Your pattern and style of self-talk most likely originate from the way your parents or caregivers spoke to and treated you. If your mother was overly critical, always finding something negative to scold you about—the one “C” on an otherwise stellar report card, for example—your self-talk might be highly critical, too. If your father left you and your family when you were a child, your self-talk might include things like, “People I love will always leave me.” Maybe your parents invalidated your emotions, so now you can’t listen to, or you ignore the messages your emotions send you, and you no longer trust your instincts. Or your parents showered praise on you at every turn, so when you got into the real world, and you discovered you’re not the most beautiful, talented, genius in the world (no one is!), your self-esteem was shattered, and you no longer trust anyone who compliments you.
Quieting negative self-talk won’t happen overnight. There’s no one magic word or phrase you can say to yourself to make you instantly regain your confidence. A single mantra may be helpful sometimes, but when your negative self-talk is debilitating, it isn’t enough. What you need are multiple, positive messages repeatedly said to yourself over time until they become second-nature.
To silence the voice that comes from the bad messages your parents sent you, you have to replace them with the good messages you should have received. For example: “I love you.” “I’ll take care of you.” “I am proud of you.”
To start, write a list of messages you wish you had heard or learned when you were a child. If you need help, you can try this list from Jack Lee Rosenberg, the founder of integrative body psychotherapy:
1. I love you.
2. I want you.
3. You are special to me.
4. I see you, and I hear you.
5. I’ll take care of you.
6. My love will make you well.
7. It is not what you do but who you are that I love.
8. I love you, and I will give you permission to be different from me.
9. I’ll be there for you; I will be there even when you die.
10. You can trust me.
11. You can trust your inner voice.
12. Sometimes I will tell you “no,” and that’s because I love you.
13. I accept and cherish your love.
14. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.
15. You don’t have to be alone anymore.
16. I will set limits, and I am willing to enforce them.
17. If you fall down, I will pick you up.
18. I am proud of you.
19. I have confidence in you. I am sure you will succeed.
20. I give you permission to be the same as I am, to be more or less.
21. You are beautiful/handsome.
22. I give you permission to be a sexual being.
Each week write one message on an index card and tape it to your bathroom mirror. Once in the morning and once in the evening, read the message to your reflection. It’s important to read it as if you’re a parent speaking to the child version of yourself. This is different from the typical mantra. You want to say to yourself, “If you fall down, I will pick you up” rather than “I will pick myself up when I fall down.” The idea is to parent yourself. To treat yourself and speak to yourself like your caregivers should have.
If one message feels especially strange to say, spend some time journaling about why that may be. It’s a strong sign that it’s a message so absent from how you were parented that it feels foreign to say aloud. For example, if sex was something your caregiver never wanted to speak to you about or they made you feel ashamed of your sexual orientation, saying “I give you permission to be a sexual being” might feel like a bizarre message for a parent to send a child. It isn’t! If you get stuck on one, consider spending an extra week on it.
Once you have repeated these messages enough, they should integrate into your regular self-talk, hopefully replacing some of the negative things you say to yourself. This process takes time, and it may feel awkward at first, but I promise it works.