Four Steps To Stop Negative Thoughts And Unproductive Self-Talk

The Inner Critic: How Negative Self-Talk Leads to Unproductive Thoughts

One of the most destructive effects of a distorted perspective is that we beat ourselves up for falling short of the unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves. We start to repeat a story to ourselves in judgmental ways. In fact, we’re often much more critical of ourselves than we would ever be of another person (likewise, we can be the harshest critics of our own kids!). 

This criticism takes the form of an ‘inner critic’ or ‘self-talk.’

You may or may not be aware of this inner voice giving a running commentary on your life. We call this internal chatter “self-talk” because effectively that’s what we’re doing—talking to ourselves (often unconsciously). 

Self-talk combines conscious thoughts with unconscious beliefs and biases. This internal voice can be supportive, or it can be negative and self-defeating. In the latter case, we call it “negative self-talk.”

Psychology Today points out that “[t]his voice is useful when it is positive, talking down fears and bolstering confidence,” but that humans are “prone to negative self-talk … and to sweeping assertions like ‘I can’t do anything right’ or ‘I’m a complete failure.’”

The thing about negative self-talk is that it’s almost never an accurate reflection of reality. It’s a “cognitive distortion.” Essentially, a trick of the mind. It’s an exaggerated or irrational thought. 

But the trouble is that we believe it. Deeply and unquestioningly. So this kind of thinking tends to become a pattern.

The Importance of Connecting to Our Values

Negative self-talk and cognitive distortions are based on our assumptions and beliefs, which are not necessarily the same as our values. This is why it’s important to clearly and explicitly define our values. 

With a clear understanding of our own values, we can root our feelings about ourselves in what truly matters to us rather than getting carried away by cognitive distortions. We need to connect with our real values and use them to challenge our assumptions. Then we can shape our sense of self in constructive ways.

Parenting isn’t just about our kids. It’s also about understanding ourselves. There is an interplay between our feelings and our ability to respond productively. So our feelings play out in our parenting. That’s why identifying values is at the foundation of my I CAN System. 

Clear family values give parents a guidance system for how to respond to kids, and for how to respond to your own thoughts.

The Connection Pyramid

Developing a strong connection with your children depends on building a strong foundation. So you need to consider your own belief system and ensure that you’re able to respond constructively to your own thoughts and feelings. 

Most parents have only a vague sense of their values. They’ve never really tried to define them. 

But when values are clear, parents feel grounded; they know where they stand and where they’re headed. Clear family values give parents a guidance system.

The I CAN System focuses heavily on values because they are foundational. Understanding your values helps build the foundation for the Connection Pyramid above, and gives you a foundation to begin reframing cognitive distortions.

This Pyramid represents the building blocks of connection.

Productive Self-Talk Leads To Emotional Maturity

Our thoughts affect our behavior and influence our responses to our children’s behaviors. So it’s important that we learn to respond to our own feelings with emotional maturity.

What do I mean by “emotional maturity”?

As parents, we need to learn to identify our thoughts. If we can understand our specific thought patterns and their triggers, it will help us discover what’s really governing the ways we respond to our kids. Then we can begin to reshape both our thoughts and our responses. 

When we learn to recognize our own thoughts and feelings, and to respond to them constructively, that’s emotional maturity. We need emotional maturity to lay the foundation for a strong connection.

But it’s easier said than done! 

Often when I first discuss this with parents they are unaware of their own self-talk. I ask parents what they say to themselves when their kids exhibit problem behaviors. Their feeling, initially, is that “I don’t ‘say’ anything to myself.” 

But once parents dive in, they discover that they can start to identify the emotions they feel in specific situations, such as a difficult routine. Before long parents begin to realize that there is, in fact, some very specific self-talk that goes along with those feelings. 

Some examples of negative self-talk that parents may think:

  • This is all my fault, I should know how to handle this
  • I have no control over the situation
  • Others think I’m not a good parent
  • Others think my child is bad
  • My kids cannot control their behavior because they have a disability
  • I’m doomed to fail, this will never get better
  • My child purposely pushes my buttons
  • It’s my spouse’s, teacher, babysitter’s fault

This process can be uncomfortable. Digging into our own negative self-talk can reveal deep vulnerabilities and force us to face our own buried insecurities. But in order to understand ourselves, we need to be emotionally mature and look at our self-talk. Doing this helps us figure out how our thoughts are affecting our behavior with our children. 

How to Stop Negative Self-Talk

The first step in addressing negative self-talk is having awareness. 

To help parents through this, I generally ask parents to think of one specific positive interaction with their child. One where the kids cooperated with no opposition, a positive situation. Then I ask them to think of difficult situation where they encountered resistance and describe “why” you felt those emotions.

For instance, a parent may describe a positive situation like this:

“My son woke up out of bed calmly and I took a deep breath and felt relieved because this never happens. I thought to myself, ‘Oh good, now I can focus on getting the other kids ready.’ My response was ‘well, I didn’t do anything. He should be doing it anyway. What am I suppose to do.’” 

During a difficult situation, it may sound like this: 

“My son refused to get out of bed and started to yell at me, ‘leave me alone!’ My shoulders immediately tensed up as I thought to myself, ‘Why is this a battle every morning, where did I go wrong, I have no control.’ My response was that I walked away and tried again 10 minutes later.”  

When you find yourself becoming angry or frustrated, guilty or helpless—PAUSE, take a moment to reflect on what SPECIFIC thoughts you are having in the moment. If you have trouble identifying negative self-talk and unproductive thoughts, here are some strategies that I use in my course that may help you become more aware. These strategies are taken directly from the I CAN Journal that we use throughout the online parenting course on how to become a behavior detective.

Four steps to overcome negative self-talk using the I CAN System journal:

Pay attention to what you are feeling and exactly what that voice is saying to you. What words and phrases do you hear? Becoming aware of the critical voice is the first step in confronting it.

  • Think of a specific situation you experienced. Be as concrete and detailed as possible.
  • What physical sensations do you notice? Are your shoulders tense? Are your legs wobbly? Are you sweating, or do you have a tight grip?What emotions do you experience? Anger? Shame?
  • What is the self-talk: what is the specific phrase you are ‘hearing’ in your head? (e.g. “I’m never good enough,” “I can’t get this right” etc.)
  • Finally, how did your thoughts affect your behavior? What was your response: did you become snappy? Did you retreat? Did you plead?

Sometimes we need a trigger to shake us out of autopilot. The Alert System will help you snap out of unproductive thought patterns.

  • Focus on some of the things you noticed in step one, above. We can turn those to our advantage by using them as alerts—we’ll use them to wake us up and help us recognize when unproductive thoughts sneak into our conscious mind.When I think of an unproductive thought, I start to feel fatigue and a heaviness in my shoulders. That’s a sign! That prompts me to ask, “what am I saying to myself?” Use anything that works for you. Some parents like to use a physical reminder like a bracelet, a picture on the wall, or journaling.
  • Another great way to notice these thoughts is by practicing mindfulness. The key here is to find something that alerts you to the fact that you’re having unproductive thoughts and enables you to pause before reacting emotionally. This gives you time to disrupt the unproductive thought pattern.

Are my thoughts really true?  What evidence is there to support this thought?  What evidence is there to contradict it? Is this thought helpful to me and my child?

In other words, replace the inner critic with an ally.

  • Challenge the assumptions of your inner critic. Understand that your negative self-talk is just a thought.
  • Reframe your thoughts in a positive manner. Replace the negative statements with something positive that you know is true. This will help train your mind to recognize the positive things that get filtered out by negative self-talk. You are what you think.

With a bit of practice, you can learn to notice your negative self-talk as it happens. This allows you to CHOOSE to reframe your thoughts in more realistic and helpful ways. 

If you have a hard time reframing your thoughts, it can be helpful to create some distance between yourself and your inner critic. Try “naming” your negative inner voice. For example, calling them your “gremlins” or your “evil twin”.

In your self-talk, try addressing yourself in the third person. Using your name instead of “I” can create some psychological distance from your immediate emotions, giving you a more realistic perspective. 

I like to say the negative thought in different funny voices to add some comic relief.

Whatever you do, make it yours and be creative. You can find these steps as guided prompts in the I CAN Journal. The journal is included as part of the I CAN System course.

Building a Connection with Emotional Maturity!

We tend to think about parenting issues in terms of our kid’s behavior. But our parenting is much more a product of our own thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Reflecting on and understanding our own feelings has a surprisingly direct impact on our parenting. This is how we create a connection with Emotional Maturity.

It’s important to be aware of our thoughts about ourselves and the world around us. Because we all see the world differently. Most of us have an unrealistic image of parenting based on social media comparisons or unexamined beliefs and assumptions. But, don’t worry, that’s totally normal. 

These distortions can often manifest as our own inner voice and take us on a wild ride. We become entrenched in habitual responses triggered by emotional reactions. It’s easy to switch into auto-pilot and let these habitual responses take over unless we intentionally focus on our thoughts and feelings.

So, what’s important here is to become aware of the ways that these cognitive distortions shape the way we act in our role as parents. I’ll help you get a handle on this in the I CAN System course. We’ll also talk about how this emotional maturity fits into the bigger parenting picture with my Connection Pyramid. 

Once we understand what’s buried beneath our thought patterns we can learn to control and reshape our thoughts and actions!

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