Why Negative Self-Talk Can Be So Rewarding

A few months ago I was reading a lot about self-esteem (and the lack thereof). One of the big questions I kept wondering about is “Why?”

Why all this negative self-talk?

Why can it be so addictive and habit-forming to run ourselves down and criticize ourselves?

I’ve heard lots of answers — it keeps us safe, it keeps us from ever truly facing our own power, it keeps us small, it’s easier not to try than to try and fail, etc…

But when I was reading McKay and Fanning’s Self-Esteem – The Ultimate Program for Self-Help, I got a new perspective:

We keep up negative self-talk because it gets rewarded. 

Rewarded — like the addictive random reinforcement schedule that a slot machine doles out.

So how does this work? I’ll use one of my go-to personal examples — the negative self-talk I love to run through before I deliver a workshop.


Here’s the situation:

I’m a kick-ass facilitator and workshop deliverer. I know this experientially and I know this objectively, and I have the feedback forms and workshop participant impact statements to prove it. Yet still, for years, before I deliver a workshop I spend a few days prior wandering around being a little self-hating mess, thinking things like “I have nothing of value to offer,” “This workshop will suck,” “I don’t know why I ever thought I could do this,” “Everyone will know what a fraud I am,” etc.

And then, more often than not, I get up there and run a fantastic workshop and feel incredible afterward.


So what’s the glitch in the system?

The glitch is that all my self-hating DOES NOT ACTUALLY HELP ME PERFORM BETTER.

But, if I go through my ritual of self-hating, and then perform well, my self-hating ritual gets rewarded.

“That totally worked!” some insidious part of my brain whispers. “The more we hate ourselves, the better we do! Let’s try that again!”


Yes, this is some warped, warped thinking.

But tell me honestly, don’t you feel just a wee bit of familiarity in this story…. like maybe this is part of your story too?

Walking through this example helped me better understand why so many coaching clients are reluctant to let go of self-abusive behaviour.

They put a spin on it — just like I do:

“I’m a perfectionist; I hold myself to high standards.”

“But I want to be critical! It keeps me trying harder.”

“The harder I am on myself the better I do.”

And maybe all of that is true.

Or, maybe, it’s just some straight up behaviourist phenomenon: the behaviour of self-hating is getting randomly reinforced when you perform well, even if the self-hating had NOTHING to do with it.


My invitation to you:

Notice if self-criticism really and truly is helping you out, or if it’s just along for the ride.