How to respond to friends when they speak negatively about themselves

Watching a loved one struggle to love themselves can be like trying to solve a math equation that doesn’t quite add up. While we may see someone who is smart, strong, compassionate (and so on and so forth), our friends and loved ones may be battling a negative self-image every day that we may not be completely aware of. The things we see as their greatest attributes could be the same things they struggle to make peace with, or those qualities could be overshadowed by insecurities or possible mental illnesses. From the outside, this can be hard to understand, but that’s because self-image isn’t always logical, and it’s not always truthful, either.

As mental health counselor Amber Petrozziello explains, “Our thoughts and our emotions sometimes lie to us, especially if we’re engaging in negative self-talk.”

She hears a range of negative self-talk from her clients, including comments like, “I’m stupid,” “I don’t deserve happiness,” “I’m unlovable,” “I can’t get anything right,” and “There’s something wrong with me.” She also sees common themes among this self-talk where clients constantly blame themselves for things or using self-degrading humor.

Petrozziello works out of the NYC-based clinic, Empower Your Mind Therapy, where the group uses Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to help their clients move past these negative thoughts and empower them to “think differently, do more, and worry less” by providing therapeutic skills to manage painful emotions. When we hear friends speaking negatively about themselves, it’s not our role to become their therapist, but there are skills we can learn to be more supportive and understanding in our response.

Knowing the right way to respond, however, is a tricky thing. So we tapped Petrozziello as well as licensed psychologist Nicole Hawkins, who specializes in body image issues at Center For Change, to help us navigate these conversations.

Understanding self-image and negative self-talk

To respond to our friends’ negative self-talk in an effective way, we have to start by understanding where they’re coming from, Petrozziello says. Even if the things our friends are saying about themselves don’t make sense to us, it’s important to note that these ideas are probably coming from a place deep below the surface. Petrozziello explains that things like anxiety, depression, and a sensitive nervous system can all make it especially difficult to break free from the negative thoughts we internalize about ourselves—and our self-image is often shaped by the environment we grew up in and society around us.

"What's modeled for us and given to us as feedback as we grow up turns into our inner critic," Petrozziello says.

In a society that is constantly dictating the way our bodies should look, we can’t talk about self-image without also bringing body image into the conversation. With a pervasive diet culture and narrative about changing our bodies, a particular focus or obsession over our bodies often manifests as a false sense of control.

"Ultimately, our body image is a reflection of our self-image," Dr. Hawkins explains. "So if we're not feeling good about ourselves, then a lot of times, we focus on our body and we hope we can maybe change it and [if we do,] then maybe we'll feel better about ourselves."

As someone who has recovered from an eating disorder in the past, Dr. Hawkins knows this isn’t the way it works. “When I finally got the body I wanted…I had never been more miserable in my life, because I [had] such horrible behaviors,” she says. As she explains, doing negative, destructive things to change your body will “never, ever, ever equal self-confidence.”

“[Improving our body image] takes time, it takes effort, and sometimes, it takes a [community],” Dr. Hawkins says.

As friends, we can be a part of that conversation. We may not be able to get to the very root of our friend’s negative self-image, but we can have a part in shaping the narrative around them. Petrozziello explains that when friends engage in negative self-talk in front of us, “they could be asking us for help in their own way,” and “by just being compassionate while protecting yourself at the same time, you could help someone.”

How to respond to friends when they speak negatively about themselves

1DON’T: Join in.

If your friend says something like, “No one likes me,” or “I’m ugly,” the last thing you think you would probably do is agree with them. But when this kind of negative self-talk is disguised by humor, it’s a lot easier to join in on the joke and contribute to some of these harmful ideas. “When you join in or you start making jokes about yourself, too, it’s becomes a self-perpetuating cycle because you model that it’s okay for your friends to talk this way, because you’re also doing it,” Petrozziello says.

2DO: Be a good model.

Instead of perpetuating the idea that negative self-talk is acceptable, we can work to lead by example. Even if we’re struggling with some aspects of our own self-image, talking about ourselves in healthy ways can have a positive impact on both ourselves and those around us.

"Part of saying a positive affirmation about our body [or ourselves] is by definition that we don't necessarily believe it, but we want to," Dr. Hawkins says.

Petrozziello says that we can also help model ways to turn negative self-talk into positive talk. For example, if a friend is being extra hard on themselves about something they think they messed up or did wrong, we try to lighten up the perspective by saying things like, “Hey, I hear you, but no one’s perfect,” and “It’s okay, you’re human.”

3DON’T: Shame them.

Our shut-it-down reflexes may be good-intentioned, but we should be careful not to shame our friends for the comments they make about themselves. “It’s important not to make them feel like they’re a bad person, because that would perpetuate the self-image they have,” Petrozziello says.

This can be especially relevant in the context of body image issues. The concept of body love is often brought up as a way of combatting weight stigma, but it can also induce shame for those who are struggling to make peace with their bodies. So instead of telling someone how they should feel about their bodies, you can simply offer space if they want to talk and reiterate that their worth isn’t defined by their body.

4DO: Have direct conversations.

“It’s okay to bring up concerns about the people you care about,” Petrozziello says. Sometimes, we’re hesitant to bring something up for fear of being too intrusive, or getting too personal, but often, it’s helpful to talk to our friends about our concerns as long as it’s done in a thoughtful way. If you notice a theme of a friend talking about themselves in a negative way, Petrozziello suggests bringing it to light by saying something like, “Hey I noticed you’ve been joking/talking about this a lot. Is everything okay? Do you need to talk about something? Are you feeling okay about yourself?”

Dr. Hawkins always tells her patients to look at the core people in their lives. “We need to be having direct conversations with them,” she says. Those conversations also include setting boundaries for the things that impact your own self-image too. If you notice that someone’s negative self-talk is weighing heavily on you or triggering negative thoughts for you, it’s okay to set those boundaries by asking someone to shift the conversation or being clear about how you’re being affected as well.

5DO: Push gently.

Dr. Hawkins talks about the idea of helping to “challenge our friends” because improving your self-image takes dedicated work. That challenge could be directly related to negative self-talk, like challenging ourselves and our friend to say a couple gratitude statements each day. Or, we might encourage our friend to get out and be social, because negative internal self-image can affect the way someone interacts with the outside world. Dr. Hawkins suggests this approach:

"Let's set a goal to go out and be social two times this week. Even if we don't feel like it, even if we're scared, even if it's giving us anxiety cause we don't feel like we look cute or we don't feel like we look good, we're going to live life anyway."

Of course, be mindful of your friends needs. While you may want to encourage them to get out of their head or into a new space, you also want to listen to their concerns about taking these next steps, as the last thing you want to do is shame them for either not going out or being social. Your friend may need to take baby steps with this, and that’s completely okay.

6DO: Check the facts.

“When we’re talking about how we can help our friends and be supportive, part of that involves helping them check the facts and check their actual reality,” Petrozziello says. As stated before, we can’t always trust the voice in our heads to tell the truth, so sometimes, it takes an outside voice to help set the record straight. When we combat our friends’ negative self-talk in the ways listed above, we can help reframe the way they see themselves.

“Checking the facts,” as Petrozziello explains, is also about protecting ourselves and paying attention to the kind of negative ideas we might be internalizing from hearing it around us. As we look out for our friends, we also need to be aware of how we’re being affected and make sure we’re making it a point to nourish and nurture ourselves at the same time.

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