An emotionally abusive inner critic can take a toll on your mental health. When your self-talk is hurtful, here’s how to flip the script.
Most of us recognize when another person is being emotionally abusive: The way they’re speaking is meant to tear down your confidence and self-worth with putdowns and shame.
It can be much harder to recognize this pattern when the bully is your own inner critic.
If you’ve been talking to yourself in a cruel and hurtful way, finding new ways to use self-talk could help you build strength, emotional safety, and self-confidence.
“Self-talk can come from a variety of sources but may start young,” says Sarah Epstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas. This applies to all types of self-talk, including painful and abusive ones.
Many factors can contribute to emotional self-abuse:
- Perfectionism. If you have perfectionistic tendencies, even small failures can feel catastrophic. Since perfectionism leads us to believe we’re letting ourselves down when we make any mistake, it often comes with a harsh inner critic.
- Past relationships. Maybe a relationship with a friend or partner hasn’t been the most balanced — emotional abuse in a relationship can make it easier to accept the same treatment from yourself.
- Your childhood. If influential adults or your parents were emotionally abusive or neglectful, it can be all too easy for their voices to stay alive through your self-talk without your noticing it.
- Mental health conditions. Depression and anxiety can contribute to abusive self-talk for many people, as this research explains.
When mental self-harm turns physical
Sometimes emotional self-abuse comes with physical self-harm. If you or someone you care about is self-harming, you have options for support and care. You can:
Emotional self-harm doesn’t look or sound just one way. Which patterns might you recognize in your own self-talk?
Name-calling is a habit you may have shed when you left elementary school. So why do we talk to ourselves in ways we otherwise recognize as mean-spirited?
Self-esteem can play an important role. If you tend to see yourself as less significant than others, putting yourself down might not feel like as big of a deal compared with the thought of treating another person that way.
- “I’m such a pig. Why can’t I have some self-control?”
- “How could I be so brainless? Everyone must know I’m a fool.”
- “I just ate a lot of comfort food. Could this be connected to how I’ve been feeling lately?”
- “That was embarrassing, but I might be laughing about it by next week.”
Self-doubt can mean second-guessing yourself or worrying that you’re not up to the task at hand.
Research from 2020 highlights how self-doubt is connected to perfectionism and impostor syndrome. In short, people who set impossibly high goals for themselves may be more likely to feel that they’ve failed when their performance doesn’t match up to their standards or goals.
- “If I ask this question, everyone will realize how stupid I am.”
- “I shouldn’t try to help because I’m bound to mess everything up.”
- “I’m feeling confused, but asking this question could help clarify things for others.”
- “It looks like they could use my help. Maybe I should ask what they need most right now.”
Cognitive distortions are maladaptive, or unhelpful, thinking habits. Many cognitive distortions go hand-in-hand with emotional self-harm because they tend to funnel folks into rigid mindsets that don’t allow room for nuance or complexity.
Common cognitive distortions that may lead to abusive self-talk include:
- Filtering: focusing only on the negatives in a situation while ignoring the positive aspects
- “Shoulds”: fixating on how you “should” be, and feeling continually disappointed when you don’t measure up
- Global labeling: judging yourself across the board based on one event
- Control fallacy: placing blame on yourself in situations outside your control
- “No one’s ever going to take me seriously again after this.”
- “It’s my fault my family missed this opportunity. I’m worthless to my kids.”
- “If I hadn’t been involved in that project, everyone would be better off.”
- “Oops — well, everyone makes mistakes. What can I learn from this one?”
- “What’s important is that I keep showing up for my family, even if I don’t always get everything right.”
- “I’m responsible for my part of this project, but other factors I couldn’t control contributed to the outcome, too.”
It isn’t always easy to recognize when your self-talk becomes cruel. A couple of clues self-cruelty is at play include making threats to yourself or telling yourself you deserve a bad outcome or future.
- “I’m disgusting. I deserve to be alone forever.”
- “I may as well quit — if I can’t even do this, I don’t deserve anything good.”
- “I can’t get through a simple conversation without being weird. I wish I’d just fall off the face of the Earth!”
- “I don’t feel my best. What could help me feel better in my skin right now?”
- “This assignment is frustrating. Maybe I should tell my boss it’s more complicated and see if we can troubleshoot it.”
- “It’s not always easy to put myself out there, but I keep making the effort and that takes courage.”
When it comes to changing this habit, Epstein emphasizes the importance of asking yourself where the hurtful self-talk is coming from, since learning the origin of these words could help you disconnect from them.
You might ask yourself: “Whose voice am I hearing when I put myself down?”
“Like anything else, kinder speech and rooting out abusive self-talk requires time and continuous effort,” says Epstein.