Negative Self-Talk in Recovery: How it Hurts You, How You Can Start Changing that Voice

man with negative thought bubble
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If you’re like most of us, you have a constant dialogue running through your mind. That inner voice, which is often unconscious, is entirely normal.

Problems arise when the dialogue becomes so negative, critical, and judgmental that it leads to depression or anxiety, or when it triggers the use of drugs and alcohol. If you keep telling yourself that you are worthless or undeserving of happiness, you will eventually believe it’s true.

If your negative voice has led to feelings of pessimism, bitterness, shame, guilt, anger or regret, it’s time to make some significant changes. Altering a long-time habit is never easy, but if you do the work, you’ll eventually notice huge, life-altering differences in your thinking patterns. 

Thoughts Have Power: Learning to be Aware of Negativity

The way you think impacts how you see yourself, and the world in general. It’s normal to feel bad about yourself from time to time, but you may not even notice your negative thoughts because they have been part of you for so long.

Much of our negative self-talk has been with us since childhood; we learn from parents, caregivers, teachers, or other adults — even those who mean well.

The problem is that by falling into the habit of negative thinking, you can create an environment in which bad things can happen.

The first step in changing negative thinking is learning to recognize that inner voice, which will probably feel strange at first. It may help to keep a small notebook in your purse or pocket to write down the thoughts. Don’t beat yourself up if the voice keeps coming.

Remember the old saying: “Some days you eat the elephant, and some days the elephant eats you.” It takes time to break an old habit and reprogram your thinking. Be patient with yourself. Don’t give up.

Challenging Negative Self-Talk

Your negative voice doesn’t have to define you. With a little practice, it’s definitely possible to reign in that voice and retrain your thinking. Once you begin to recognize that negative inner voice, it’s time to determine if the voice has validity.

When those thoughts rear their ugly heads, challenge them. Take a moment to investigate. Is there evidence that the thoughts are true? Don’t jump to conclusions without proof to back it up.

Be honest with yourself. Are you using black and white, either-or thinking that may keep you trapped in negativity and addiction? Is your inner voice telling you that things must either be perfect or disastrous with no middle ground? Are you using those negative thoughts as a justification to continue using?

Even if you’ve been sober for weeks or months, negative thinking can send you into a downward spiral that can ultimately lead to relapse.

Keep Calm and Carry On: Tips for Giving Negative Thinking the Boot

  • Pay attention and take good care of yourself. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional goodie, but it’s important to eat healthy foods that nourish your body. Don’t get in the habit of eating junky, sugary food high in carbs or unhealthy fats.
  • Take care of your hygiene. Shower every day. Brush your teeth. Invest in a haircut that helps you feel good about yourself.
  • Do something fun, preferably every day. See a movie, fly a kite, or meet a friend for lunch.
  • Would you say those mean things to a friend? Really? Would you tell her she’s not good enough, or that he doesn’t deserve love or happiness? Really? Would your friend say them to you? Treat yourself like you would treat your dearest friends.
  • Spend time with positive, upbeat, sober people who treat you well. Positive thinking is highly contagious. Avoid old haunts and friends from your former lifestyle.
  • Write positive thoughts on index cards and keep one with you to remind you of the good things about yourself. Stick affirming post-it notes on your bathroom mirror or refrigerator.
  • Check in with a trusted friend when negative thoughts are creeping in. Ask your friend if the thought is true. Should you really believe that inner voice? What is the truth?
  • Breathe deeply. When you confront a negative thought, remind yourself that your mind isn’t always your best guide, and your thoughts aren’t always true. It’s okay to feel this way. Those difficult moments have much to teach you.
  • Every time you notice a negative thought, replace it with something positive: I am peaceful, intelligent, hard-working, proud, friendly, happy, etc.
  • Be aware of negative keywords such as never, bad, can’t, dumb, stupid or loser, and avoid those would have, could have, should have phrases.
  • Be careful of catastrophic thinking. Break the habit of automatically thinking the worst in every situation.
  • Try journaling. Write down your thoughts in a flowing stream of consciousness. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation. This is just for you and your work won’t be graded.
  • Have at least one positive thought before falling asleep every night. Have another one (or two) as soon as you wake up in the morning.

Treatment Can Help

If you’re stuck in negative thinking, if the thoughts are triggering anxiety or depression, or if negative self-talk is threatening your sobriety, it’s time to seek professional help. A good therapist can help you confront life’s challenges without sinking into the trap of negative thinking.

Ask your therapist about CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy), as this effective form of treatment can help you confront distorted negative thinking and replace it with more positive, constructive ways of seeing the world.

If you Relapse

Nobody wants to relapse, but it isn’t the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you have failed, or that you’ll return to your previous lifestyle.

By all means, don’t beat yourself up. However, it’s essential to admit you have lapsed and take the necessary steps to get back on track as soon as possible, even if it means re-entering treatment. If you belong to a Twelve-Step group, this is a good time to reach out to your sponsor.