• Negative self-talk can be found at the root of many mental health difficulties

  • Challenging unhelpful thoughts can be an act of self-care – here's a practical exercise to try 

  • If you are struggling with your mental health, find a therapist 

Be careful how you talk to yourself because you are listening. —Lisa M. Hayes

Imagine you’re given a parrot. This parrot is just a parrot – it doesn’t have any special knowledge, wisdom or insight. It recites things ‘parrot fashion’ without any understanding of what it’s saying. It’s just a parrot.

However, this particular parrot has been trained to be unhelpful to you – continuously commenting on you and your life, putting you down, doubting your decisions, criticising, berating and blaming you and other people.

For example, one day you get stuck in a traffic jam or the train or bus is delayed and you’re late. The parrot sits there saying, ‘You should’ve left home earlier! What’s the matter with you? You can’t do anything right. It’s not a good start to the day…squawk, squawk, squawk.’

Another time, a friend has said they’ll text you this week to arrange to meet up at the weekend. It’s Saturday morning and you haven’t heard from them. The parrot tells you, ‘You can’t rely on your friends. They can’t be bothered with you.’ Of course, you know there’s no point arguing with the parrot – he’s just reciting his lines.

But when it comes to your negative self-talk, you can challenge what you say to yourself – you can question how reasonable, logical and helpful your thoughts really are. 

Tell the negative committee that meets inside your head to sit down and shut up. —Ann Bradford

In practice

In any one situation, ask yourself, ‘Are these thoughts helping me?’ Ask yourself, ‘Is what I’m thinking helping the situation?’ Think whether your thoughts make you feel good or bad and do or don’t get you what you want.

Try to remember a difficult, stressful event or situation you experienced recently. Maybe you lost something? Did someone criticise you or let you down? Perhaps you had a long travel delay? Maybe an event got cancelled, or you had a frustrating phone call with someone at a call centre – an insurance company, TV and broadband, gas or electricity provider. Whatever your thoughts were, did they in any way help and make the situation easier?

Now think of an upcoming event you’re not looking forward to – some work or a household chore you have to do, somewhere you’ve got to go, someone you have to meet and talk to. Whatever it is, what are your thoughts about it? Are they helpful? Are your thoughts helping you to feel better about the situation?

Think of something you would like to do in future – travel somewhere, take up a new interest or hobby, change your career direction, leave a job or relationship – but haven’t done yet. Is the way you’re thinking about it helpful? Are your thoughts giving you hope and motivating you to get going?

Know that when you ask yourself ‘Is this thought helpful?’, you’re not disputing the accuracy of your thoughts; you’re not arguing with yourself as to whether or not the person at the end of the phone was or wasn’t being rude or that the reason you haven’t left your job is because you think no one else will want to employ you.

Regardless of their accuracy, these thoughts probably aren’t helping you; they’re not making you feel good and they’re not making your life easy.

This is an extract from Positive Thinking Pocketbook: Little Exercises for a Happy and Successful Life, by Gill Hasson (published by Capstone, 2019)