How to Stop (or Reduce) Negative Self-Talk

We are not our thoughts

If you are like any other human being on the planet, chances are that from time to time you get overwhelmed by emotion and attacked by your own thoughts. This happens more frequently for some than others, but nevertheless, these moments of war within our minds can leave us feeling totally beaten down. Most of us would never dream of saying such hurtful things to other people, so why is it that we subject ourselves to so much anguish? It can sometimes feel as though we are being terrorized by our own inner monsters and often have no clue how it appeared or when the next episode will happen again. But with a little bit of patience and awareness, we can learn to change this pattern of self-deprecation that began long, long ago. 

We are not our thoughts

It is important to remember that we are separate from the process of mind. The lungs breathe, the heart beats, the mind thinks. They are simply bodily functions. Just like we are separate from the circulation of our blood, so too are we detached from the turnings of the mind. When we can look at the mind and emotions from an objective perspective, it allows us to understand why these kinds of thoughts and feelings surface, and how to gain a better sense of control over ourselves when they arise. We can catch the process happening early, so that it creates less devastation in the other areas of our lives.

Since we are all unique individuals, our automatic emotional response will also be unique. Some of us might have a tendency towards fear and worry; others anger and frustration; or perhaps depression and sadness. According to Ayurvedic philosophy, this has much to do with our own ‘constitution’ and observing the kind of emotional response can also help us to see where we need to restore balance.

A very (very) brief explanation of how we can use the principles of Ayurveda to gain mastery over our minds:

Ayurveda is a complete life science and is based on creating an equilibrium between the 5 elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. Every being on our planet has a unique balance of the 5 elements which are broken down into three categories known as “doshas” (roughly translated to mean ‘that which comes out of balance”).

The three doshas are:

  • VATA: combination of air and space (that which moves)
  • PITTA: combination of fire and water (that which shines)
  • KAPHA: combination of earth and water (that which sticks)

All of us have all three doshas within, but in varying amounts. This is called our constitution. Some of us are ‘monodoshic’ which means one dosha is dominant over the others; some of us are ‘bidoshic’ which means that two doshas have equal prevalence in our makeup, and the last is ‘tridoshic’ which means that all three categories exist in equal amounts. Our constitution is decided at the moment of conception, and throughout our lives we are intuitively (and often unconsciously) seeking to maintain this unique constitution. Paying attention to our emotions can be a signal to let us know when our internal balance has become disturbed. If you are a person dominated by Vata (wind) you might notice that you most easily fall into worry and anxiety. If you are a person dominated by Pitta (fire) you might be plagued by episodes of anger and frustration. And if you are dominated by Kapha (mud) depression and sadness might be the emotions that often come knocking.

So when we feel a rush of anxiety/worry/over thinking, we know there is too much wind energy, and we need to cultivate more earth energy. This can be achieved by connecting with the earth, perhaps with gardening, or taking our shoes off and feeling the soles of our feet in the grass. Taking time away from screens, travel and movements and instead concentrating on cultivating stillness.

When we feel a rush of anger and frustration, this is letting us know there is too much fire within. We need to ‘cool down’. When we are caught in a storm of anger, a common way to soothe the emotion is with drugs or alcohol, but this only creates a bigger fire. Better to remove ourselves and take some time to release the energy in a constructive way. Physical activity is a great way to decrease the fire, even better if it is amongst the natural elements. In an anger attack you might also find it soothing to take a bath or go for a swim. Most important is to avoid confrontation, you might find in these times it is best to be alone.

And when we feel the sadness or depression monster coming, this is letting us know there is too much cold and damp energy within. We need to stoke our fire. In this case, it is very helpful to surround ourselves with other people, to get outside and move our bodies and shift the energy within. Sing, dance, paint and play to connect with a source of creativity and joy.

Knowing the Signals of our minds:

Another way to move through periods of mental anguish is to understand the directions that the mind tends to move. Again, this can help us gain an objective perspective over our minds and emotions. When we develop a regular practice of controlling/stilling the mind, we become more skilled at observing the changes in the mental patterns. If we can catch ourselves in the early stages of a mind attack, we might notice: “I’m in a bad mood” Observing the changes helps us to stay objective and stop the cycle of negative thinking before it takes over.

According to Buddhist philosophy, there are 5 directions of mind energy called the Five Hindrances:

  • Sensory Desire (I like this; I want more of this; I want…)
  • Ill-Will (Negative Self-talk; negative thoughts about others; “I don’t like this!”; “I don’t want this!”)
  • Sloth/Torpor (laziness; stagnation; boredom)
  • Restlessness/Worry (thinking about or planning for the future; imaginations)
  • Doubt (self-doubt; doubt about your path or purpose)

When you notice yourself in a funk, try to recognize what direction the mind has travelled. Recognizing the mind is captured by one of the hindrances helps us to create space. In those moments we can separate ourselves from the thought and observe it as a process. But alas, we are still human… and inevitably we will find ourselves being taken over by our minds from time to time. Still, with a little bit of awareness, the grip of the anguish will be less severe.

When you find yourself in a place of mental unrest, here are a few steps to follow to break the cycle:

Step One: Recognize it happening in the moment:

“The depression Monster has attacked”
Become aware of the kinds of thoughts you are having/the things you are telling yourself.

Recognize what triggered you to have these thoughts.
“Most of us have no problem pretending that everything is fine until we’re alone and start going in circles, criticizing ourselves”

Step Two: Acknowledge that this is a mind attack:

Separate the feeling from yourself.
Give the feeling a name or a persona (I have named mine the disciplinary head-mistress).
Try to understand where these messages are coming from; recognize the hundreds of inputs we have received throughout our lives to crystallize this negative belief of ourselves

Step Three: Pay attention to the FEELINGS…

Where do you feel the feeling physically?
What is the quality of the feeling? (sharp, dull, stabbing, tingling, pulling, squeezing?)
Investigate the physical sensations that the mind produces, without getting wrapped up in the story behind it.

Step Four: challenge your thoughts

“Are these thoughts I am thinking really true?”
The book “Loving what is” by Byron Katie is an excellent resource to explore.
Apply Yoga Philosophy in order to investigate objectively…

Using the Yamas to investigate our dramas

In the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, a set of moral codes of conduct are listed. These are guidelines that can help us to know ourselves, and how to live more peacefully.

The Yamas are:

  • Ahimsa: Compassion, Kindness, Non-violence
  • Satya: Truth, honesty, Authenticity
  • Asteya: Non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya: No sexual misconduct
  • Aparigraha: Non-attachment

We can ask ourselves the following set of questions as an exercise of self development and transformation:

Did I cause someone physical or emotional harm from my words or actions?
Yes: apologize; admit your mistake; assume responsibility.
No: move to the next yama.

Did I tell a lie?
Did I omit the truth?
Did I let my own boundaries fall?
Yes: come clean; speak your truth (with Ahimsa)
No: move to the next yama.

Did I take something without it being given to me?
Did I tell a secret that was not mine to share?
Did I invade someone’s privacy or boundaries?
Yes: Apologize, come clean if necessary and take responsibility.
No: Move to the next yama.

Was someone hurt or annoyed by my sexual advances or activity?
Yes: Apologize, take responsibility.
No: move to the next yama.

Am I holding on to trying to be in control?
Am I upset because things didn’t go the way I wanted or planned?
Am I upset because I did not receive positive reinforcement or the payment I expected?
Yes: recognize this desire to control; remember that the ONLY THING we can ever control is our actions and reactions.
No: then time to let it go (with the practices of yoga)

Was it alcohol/drug related?
In Buddhist philosophy, the same moral guidelines are presented with one small difference: the last principle is not to engage in drugs or alcohol to the point of losing awareness. In our modern terms: try not to get wasted. When we lose our minds through drugs or drinks, our moral boundaries become very unclear which can wreak havoc on so many areas of our lives. If our mental storm is due to behaviour when we were intoxicated, revisit the yamas and see where you can make amends.

Sometimes we do things without thinking. Recognize. Apologize. Take responsibility. Learn the Lesson.

Step Five: Regain control over our minds

Use physical activity (yoga asana)
Reach out to friends
Get outside, put your hands in the dirt
Practice Mantra or Chanting

According to world renowned Ayurveda expert Dr. David Frawley, mantra is one of the most important Ayurvedic treatment methods, particularly for the mind and the emotions. One of the most cherished and well known mantra is the Gayatri mantra, and  practicing it has an immediate soothing effect on the body and the mind:

    oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ

    tat savitur vareṇyaṃ

    bhargo devasya dhīmahi

    dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt

“We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may it enlighten our minds.”