If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts and talking negative talk you’re not alone. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay.

Highly negative speech, whether it’s spoken to yourself (self-talk) or to others, holds you back, drags you down and can destroy your dreams.

‘Women tend to be inclined to negative speech, thoughts and self-talk because we’re socialised this way,’ says Johannesburg psychologist and life coach Stephanie Vermeulen, author of Stitched-up: Who Fashions Women’s Lives? (Jacana Media).

Even in the 21st century, most girls continue to be raised to believe that their needs and feelings are less important than the needs of others, whereas boys are generally raised to put themselves first. ‘Because of this, girls
and women negate and suppress their needs and question the validity of their feelings,’ Vermeulen says.

Adding to this continuous pattern of self-negation is what Vermeulen refers to as ‘100 years of marketers repeating constantly that our natural form is unacceptable, which has culminated in the self-dissatisfaction women feel when they look in the mirror and find fault with all they see.

‘They find fault with being too fat or having too much cellulite or not being attractive enough or successful enough or lovable enough.’

This creeps into our speech, further compounding this self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity and infecting other people too. It’s vital to learn to audit what we say to ourselves and to others, so that we can create positive circumstances, opinions and self-talk:

1 Identify negative speech

Negative thoughts and suppressed feelings are reflected openly in the way we act and speak. Women often negate compliments they receive. For instance, if someone says something flattering about a dress they’re wearing, they might say something like, ‘Oh, this! I got it half-price on a sale.’

Many women are also inclined to use self-defeating speech in the way they think about their careers, says Johannesburg counselling psychologist Keshnie Lalbahadur. ‘A couple of examples of negative speech women
use are: “I will never be able to make a good career choice because there are so many careers out there”, or “I will never get a promotion at work because I’m not skilled enough”,’ she says.

Our thoughts are linked closely to our speech, and they have a profound effect on our emotional wellbeing and the way we operate, says Lalbahadur. Listen carefully to how the women around you express themselves and you will soon see that those who speak positively are happier and more successful than those who have allowed the weeds of negativity to take root in their lives.

2 Turn the negative into the positive

‘When we hear ourselves or others voicing negative thoughts we can neutralise these by repeating the opposite, positive thought in our minds in order to reprogramme ourselves,’ says Vermeulen. ‘This will carry over
into both our self-talk and speech.’

To uproot negative thoughts and speech, women need to cultivate a positive attitude. This is more than simply engaging in ‘positive parrot-talk’, says Vermeulen. It doesn’t help to speak positively if you don’t feel positive about yourself, or if you don’t feel happy most of the time.

‘The root of feeling happy is to accept yourself – the good and the bad – and to acknowledge that positive things are happening in your life,’ she says. ‘The more we focus on positive happenings, the more positive things we will notice, and heartfelt positive speech is sure to follow naturally.’

Vermeulen and Lalbahadur both advise persistence in your journey to positive self-talk and positive speech. When you catch yourself expressing how boring your life feels, turn that around and talk about what you would like to achieve and how you’re going to achieve it. Instead of saying, ‘I will never be able to make a good career choice because there are so many careers out there’, say, ‘I’m so lucky to be born in the 21st century, where women have so many career opportunities.’

Instead of ‘I will never get a promotion at work because I’m not skilled enough’, rather say, ‘I’m going to to increase my skills and get that promotion.’

Psychologists acknowledge that we’ll all feel depressed or unhappy at some point but expressing it doesn’t help. In fact, it does the opposite – it makes you more depressed and unhappy. We need to rise to the challenges life presents, find out what works for us and become positive. Positivity breeds positivity – it really is that simple.

Beth Shirley, 25, a freelance writer and copy editor in Johannesburg, descended into an abyss of depression when she was 20 years old. ‘I felt I had nothing going for me and that no-one would ever love me,’ she says. ‘I had
nothing positive to say, either to myself or anyone else.’ She started seeing a psychologist, who introduced her to positive self-reinforcement techniques, which included learning how to transform her negative self-talk and
speech into something positive. ‘This helped me to manage my haywire emotional state and to start harnessing the logical, positive side of myself,’ says Shirley. ‘The technique I use most is to treat negativity as a temporary visitor to my house. When I start feeling anxious or depressed I call on my rational mind to speak to my emotional self and explain that it feels as though everything is overwhelming or terrible right now, but that I’m just having a bad moment and the visitors will soon leave.

I remind myself that I’m a beautiful, healthy, successful woman and that so much is going right in my life.’ Five years later Shirley is a positive woman, has a fulfilling work life, and is in a two-year relationship. ‘I now talk about all the good things in my life,’ she says. ‘I have a boyfriend who reinforces how wonderful I am, a growing career and lots of hope. Things are really turning around for me in many ways. I’ve even grown to appreciate my voluptuous body!’

Shirley is using aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) successfully to transform her life. This is a form of psychotherapy that helps people examine and analyse their thoughts, says Lalbahadur. ‘Because thoughts
influence our speech, feelings and behaviours, CBT attempts to challenge distorted thoughts and modify people’s thinking patterns.’

3 Avoid negative talkers

While we can work on our own negativity, we can’t always remove ourselves from negative people, so we need to be on the alert.

Leigh-Ann Mathys, 37, operational director for Food4Africa, a nutritional feeding and community upliftment NGO, who divides her time between Johannesburg and rural KwaZulu-Natal, says if there is something about herlife she needs to discuss, she has learnt never to do so with negative talkers. ‘This is especially true when I need to discuss something about my relationship that upsets me. Negative talkers always make the situation seem worse than it is. The conversation will turn into a venting session about how all men are liars and cheats, which doesn’t help me at all.’

Mathys has discovered that the nature of negative speech differs according to the company she’s in. ‘My “champagne” friends tend to be negative about what they don’t have – a fancier car, a more generous partner. My academic friends’ negativity centres around politics, the lack of “decent” men, or the fact that men find them intimidating. My friends from rural KwaZulu-Natal complain the least, but are despondent about job
opportunities, whereas my friends from other parts of Africa, who are living in South Africa, are negative about the government and lack of security.’

Identifying negative talk in others helps you to keep perspective on your own negativity. ‘When we’re in the company of negative people, we need to be able to separate our sense of self and “our stuff” from what is being said,’ says Vermeulen. ‘Men can indulge in negative speech without it affecting them nearly as directly as it affects women, because they generally have a more robust sense of self.’

To gain perspective and protect yourself from negative talk you need to call on your rational brain to decipher what is being said.

Men can also reinforce women’s negative self-image too easily – because women are so used to levelling this criticism at themselves. When interacting with such individuals it’s vital to alter your response to them to protect yourself, instead of trying to alter their negative talk and behaviour, says Lalbahadur. ‘Remind yourself that you can do whatever you choose to do – bring yourself up with positive talk,’ she says. If your boss criticises your work, stand up for yourself and try to find a solution. If he or she continues to criticise everything you do, try to improve your skills while looking for another job.

If the negative person is someone close to you, it might be worth talking about it. Sometimes they may not be aware that they’re using negative speech and may want to work on it. ‘However, this may not always be the outcome and an argument might ensue. Avoid being drawn into an argument with a negative talker who puts you on the defensive,’ says Lalbahadur. If you find yourself being drawn into an argument, stop. Explain that the discussion is going the wrong way, and that you will be happy to continue it at another time when you both want to sort out the situation rather than destroy each other. If the situation doesn’t improve you will need to decide whether or not this relationship is benefiting your life. Psychological counselling is advised.

4 Arm yourself with humour

Humour can be an excellent tool to transform negativity, says Vermeulen. When someone is going on about how terrible everything is, you can take the edge off by exaggerating everything tenfold to highlight how ridiculous they sound.

For example, when someone is going on and on about crime, highlight what a bore they’re being by telling them that you’ll count yourself lucky if you make it through the next hour. Remember to take stock of what
you’re saying too – you might need to laugh at yourself every now and again. And when you start laughing at yourself you’ll know that you have taken giant steps towards a positive life.

5 Keep a watchful eye

As you try to change your negative thoughts and speech, look out for situations that may act as a catalyst for negativity. ‘Pay attention to your speech when you’re experiencing stressful life events, when you feel stuck, or when some aspect of your life falls short of your expectations,’ says Lalbahadur.

During these times it’s especially important to try to put things into perspective, and to counter your negative thinking by asking yourself challenging questions such as, ‘Is this situation really as awful as I think it is?’,
‘Am I guilty of jumping to unrealistic conclusions?’, ‘Will this matter in five years?’, and ‘Will I learn and grow from this?’ Then transfer this self-knowledge into positive speech. You can do it!