Below is a transcript of a live webinar that was held on April 28, 2020. It has been lightly edited for clarity, and omits the question and answer portion of the webinar. You can watch a short clip of the webinar above. To get the full version, you can either watch it here, or listen to it on the podcast.
I decided to host this webinar because I found that even when I gave people lots of great free resources to — in the forms of guides and interviews, even who had gone through our online program, the Spark Health Program — if they were beating themselves up about not making the changes that they wanted to make, it was having an impact on not only their mental and emotional health, but also their ability to actually make any of the changes outlined in the guides and interviews. To get in on the next Spark Health Program, sign up here:
My mission is your health empowerment. If you are constantly beating yourself up to the point where you can’t make any positive changes as far as health or whatever they might be because of what’s going on in your health — that’s the definition of health disempowerment.
So today I want to talk about what’s really effective for getting yourself out of a negative self-talk loop or self-judgment loop, and into an empowered way of making healthier lifestyle choices. The very same lifestyle choices that we know have a profound impact on whether or not you have chronic health issues now or in the future, or whether any small symptoms can be reversed.
Where Does All This Shame and Negative Self-Talk Come From?
Let’s start with the problem. Negative self-talk, self-judgment, criticism, bullying, shame spiraling, I’m sure all of you have experienced this at some point. I sure have and I should also add that this topic came about because I was experiencing some of this myself.
Being in the wellness community, there are a million things I want to do every day for my health that I’ve seen to be very important from research. And when I wasn’t doing them as much as I wanted to, I was really beating myself up.
And then I thought, “I know this isn’t productive and I know that there’s a better way. I need to look into what that is.”
You may say things to yourself like, “You’re lazy. You’re unmotivated. You’re never going to do ‘blank.’ Why can’t you do this for yourself?
I think these issues and the level of this negative self-talk is louder and the whole problem is worse during the Covid-19 quarantine. Most of us have more control over how we are spending our time, and so we are putting even more pressure on ourselves to do all the things, and we’re meaner to ourselves when we fail to do them.
Where does self-bullying really come from? The issue is self-bullying arises from lack of compassion and kindness to yourself. And where does that come from? It comes from painful childhood experiences.
As I’m sure you’ve heard, a lot of what happens to us in our adult years is because of things that happened to us in our childhood, which we couldn’t really process at the time because we were too young to do so. These painful childhood experiences have left us with emotional scars, and because children are more vulnerable to negativity and harsh criticism from parents and teachers and peers, that can easily shatter their confidence, making them feel insecure or inadequate.
The desire to avoid others’ criticism in the future prods us to set rules or standards for ourselves, and conditions us to think that we need to follow those rules perfectly and be better than others in order to be loved and appreciated.
And why do we have so much negative self-talk?
Apparently, we have about 80,000 thoughts a day, 90% of which we’ve had before, and according to Bruce Lipton, a biologist and pioneer in the field of epigenetics, 70% to 80% of our subconscious programming is negative and disempowering.
That means we have around 56,000 negative thoughts a day.
Why so negative? Our brains have evolved to make decisions and respond quickly to negative thoughts and feelings because they are a threat to our safety. For instance, “Start running. There’s a tiger.” Obviously, you don’t want to finish tying your shoes. You just start running. So, when we think negatively, our brains believe there’s a threat.
As a result, our fight or flight response — also known as cortisol (the stress hormone) spiking — kicks in to deal with whatever threat this is. On the inverse, when we think positively, our brain assumes that everything is under control and no action is needed.
Neuroscientist and author Rick Hanson wrote in his book, Buddha’s Brain, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. When you lose a client, when the investors don’t come calling or when you face other daily disappointments of life, you’re wired to forget all the good things and instead, obsess over the negative.”
Negative emotions program your brain to do a specific action. When the tiger crosses your path, for example, you run. So the rest of the world, at that point, doesn’t matter. You’re focused entirely on the tiger, the fear it creates, and how you can get away from it.
In other words, negative emotions narrow your mind and focus your thoughts, so that you can escape and survive. This is a useful instinct if you’re trying to save your life but today, most of our negative thoughts aren’t related to life-threatening things.
They’re related to, maybe a workout you skipped or you ate too many cookies or you slept in again. But still, these negative thoughts make our brains shut off the outside world and narrow the brain’s scope of thinking.
The narrowed scope prevents your brain from seeing the other options or ways of looking at a situation or choices that surround you.
When you’re stressed out about everything you have to get done in a day, your brain makes it hard to actually start anything because it’s focused on and paralyzed by the threat — i.e., your long to-do list.
It’s a similar experience if you have negative self-talk about, say, how you have no motivation. Your brain can’t widen the scope to see how you can improve or how you’re already doing a pretty good job already. It could be that you’re doing a lot for yourself but you forgot one thing you wanted to do. So then you’ve crashed into how you’re so terrible, when really most people looking at you objectively are saying, “You’re doing great,” or, “You’re doing a lot.”
How Do Shame and Negative Self-Talk Affect Our Goals and Our Health?
A meta-analysis I found of more than 300 empirical articles showed that psychological stress is causing an overuse of this powerful safety system, which weakens our immune system — and what we’ve learned from the global Covid-19 pandemic, is that you want to do everything you can to strengthen your immune system, not weaken it.
This negative self talk and shame not only harms our mental and physical health, but it also creates a terrible experience inside our heads.
Another study in The Journal of Clinical Psychology studied the effects of worrying on performing a task. Subjects were required to sort things into two categories. People who reported that they worry 50% of the time or more showed a significant disruption in their ability to sort objects. In a follow up study, researchers were able to show that the disruption in their ability to sort objects was a result of increased levels of negative thoughts.
Overcoming Shame by Reducing Negative Self-talk and Self-judgment
There are four things that research shows are effective at reducing negative self-talk and self-judgement.
1. When we have negative self-talk, there’s a little process where you can notice it. That’s a huge piece of this. If you can notice your thoughts are negative and separate from them, and then acknowledge what’s causing the negativity, you’re already doing much better than most people.
Then describe to yourself how that makes you feel.
Then shift to a moment of gratitude. It can be completely unrelated but take yourself out of that thought pattern and go to, “I love my husband,” or, “I can’t believe what a beautiful day this is,” or, “My children are so special to me,” or “Breakfast was delicious.” Just that interruption of this neuron pattern, over time, this rewires the brain.
2. Think about your wins routinely. Ideally, every night when you’re falling asleep is a great time to do it because it ends the day on a positive note. Think about the things that you did for yourself that were positive, healthful, and nourishing.
If you can replace these negative thoughts with positive ones, it sends the brain on a different path and over time, it rewires it.
3. Convince yourself, and you must truly believe it or it won’t work, that life is a series of opportunities rather than a relentless slog through setbacks and heartbreak.
Now, everybody has different life circumstances and some people look at that and say, “Yeah, but you haven’t been through what I’ve been through.” Of course, but we know that no matter what your circumstances are, your mindset determines whether or not you’re going to have negativity in your brain.
There are people with very, very tough circumstances that have an unbelievable appreciation for life and there are people with seemingly easy lives who find a way to ‘be a victim’ and be unhappy.
4. Practice gratitude, empathy, self-compassion, and forgiveness.
Why Gratitude, Empathy, Self-Compassion, and Forgiveness Are Key to Overcoming Shame and Self-Judgment
Research shows that forgiveness can be learned as demonstrated by the Stanford Forgiveness Project.The practice of forgiveness has also been linked to better immune function — and a longer life span.
You can practice self-compassion by recognizing your common humanity. You might say to yourself, “You know, this is not easy stuff and a lot of people struggle with it.”
Remember, that’s different from rationalizing. What you want to practice is having compassion for the fact that there are a lot of people going through the same stuff you are.
You can practice empathy by asking yourself — what sort of empathy would you extend to a friend who is down on themself or down about something the way that you are. What you would say to that friend?
Practicing gratitude now has a lot of research showing what it does to your brain.
As reported by the University of Minnesota in a landmark study, a group of people was divided into two parts. One was asked to count their blessings, the other created lists of hassles. The group that was asked to count their blessings felt happier, exercised more, had fewer physical complaints and slept better than the group that created lists of hassles. It seems practicing gratitude is an easy, free, incredible way to improve your exercise habits, your happiness, your physical ailments and your sleep.
Brené Brown has found that there’s also a relationship between joy and gratitude but with a surprising twist. It’s not joy that makes us grateful but gratitude that makes us joyful. Just the act of practicing gratitude, not only helps with reducing negative self-talk and self-judgment but it also goes the other way and makes people happier. It’s not that you feel happiness and therefore, feel grateful for it. It’s the other way around.
Overcoming Shame By Changing Your Brain’s Wiring
Can we really change our brains and create healthier habits? The answer is yes. However, it’s very hard to change habits, but we can change our brains.
Neuroscientist Donald Hebb said, “Neurons that fire together, wire together. The brain’s habits, they’re not like plaster. They’re more like plastic, so they’re strong enough to resist the occasional push, but it is pliable enough to change in response to repeated effort.”
The key phrase here is ‘repeated effort.’ It’s about consistency. It’s about bringing that effort to the table to make those changes each time.
Habits form as shortcuts as a way to save us time or to make us feel good. These shortcuts become hardwired because they become stronger neural pathways, and it’s actually not really possible to just get rid of a habit. You have to replace one habit with another. You can’t just break “not exercising” as a habit. You have to replace it with exercising. Or you can’t just kick snoozing. It must be replaced by getting out of bed right away when your alarm goes off.
Any time you’re thinking about how you wish you were doing less of something like drinking too much wine, think instead about what you can do instead as replacement habit? That’s the key.
Orison Marden, author and founder of SUCCESS magazine said, “A strong successful man is not the victim of his environment. He creates favorable conditions.”
If you are trying to, let’s say, quit smoking but you only hang out with smokers, what do you think your odds are of actually quitting smoking? You have to actively design an environment that
not only sparks self-motivation but enables you to sustain it in the long run to help you achieve your end goal.
The good news is that we don’t need to constantly redesign this environment as long as we design it correctly the first time. Eventually, the current research shows, it’s about 66 days but there’s still some debate on the exact number
Once we actually form that habit, we no longer need to actively think about it. It just becomes routine. It doesn’t mean there will never be a day that you don’t meditate, for example, after the 66th, but the idea is that it’s now hardwired into your brain, so your brain will continue to do it and not resist it.
Final thoughts: Own your choices, even the crappy ones. Don’t rationalize them, just own them.
What I mean by don’t rationalize them is, any sort of rationalization in your head about why you didn’t need to do it anyway is not helpful. It’s more helpful to just say, “I didn’t do it today. It is what it is. I’ll try again tomorrow,”
Have no regrets. Imagine that you have horse blinders on so you can only look forward and not backwards, because it is completely unhelpful to think about what you didn’t do yesterday or even this morning, and only helpful to think about what you might be able to do later today or tomorrow.
In the same vein, always try again and always show up again. Stopping and starting a meditation practice over and over has more benefits than no meditation practice at all. If you’re beating yourself up and ready to give up because you can’t keep a meditation practice consistent, it’s okay, keep showing up.
It’s not “do it perfectly or don’t do it at all.” Every day just do better and be better. There is no such thing as arriving at perfect and then staying there forever. Top athletes, the healthiest people on the planet, they don’t get there and then never have to work at it again. They have days where they fall off or decide to do something unhealthy, too.
If you’re not willing to make certain changes or you haven’t changed the environment, then it’s unlikely that change will happen, which is frustrating, and that’s where the negative self-talk and self-judgment comes from.
But once you’ve defined and designed an environment to make change happen and separate yourself from negative thoughts of shame, regret and self-judgment, over time your brain is rewired and these goals or habits you’re trying to create become the status quo and the new normal.