys were located about 30 minutes later, the closing went well and the buyers did indeed appreciate all of our efforts. However, during the 30 minutes between phone calls, I realized I was actually verbally abusing myself!!!

Silent words, yes, but as cutting and punishing as if spoken out loud. In spite of my husband’s gentle and firm reminders that “all was fine so I should stop beating myself up,” it took me over an hour to get myself back into a positive space. It seemed as if I got caught in an undertow of negative self-talk. As soon as I realized I was punishing myself, I got angry at myself for being so mean and then preceded to “yell at myself” for being so judgmental.

When I realized I was caught in a downward spiral, I called a trusted friend and ultimately stopped the criticism, reconnected with compassion and focused on getting the lessons. Whew! It was a painful whirlwind.


It became clear to me just how quickly I was willing to be cruel to myself. I would never, ever say the things I said to myself to anyone else. I'm very conscious about not wanting to hurt anyone…else. I'm also conscious of being kind, patient, honest, respectful and non-judgmental with others, yet I was willing to harshly criticize myself. When we correct or console a child after a mishap or mistake, the concept of “You, I love, this behavior, I dislike.” is a healthy and effective approach, yet when WE make a mistake, we often use a sharp tone and biting words on ourselves. Why is that?

In the wonderful book, "The Four Agreements", Don Miguel Ruiz talks about this critical inner voice as the “Judge.” He talks about how important it is to recognize this inner enemy so we can mobilize against it. He, too, stresses the importance of being aware of this inner Judge so we can begin to dismiss this voice as soon as it begins. He also explains that we will allow others to be just as cruel to us as we are to ourselves. And therefore we will not allow anyone to be crueler to us than we are to ourselves.

Just think about that. It explains so much. It explains the connection between our level of self-esteem and the abuse we will or will not allow. This view explains why some people tolerate so much and others would reject the same behavior without a second thought. Are our present relationships a reflection of how we are relating to ourselves? I think so. Wow! That’s some hearty food for thought.


1. Old Habits. As kids we were taught, by experience, that when we did something wrong, we were punished. There was an automatic connection between a mistake and a penalty. As adults, many of us continue this pattern unconsciously and reprimand ourselves when we make mistakes. Sometimes it’s hard to stop the negative self-talk because, at some level, we feel we deserve to be punished. This is un-helpful for our growth and healing. Becoming aware of this habit can bring about immediate and positive changes.

2. Requirement for forgiveness. Some of us believe that punishment is a precursor to forgiveness. We may believe we have to endure some form of punishment, proportionate to the mistake. We may be reluctant to give up the negative self-talk, since forgiveness and self-forgiveness is important to our peace of mind. Many times we exaggerate the “crime” and grossly underestimated the impact of this harsh tactic.

3. Penalty for not being perfect. Today there is so much pressure on us, in so many areas of our lives, that perfection has become a minimum expectation, not just a goal for which to strive. “I’m only human,” is often offered now as an excuse whenever a mistake is made. That is very sad and a source of tremendous pain and pressure for many of us. I call it the “98 and 2 perfection syndrome.” This is when we get a 98 on a test and then spend our time belittling ourselves for missing the 2 instead of congratulating ourselves for getting 98 correct. It’s about where we place our attention. Perfection is a trap that guarantees our inner Judge a constant source of material since we can always do something better, faster, sooner, cheaper, etc.

4. False Motivation­. Some people believe that a stick is more motivating that a carrot. Both strategies can work. People do change to avoid pain and/or to seek pleasure. Pushing ourselves to action with verbal beatings (a stick) is common because we grew up hearing people use these tactics on others. We watched people bullied into doing things they didn’t want to do and/or be controlled via guilt or other manipulation strategies. We saw that it worked and at some level feel that is what it takes to get ourselves “in gear.”

As we look at the impact of these strategies, we can see how unloving and unkind they actually are for those involved.


1. Pay attention to your self-talk and…”Just say NO” each time that negative voice, that inner Judge, starts in on you, your worth and/or your value. Remember, it takes 21 days to create or replace a habit so be patient and persistent. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about consciously changing this hurtful habit. Talk kindly to yourself. Be supportive when you are having trouble with something or make a mistake. This one idea can make a huge difference in your life.

2. Ask yourself “What would I say to my best friend if she did this or that?” Stopping the negative self-talk long enough to ask your self this question will bring you to a clear-cut choice point. When we imagine how we would help a dear friend; a gentle, loving, compassionate aspect of ourselves comes immediately to the surface. It’s palpable and it’s amazing how much kindness we can muster for others. We can make the decision to direct this flow of love towards ourselves.

3. Ask your best friend “What do you think about what I’ve just done?” Be willing to believe her and to take her advice. It takes strength to ask for help and it will break your inner vicious cycle. P.S. Stay away from friends who like the “poor me” approach to life. It will not help the situation.

4. Recognize WHY you choose negative self-talk so you can create a new response whenever things go wrong or badly. Look at the “pay-offs’” and review the above list to see if you can understand your reasons for speaking so abusively to yourself. With this knowledge you can try new strategies and make the changes that work for you so you can become more supportive of yourself.

5. Give yourself a “daily mistake allowance.” When my Dad was teaching me how to drive a car with a standard transmission, he sat in the front passenger seat and said to me, “Here’s the deal; I’ll teach you how to do this if you agree to let yourself make 25 mistakes before getting angry or frustrated with yourself. This is complicated so give yourself permission to mess up while you are learning. Deal?” I enthusiastically agreed and proceeded to learn how to drive my Hondo Civic long before I reached my 25-mistake limit.

This approach became my own philosophy as I learned and taught others new skills. What I have just recently realized is that I could give myself the same kind of permission/allowance in living daily life. Wow! What a concept! Give ourselves permission to mess up? To be unprepared? To forget stuff? To make mistakes? It was as if a whole new way of being opened up for me. It can open up for you too, if you are willing to recognize that life is not about being perfect. It can be about doing your best and being responsible for your impact.

The next time you find yourself engaged in negative self-talk, stop yourself and make the commitment to change this toxic habit into a nurturing approach to life. Decide that you deserve the healing power of your own love, patience and compassion. Fire your inner negative Judge so you can hire a more positive inner Coach to help you achieve your goals, live your dreams and become the wonderful person you know you can be at your own pace, in your own way.

© 2001 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All Rights Reserved.
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