Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t struggled with their self-esteem at some point in their life. As the saying goes, we’re often our own worst critics. This can show up not just in our careers, but in every area of our lives.
As a mental health blogger, I hear from readers from all walks of life — including those who most of us would consider incredibly successful — struggling to combat the negative self-talk that holds them back.
We are not our thoughts — we’re just the person listening to them.
The negative voice that nags us can really take a toll when it goes unchecked, and yet few of us know how to push back. If the radio in your mind always seems to be playing the “I’m the worst” song on repeat, here are some tips for changing the station.
A friend of mine shared with me that, in an effort to challenge how their depression skewed their thinking, they gave that negative voice in their head a name: Brian.
Why Brian? Well, they told me, it’s an anagram of the word “brain.” Clever, yes, but also an important reminder that we are not our thoughts — we’re just the person listening to them.
So, whatever you name that critical voice, be sure it prevents you from identifying with your thoughts or placing too much weight on them. Think of yourself as the filter, deciding which thoughts to hold on to and which ones to let go.
It’s so important to separate yourself from negative, self-defeating thoughts.
You can’t choose your thoughts, but you can work towards creating a healthy distance between your thoughts and yourself. When you hear a self-critical statement pop up in your brain — that you’re not good enough, smart enough, or worthy — acknowledge it.
“Thanks for your input, Brian,” you might respond.
And then affirm that it’s not necessarily the truth by asking questions and flipping them around:
- Does that mistake actually make you a failure, or does it make you imperfect, just like everybody else?
- Was the outburst from your boss really about your inadequacy, or was it about her bad day?
- Did your friend not text you back because he doesn’t like you, or could it just be that he’s busy?
- There’s always another perspective if you slow down enough to find it.
Thoughts are just thoughts, but it’s easy to forget that when we simply accept them without question.
Confession: After experiencing a lot of trauma in my life, my sense of self-worth plummeted. I looked at what had happened to me, and let that pain write a story about who I was — someone who wasn’t worthy of care, safety, or agency.
At a friend’s urging, I decided to try out meditation as a way of coping with trauma. While I was skeptical at first, I was shocked by how much it helped me. Using the app Simple Habit, I worked through Catherine Cook-Cottone’s “Heal From Trauma” series, and I found affirmations I hadn’t even realized I needed.
For example, Cook-Cottone talks about moving through recovery “at the speed of trust.” As someone who has always been impatient with myself, wondering why I couldn’t just “get over” my past trauma, this framework allowed me to be gentler with myself. Recovery requires trust, and trauma is often caused by a violation of trust.
Once I became more aware of the negative ideas about myself that I learned from my traumatic experiences, it allowed me to rewrite the negative mental script that my brain likes to repeat.
I shouldn’t be so surprised, though — after all, there are countless benefits to having a meditation practice, both for emotional health as well as physical. And with so many apps to choose from, it’s easier than ever to get started.
Often, when I’m beating myself up over something, I try to ask myself, “What would I say to a friend if they were going through this?”
If we’re able to take a step back and practice a little self-compassion, it can help keep things in perspective. Can you picture someone that you love and put them in your shoes? What would you say or do to support them?
This doesn’t come naturally for everyone, though. I love using the app Wysa when I’m struggling with this. It’s an interactive chat bot, sort of like a life coach in your pocket, developed by a team of psychologists and designers. It uses artificial intelligence to help you challenge self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, using different behavioral therapy and self-care techniques.
For example, Wysa helps you learn to identify something called cognitive distortions, which are the lies our brain frequently tells us.
Maybe you’re jumping to conclusions, assigning the blame to yourself where it’s not appropriate, or overgeneralizing. Wysa can talk you through identifying patterns like these, seeing where it isn’t helpful or accurate, and finding new ways of thinking about an issue or event.
If you need a little help keeping things in perspective, a chatbot like Wysa can be a great resource.
Journaling can be great for getting stuff off your chest. In addition to being cathartic, journaling is also a terrific way to become more self-aware. Often, we aren’t challenging our negative thoughts because we aren’t always aware when they’re happening — but writing regularly can help a lot with that.
One exercise that’s helped me a lot is to create a simple two-column journal. In the first column, I keep notes on any criticisms I have of myself throughout the day.
When I get a minute, I take a look at the thoughts I’ve racked up in that column, and in the second column, I rewrite them — this time, I look for a more empowering or positive way to reframe what I wrote.
For example, if I wrote “I made a stupid mistake at my job” in the left column, I might rewrite that as, “I learned a better way to do something in my job, so now I can improve.”
If I wrote “I hate how gross my skin looks,” I might rewrite that as, “I didn’t like how my skin looked today, but my outfit was amazing.”
It might sound cheesy, but self-esteem takes rehearsing and it takes practice. Finding a private space like a journal to try on a new attitude can help us learn to shift our perspective.
It’s important to know that if your negative thoughts are persistent — impacting your quality of life and functioning — it could be a sign of something more serious.
If you find these thoughts accompanying issues like depression, anxiety, low motivation, fatigue, hopelessness, and more, it’s always best to consult a therapist or psychologist to make sure you’re getting the best possible support.
When it comes to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, it’s not as simple as thinking positive thoughts and keeping a journal. Having a sounding board from an unbiased outsider’s perspective can sometimes totally shift the way you think. If you’re not sure if you can afford therapy, this resource can help you decide on the best option for you.
We can all feel a little silly when we try something new, especially if it doesn’t come naturally. But that doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way forever. When it comes to self-esteem, remember that it takes time to build yourself up. But with a little practice, I hope you’ll find that your mental health and wellness is always worth the effort.
Sam Dylan Finch is a leading advocate in LGBTQ+ mental health, having gained international recognition for his blog, Let’s Queer Things Up!, which first went viral in 2014. As a journalist and media strategist, Sam has published extensively on topics like mental health, transgender identity, disability, politics and law, and much more. Bringing his combined expertise in public health and digital media, Sam currently works as social editor at Healthline.