“I can’t believe I did that! I’m a complete idiot.”
“I’m not good looking enough to talk to her.”
“Why do I make such stupid mistakes?”
“I’ll never get into law school. I’m just not smart enough”
Lashon Hara is commonly associated with gossip or malicious talk about others. Yet, the term literally means evil tongue and can also describe harmful words that we use towards ourselves. Without consciousness, self-deprecating thoughts can fill our minds every day. We trip on the sidewalk, then call ourselves clumsy. We outgrow a favorite pair of jeans, then call ourselves fat. We make a mistake at work, then call ourselves stupid. We may engage in negative speech towards ourselves repeatedly throughout the day and never notice. This subconscious habit can be very difficult to break. However, the physical and psychological damage done by negative self-talk is detrimental to our health and spiritual growth and it behooves us to uproot this behavior for our own wellbeing.
Psychologists have studied the chemical effects of negativity on the human brain and discovered that exposure to negative words (spoken or written) releases stress-producing hormones, which can result in anxiety and depression, and interfere with the frontal lobe—the area of the brain responsible for rational behavior and making decisions. The effect is the same whether the words are directed outward, or towards ourselves.
Research shows that our brains cannot distinguish between reality and fiction when it comes to negative thoughts. Worrying about an event has the same physical effects on our bodies as actually dealing with that situation. For example, the same harmful neurochemicals are released into your body whether you are worrying about rejection or you are actually rejected. The longer we ruminate about rejection and our possible shortcomings that may (or may not) contribute to it, the worse we feel, because our brains think we’ve already been rejected.
Even more alarming, once negative speech becomes a habit, it is hard to break the pattern; neural pathways in the brain become wired to continue this behavior. Over time, repeated negative self-talk also alters components of the brain that control memory, emotions, and the ability to empathize.
How can we avoid the downward spiral of negativity? The trick is to spot negative self-talk, determine its source, and resolve to eradicate it. According to Michael Berg, “The prerequisite for any other spiritual work we do—whether it is restricting from negative actions or doing positive actions —is to first and foremost refrain from negative, evil speech. Because if we engage in lashon hara, we put a shell around our soul, and then all the Light we draw as a result of our spiritual work cannot even enter; it cannot assist and support us in our correction.” Start by asking:
Am I limiting myself?
When you hear about an opening at work, do you let your employer know you’re interested and apply right away? Or do you assume you’ll never get the job, and quietly mope as your colleague lands the promotion? When we assume that we aren’t good enough, smart enough, skilled enough, etc., we are convincing ourselves that we’ve already been defeated, so we never try. Negative self-talk limits the way we look at a situation, making us less likely to see alternatives or think creatively about solving problems. Our pessimism prevents us from taking risks or following opportunities as they are presented, because we’ve convinced ourselves that we’d never succeed anyway.
Where are these words coming from?
We’ve all encountered harsh critics in our lifetime. Unfortunately, they can also be people we admire and look up to, like a parent, mentor, or teacher. Critical words from people we love tend to stay with us and over time can become the basis for our own negative self-talk. When this happens, it can be difficult to distinguish between their expectations of us and our true potential and desires.
If you find that negative self-talk is limiting you or echoing criticism from the past, take note. Acknowledge the source of the negativity—anxiety, self-doubt, Professor Wilkey from sophomore year—without judgment. When these thoughts arise, make a conscious effort to stop and rewrite them, turning them into positive affirmations. It might help to create a go-to affirmation that makes you feel confident. Pull this little bit of positivity out whenever your thoughts turn negative or when you need a spiritual lift.
On a large scale, what we say to ourselves has a direct impact on our successes and failures. But very simply put, “Every word we say matters,” says Michael Berg, “because we ourselves matter, not in an egotistical sense, but because of our unlimited potential to reveal—or suppress—great Light with every choice we make.”