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The Hidden Form of Verbal Abuse Black Women Don’t See Coming

We may absorb sneaky put-downs without recognizing them as toxic because they come from a person we know well. Here’s how I confronted my critic and put that nastiness on mute.

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Lately, my so-called friend (or maybe frenemy) Nina has been in a super-sour mood. She’s called me a lazy slob. Told me my exercise habits are pointless since I keep stuffing my face with cookies. She’s even called me stupid (with an f-bomb thrown in there to make it sting a little more).

You’re probably wondering why the heck I have anything to do with Nina, right? Well, the thing is, Nina is the name I gave to that nasty, overly critical voice in my head.

There’s a reason our self-talk, that running dialogue we have with ourselves, can take on such a harsh tone. “As Black women, though we’re resilient, we have experienced different traumas, abuse, neglect, injustices, discrimination and racism,” says Joanne Frederick, Ed.D., a licensed professional mental health counselor in Washington, D.C., and author of Copeology. “These experiences can cause us to [have] low self-esteem, low self-confidence, anxiety and depression, just to name a few, which in turn lead to negative self-talk,” she explains.

Emotions are contagious, so I limit my interactions with folks who are always negative and constantly dumping on themselves or others. The same with media consumption. If an outlet is kicking Black women or promoting doom and gloom, I delete, block or turn it off.

I can relate. Enduring a past abusive relationship and growing up trying to meet my family’s expectations of perfection have done a number on my mind. Hence, Nina gets quite a bit of leeway.

All the down talking takes a toll and can affect our mental and physical health, careers, and relationships.

Last year I gave a loved one some advice. I told her she had to stop speaking negatively to herself all the time. As the words were leaving my mouth, I realized I needed to practice what I preach. So I decided to put a stop to my own toxic self-talk.

When I first set out to revamp my internal monologue, it was difficult. The critical voices kept creeping in, even telling me it was pointless to try to change. But I kept at it, getting advice from a therapist friend and reading books like Negative Self-Talk and How to Change It, by Shad Helmstetter, Ph.D. I won’t lie and say the running commentary in my head is on cheerleader mode 24/7, but it’s more positive than negative. Now I love the way I speak to myself!

Here’s some of what worked for meand advice from Dr. Frederick.

Give her a name. Chances are you would never allow someone to speak to you the way you speak to yourself. But naming your inner critic separates you from those negative thoughts and allows you to tune them out, Dr. Frederick says. As you know, for me, the ole girl’s name is Nina. I know Nina is mean and grouchy for no reason, so I try to pay her no mind.

On the flip side, create an alter ego. Beyoncé had Sasha Fierce. I have Carmen. She’s super bad and would never let anyone say or think anything less than great about her. So when Nina or I try, she quickly puts us in check. No, I’m not crazy. When I asked Dr. Frederick what she thought about this, she was with it. Having an alter ego who’s more positive and self-confident is a good way to increase your self-esteem and encourage yourself, she says. Kind of faking it till you make it.

Treat yourself like a friend. If your bestie wore an unflattering outfit or made a mistake at work, you wouldn’t tell her she’s ugly or worthless, right? “When you hear yourself with negative self-talk, ask, ‘Would I talk to Keisha the way I’m talking to myself?’” Dr. Frederick says. Part of changing your inner language is showing yourself grace and extending the same kindness and compassion you would to your BFF.

Reframe that thought. When what’s-her-face goes in on me, I use what’s known in psychology as positive reframing. That means finding something good in a bad situation or looking for a lesson learned. So “Ugh, I overate once again. What’s wrong with me?” becomes “I went overboard with my eating today, but I’ve been on point the whole week. I’ll consider that a win.”

Talk yourself up. A great way to counter mean self-talk is to commend and celebrate yourself, Dr. Frederick says. What do you like about yourself? Maybe it’s your dimples, your skin’s dewey complexion, your work ethic, your ability to make things happen, whatever. For instance, the other day I realized my ankles are quite sexy! Finding things you like about yourself will help keep you from getting stuck on the negative. While you’re at it, accept compliments from others. Too often I would play down a compliment from someone. (“I like your braids — they’re so neat” would quickly turn to my saying something like, “Oh, it’s just crochet braids.”) A note to you (and myself): Take the compliment, sis!

Pass on the praise. After you bask in your own greatness, compliment another sister, Dr. Frederick says. It will give both of you a boost. Plus, “it’s a good practice to reverse your negative self-talk; when we can compliment other people, it makes it easier to compliment ourselves,” Dr. Frederick explains. I know this to be true because sometimes I’ll compliment another woman for something and later realize I deserve props for the same thing.

Examine the evidence. If the chatterbox in your head says you’re not worthy of a job promotion, challenge her slander. Have you ever received positive feedback? A raise? If the answer to either question is yes, then homegirl is wrong.

Tune out or turn off. Emotions are contagious, so I limit my interactions with folks who are always negative and constantly dumping on themselves or others. The same with media consumption. If an outlet is kicking Black women or promoting doom and gloom, I delete, block or turn it off.

Make a cheat sheet. Dr. Frederick recommends keeping a note (on paper or on your cellphone) of techniques you can use in the moment to get out of the negative self-talk. My list includes distractions like taking my dogs for a walk or listening to music, instructions for simple deep-breathing exercises, and glimmers that induce joy.

Seek help. A mental health professional can help you reframe your thoughts and learn healthier ways to address yourself.