Thoughts Are Not Facts: Overcoming Negative Self-Talk

Christoffer Kaltenbrunner
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I was nervous as hell.

My mouth was dry and my hands were shaking when I went on stage to perform Première Rhapsodie by the French composer Claude Debussy.

Usually, the anxiety fades away when I start to play, but not this time.

Even though I had practiced a lot, I was afraid of making mistakes. I’m a classically trained clarinetist, so I’ve been taught to never play a wrong note.

My heart was beating fast when I played through the beautiful melody lines. Everything went well until one of the tricky passages at the end where I messed up and a high squeak came out of my instrument. Somehow, I managed to ignore it and play to the end of the piece as nothing had happened.

However, when I went off stage, I was upset.

Even though 99.99% of the performance went well, I was upset about that one wrong note. I had been pushing myself hard in the practice room but still didn’t make it at the concert. Rather than feeling good about the positive aspects of the performance, I felt upset and angry about the small mistake I had made.

Negative thoughts were bouncing around in my head:

"I’m not good enough, I better not try."

"I’m worthless."

"Why can’t I do anything right?"

Later that evening, when I was about to leave the concert hall, people from the audience thanked me for my performance. They said they were moved by my playing.

At that moment, I realized that the self-criticism echoing in my head were just thoughts and not facts. Just because thoughts exist doesn’t mean they are true.

I was dissatisfied with my performance while the audience enjoyed it. The thoughts in my head influenced my emotions, which made them feel like they were true.

Unfortunately, I know many people struggling with the same unhelpful thoughts as I did. All of them are good at what they do, but their inner critic doesn’t say so. Due to the negative bias of the brain, we tend to focus on and remember the negative thoughts. This is also known as positive-negative asymmetry.

A Simple Practice for Letting Go of Negative Self-Talk

Here’s a simple mindfulness practice for letting go of negative self-talk:

  1. Start paying attention to the thoughts in your mind.
  2. When you find yourself thinking things like “I’m not enough,” note it without judging.
  3. Accept that the thought exists and let it go.

Accepting your thoughts without judging can feel liberating. Knowing that you don’t have to assign attributes to your thoughts helps you find perspective and distance. The next time that particular thought pops up in your head, redo the process of letting go.

Yes, I know, this is incredibly difficult.

But the first step towards getting distance from your thoughts is to self-monitor your internal monologue. It’s a daily practice.

Thoughts Are Not Facts

This is not a practice for the rational mind. It’s not about thinking, analyzing and reflecting.

Instead, this is a practice for the intuitive mind. It’s about being mindful of the thoughts running in your head to get perspective. Realizing that thoughts are not facts can help us see things clearly and decide what thoughts to act upon.

Personally, I became more aware of my negative thought patterns when I started practicing mindfulness meditation. Intrusive thoughts would distract me again and again during my practice. Every time this happened, I brought my attention back to the present moment.

Eventually, my inner critic silenced.

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