The Toxic Consequences Of Negative Self-Talk (And How To Stop It)

Words by Rachel Silvestri

13 min read

We’ve all heard that critical little voice from inside — but what happens when we let it out? MOJEH investigates the damage that negative self-talk can do not just to ourselves but also those around us, and the steps we can take to break this hurtful cycle

Too fat, too thin, disorganised, hair’s a mess, skin’s breaking out, career’s at a standstill, not earning enough, behind at work, letting my kids down, unattractive to my partner, bad friend… When’s the last time you berated yourself with one of these criticisms?

Only the supremely self-loving among us could truthfully say they haven’t had one of these intrusive thoughts recently — and it’s perfectly normal that you have. But once these thoughts become obsessions, affecting our lives and frequently spilling over into conversations with those around us, that’s when they become a problem.“Negative self-talk is the tendency of a person to address themselves, in their inner talk, in a judgmental, critical or condescending way,” says Dr Vassiliki Simoglou, a CDA-licensed psychologist at Dubai’s Thrive Wellbeing Centre. “It becomes abnormal when it is too frequent, for instance when it overtakes the way a person sees themselves, when it’s exclusive, not counter-balanced by healthier ways of thinking about oneself, and when it begins affecting the individual’s day-to-day functioning, in their work and their relationships.” It’s that final point that’s perhaps the most disturbing aspect of such pronounced internal negativity. We are all aware of how beating ourselves up with unnecessary criticism can hold us back, but what happens to the people we care about when it gets out of control?

“When it escapes the inner talk sphere, and becomes the way a person outwardly speaks about themselves to other people, then negative self-talk is even more alarming,” says Dr Vassiliki. “It can draw attention to normal flaws or shortcomings that might have not been perceived otherwise, introducing a negative bias into how others see us. Children are particularly sensitive to these cues, and by a process called identification, naturally pickup on the comments their parents verbalise against themselves and internalise them, which can result in them becoming their own way of self-talking.”

While vocalising this negativity can have harmful repercussions in the workplace and in relationships, it’s in the process of child-rearing where its full and most damaging effects become apparent. “When examining family relationships, particularly between parents and children, it becomes evident that self-criticism within parents can lead to a cycle of criticism within the family dynamic,” says Nir Levi, an instructor and therapist specialised in Anma, Ampuku and Body Reading, which address the emotional aspect of wellbeing, who practices at Seva Experience, Dubai. “When parents engage in self-criticism, their self-image and sense of personal power and wellbeing are likely to be compromised. The same applies to any other individuals we share our lives with, such as our partners or even our own parents.”

But it isn’t just the habit of criticising those around us that can be damaging to the family unit — if even the most supportive of parents make harsh comments about themselves, all their best nurturing efforts may be compromised. “If you grew up around people who were caring and compassionate to you, but hypercritical about themselves, their negative self-talk and self-critical attitudes may have rubbed off on you,” says Dr Linda Sakr, psychologist and founder of The Keyani Wellness Centre in Dubai. “For example, many people who saw their caregivers panic about ageing or putting on weight may notice their inner critic attacking them about the same things, if and when they start to age or put on weight too. Or even before that. The possible repercussions in children include triggering eating disorders heading to adolescence.”

A sobering thought. But the power of words is sometimes unpredictable, and even the most well-meaning of comments can come at a cost to those prone to self-criticism.“It’s common for people to try and motivate children with statements such as work harder, you’re only going to let yourself down, don’t slack, don’t do that, just focus, and so on” says Dr Linda. “These words are meant for our common good, but can, for some of us, end up becoming part of our negative self-talk: stop slacking —what is wrong with you? Likewise, children commonly experience peer pressure growing up: don’t be a sissy, scaredy cat, I’ll like you more if you do that one thing for me. It leads many of us to have inner critics that shame us any time we want to resist other people’s suggested activities, worrying others won’t like us if we don’t comply.”

Similarly, letting the inner voice out in the workplace can affect our image among colleagues, as well as interfering with career progression, with negative words setting us back more than we may be aware of. “These behaviours can make us reject or not fight for a promotion, lead a person to procrastinate and have doubts about their deliverables, and of course it can foster a toxic, competitive work culture where individuals don’t feel empowered and aren’t empowering each other,” says Dr Vassiliki. “The first and most important step is to acknowledge negative self-talk and catch ourselves doing it. Then we can attempt to halt, pause, reflect and reverse engineer it, by asking ourselves: What proof do I have to believe in this? What would my best friend think about this? Are there any occasions when I have behaved in a way contrary to these thoughts?”

Indeed, a hefty dose of reality can be helpful in stopping the spiral of self-loathing, which can often reach extremes if left unchallenged. But Nir takes things further, prescribing this problem’s polar opposite — self-love. “I do agree with the saying that our minds are like parachutes, they only function when they are open’,” says Dr Linda.“However, the exceptions would be when there is a deep-rooted trauma that would need to be addressed as part of the healing process. Professionally, I ask my clients to consider their words. I tell them that they need to be the observer if they want the negative feedback loop to end. Becoming aware of the way you use language is an important step in becoming deliberate with not only your words, but with what you are creating in your life.”

The experts agree that first acknowledging there is a problem and taking action to address it is often the most important step toward resolving issues of negative self-talk. But that’s not to say that the journey is always straightforward… “This is often a challenging issue to treat because it is crystallised, taking place for a long period of time before a person decides to address it in therapy, which in turn makes it difficult to uproot,” says Dr Vassiliki. “It is also challenging because it has deeper, unconscious causes that need deeper psychotherapeutic work in order to be identified.” However, with an open mind and the correct support, progress can undoubtedly be made. After all, turning a negative to a positive is the route to a happier and more fulfilled life — both for ourselves and those around us.

Leave It To The Professionals

Want to break the negativity chain? Head to these therapeutic safe havens for a fast-track out of criticism city.

Lighthouse Arabia

With an international team of over 30 psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational and speech and language therapists working together to provide integrated care, whatever’s on your mind —they’ll figure it out. Book now

Seva Experience

Through the Nir Levi Method, which combines the ancient Chinese healing arts of Anma, the manual therapy of Ampuku, the holistic principles of Taoism and the interdependent forces of yin and yang, release your physical and emotional energy blockages and allow your body and mind to heal themselves. Book now

Thrive Wellbeing Centre

Here’s where highly qualified and compassionate psychologists help explore the underlying causes of your mental strife, turning those niggling criticisms around so you can head for a brighter tomorrow. Book now

The Keyani Wellness Centre

Dr Linda Sakr uses a mix of cognitive behavioural therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy to tackle the causes and symptoms of negative self-talk at her self-founded treatment centre — a haven of care and understanding. Book now

Samadhi Wellness

Find yourself again at this newly-opened wellness hub, where you’re invited to relax, replenish and rediscover the real you through yoga, sauna, ice baths and self-care treatments. Book now

Another Mars

A true fusion of healing and wellness, Another Mars will indeed transport you to a different planet with soothing combos of spa and massage treatments, meditation groups and sound healing therapies. Let the recuperation begin. Book now

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