Teaching Your Mind Some Manners

Negative self-talk can sound like a never-ending loop—and a frustratingly painful one, at that. 

One day you might feel like it’s in check, but the next, your inner bitch radio won’t stop singing, “If You Suck and Everyone Knows It, Clap Your Hands.

For many people, negative self-talk doubled down during the pandemic. Given all the fear, isolation, panic, and stress we’ve been forced to stomach, it’s no wonder that mean voice is having a field day.

The bad news is that the pandemic has given us endless reasons to doubt ourselves (as if we didn’t have enough before). But the good news is, I recently came across a great tactic for teaching your inner voice some manners—and it works! 

If you know me, you know I’m always helping myself to self-help books, and I recently polished off a fabulous one called Welcome Home by Najwa Zebian. The premise of the book is powerful: If you don’t feel good about yourself, you’ll end up building a home for your soul and self-esteem in others. The result? Feeling spiritually homeless when those around you don’t give you the validation, approval, and worthiness you desire.  

Zebian’s primary advice for building your soul’s home revolves around finding yourself, seeing yourself, hearing yourself, and loving yourself.  

Easier said than done.

Luckily, Welcome Home is filled with practical tips for learning how to listen to yourself, be kinder to yourself, and how to ultimately love yourself. There’s a technique Zebian calls, “Change the Question” that has been particularly helpful to me. The practice is simple: when you question yourself (a common form of negative self-talk), replace your negative question with the exact opposite question. 

Meaning, a more positive and productive question. Zebian suggests:

Instead of saying: Why is my life so lonely?  Ask: Why am I surrounded by so many people who love me? 

Instead of saying: Why can’t I just be beautiful?  Ask: Why am I so beautiful? 

According to Zebian, asking positive questions makes your brain scan for positive evidence. So, if you’re wondering why you’re so beautiful, intelligent, fit, patient, and so on, your brain will illuminate those characteristics throughout the day. 

Yes! More of that, please. 

When I first read this advice, I assumed that I’d need stronger rose-colored glasses than I usually wear. However, I immediately found myself putting the tip into action and to my surprise, it worked!

Here’s how: 

Last week, when I was beating myself up over a recent photo that did no service to my forehead of wrinkles, my mean inner voice griped, Why do you look so old? But then, without giving that question a second thought, I replaced it with an opposite question, Why do you look so young? 

And just as instructed, my mind started appreciating positive features like my dimples, smile, and eyes—instead of negative ones. 

A powerful presto-chango, if you ask me. 

This trick also worked like magic a few days later when I was stressing over how much screen time I allowed the kids to have over their holiday break. Picturing my children zoned-out like zombies on their phones gave my negative self-talk, the fuel it needed to snark, Why are you such a bad mother? 

But, just as I was taught, I swapped that question out for, Why are you such a good mother? My mind instantly reminded me of how I had woken up at 4:00am to drive my daughter to swim practice every day that week. Take that, negative self-talk!  

Zebian is a genius. Shutting down a negative question with a positive one shifts my brain away from finding evidence that I suck and toward examples of how I’m pretty super.  

Armed with my new superpower, I even used this technique when thinking about any negative thoughts or situations— not just ones related to me. When I heard my husband coughing, sneezing, and snorting his way through COVID, my fright-filled mind thought, Why is my husband so sick? However, I immediately flipped the script and asked, Why is my husband so well? 

And just by replacing one negative word with a positive one, my brain pointed out all the ways in which he wasn’t as ill as I feared. Most notably that 1) he wasn’t in a hospital, but in our basement and 2) he wasn’t on a ventilator, but on Tylenol. 

I’m going to start referring to Zebian’s technique as “Stop and Swap,” since it helps me stop negative self-talk in real time and swap it out for a more positive and productive alternative.  

GIve it a try this week and see where your mind takes you when it’s not trying to take you down. 

Katherine Wintsch