The Psychology Of Self-Esteem: Negative Thoughts Can Ruin Your Life

by Alexia LaFata

Language is powerful -- and not just the words we say out loud.

The unspoken words inside of our heads -- the ones that make up our unending internal string of private thoughts, emotions and attitudes -- shape how we think about everything around us.

And when those words are negative, danger arises, creating an array of psychological problems that work to reinforce themselves until they are embedded deep within our brains.

In fact, the way you view yourself is so powerful that, in a 2013 study, researchers at the Florida State University College of Medicine found that normal-weight teenagers, who even thought they were overweight, were more likely to become obese later in life. Negative thoughts not only affect you mentally, but physically.

There are a variety of ways to determine if you experience this kind of destructive thinking, which is commonly referred to as negative self-talk.

If you frequently blame yourself when something bad happens; if you automatically anticipate the worst in a situation; if you put polarized pressure on yourself (for example, you either have to be perfect or, if you mess up once, you're a failure; there's no in-between) or if you magnify the negative parts of a situation and dismiss the positive ones, you practice negative self-talk. Even worse, your mental and physical health is in peril.

In a slightly dated but still relevant study, researchers asked a group of college students to reflect on the positive and negative outcomes of a recent stressful life event.

Those who focused mainly on the negative outcomes reported having lower self-esteem, lower self-satisfaction and higher instances of psychological trauma, both immediately after the event happened and eight weeks later when they were tested once again.

The variety of psychological problems that negative thinking creates could impact your ability to lead a normal daily life. In their discussion, the researchers hypothesized the following:

Negative thinking could signify the inability to achieve cognitive completion — the event continues to be perceived as threatening to self-esteem, mastery or views of the world as benign... [This] results in ongoing emotional distress and spontaneous mental intrusions of event-related ideas and imagery, possibly the mind's attempt to achieve completion by repeatedly pushing the discrepant information into conscious awareness.

In other words, if you focus mainly on the negative aspects of a life event, you're more likely to replay those negative thoughts and images in your head for longer periods of time.

This kind of repeated negative-thinking clouds your vision and affects the way you interact with the world -- and yourself.

Evidently, low self-esteem is a huge effect of negative self-talk, and those with low self-esteem have a tendency to externalize their negative feelings about themselves, causing a variety of other problems.

A 2005 study, for example, found that low self-esteem relates to higher risks of aggression -- both verbal and physical -- toward others.

The Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas at Austin notes three main "faces" of low self-esteem, or ways that people project their negative views of themselves into the world.

The first is "The Imposter." On the surface, imposters act happy and satisfied with their lives, but they secretly require success after success to keep up their façade of self-satisfaction.

This could lead to problems relating to perfectionism, competition and feeling burnt out.

The second is "The Rebel." Rebels oppose authority and blame others for their actions, but deep down, it's just because they feel they're never good enough.

They display this feeling by proclaiming that other people's opinions don't matter -- all to pretend nobody can hurt them.

The last is "The Victim." Victims often wait for someone else to help them with their problems because they fear they can't cope with the world by themselves, which could lead to complacency, underachievement and an over-reliance on others in relationships.

They often use self-pity or indifference as excuses for not taking control of their lives.

Although all three of these "faces" experience low self-esteem differently, the effects are the same. Low self-esteem can cause people to experience problems in their relationships; negatively affect their performance at their job or with their school work; increase their likelihood of depression; cause high levels of stress, loneliness and anxiety and lead to high risks of alcohol and drug abuse.

The worst part is that all of these effects reinforce the negative image that people with low self-esteem already have of themselves, trapping them in a vicious cycle of negativity.

Negative thinking also creates feelings of helplessness when you're faced with stressful situations and can even prohibit your ability to cope with stress in general, which leads to poorer outcomes that could -- yes, you guessed it -- create more stress.

Negative thinking has even been shown to cause high blood pressure, even when you're not currently having negative thoughts.

If you experience negative self-talk, there are a number of ways you could change your way of thinking. First, it's important to identify areas that are in need of a change in perspective. Maybe you constantly think negatively about your job, or your relationship or your family.

If you feel yourself sinking into those thoughts during the day, evaluate yourself and figure out how to put a positive spin on them.

A helpful solution is to turn those thoughts into humor. Allowing yourself to laugh at negativity and to make light of a negative situation will greatly change your perspective.

You could also try adapting a better lifestyle, both physically and mentally: Start eating healthier and exercising three times a week, and only surround yourself with people who are positive and supportive.

Stress comes from negative people in your life who don't fully believe in you. So, eliminate them.

The final way to change negative self-talk is to try positive self-talk. This piece of advice from "The Mindy Project" by Mindy's cousin, Sheena -- played by Laverne Cox, everyone's favorite badass transgender woman from "Orange is the New Black" -- should help:

Sheena: Now tell me what you see? Mindy: Two hot black girls and a fat load in a tracksuit. Sheena: That’s cold. Now, if the person in the mirror was your best friend, would you be as mean to her as you’re being to yourself? Mindy: No. Sheena: Well, I’ve got news for you. You are talking to your best friend. You. Mindy: Damn.

Change your thoughts, change your life.