Understanding self-talk

Take a minute and think about what you’ve said to yourself today. Was it critical? Or was it kind and helpful? How did you feel after you engaged in this inner discussion?

Your thoughts are the source of your emotions and mood. The conversations you have with yourself can be destructive or beneficial. They influence how you feel about yourself and how you respond to events in your life.

Self-talk is something you do naturally throughout your waking hours. People are becoming more aware that positive self-talk is a powerful tool for increasing your self-confidence and curbing negative emotions. People who can master positive self-talk are thought to be more confident, motivated, and productive.

Although positive self-talk comes naturally to some, most people need to learn how to cultivate positive thoughts and dispel the negative ones. With practice, it can become more natural to think good thoughts rather than bad ones.

Positive self-talk

Positive self-talk is supportive and affirming. Consider the following two inner statements:

  • “I’m going to speak up in the meeting today because I have something important to contribute.” This sounds like a positive plan and attitude.
  • “I don’t think I want to speak up in the meeting today because I’ll look foolish if I say the wrong thing.” Contrast this negative comment with the statement above.

Rumination: Negative self-talk

Rumination is the flip side of positive self-talk. It happens when you replay upsetting or cringe-worthy thoughts or events over and over again in your head. Thinking through a problem can be useful, but if you spend a lot of time ruminating, small issues tend to snowball. Constant rumination can make you more likely to experience depression or anxiety.

This statement show negative thoughts can grow and become self-defeating:

“I look so fat in this dress. I really am fat. Look at those thighs. No wonder I can’t get a date. Why can’t I lose weight? It’s impossible.”

Researchers have found that it’s not just about what you say to yourself, it’s also the language that you use to say it. One 2014 reportdescribes the role of language in self-talk. What’s the key? When practicing self-talk, don’t refer to yourself in the first person, such as “I” or “me.” Instead, refer to yourself in the third person, using “he” or “she,” or refer to yourself by name.

Brené Brown, professor at the University of Houston Graduate College and motivational speaker, refers to the negative voices in her head as her gremlins. By giving her negative thoughts a name, she’s both stepping away from them and poking fun at them.

The report goes on to say that using the third person in self-talk can help you step back and think more objectively about your response and emotions, whether you’re thinking about a past event or looking into the future. It can also help you reduce stress and anxiety.

Listen and learn

Spend a few days listening closely to your inner dialogues. Are you supportive of yourself? Are you critical or negative? Would you be comfortable saying those thoughts and words to a loved one? Are common threads or themes repeated? Write down important or frequent negative thoughts.

Think it through

Ask yourself the following questions about each of the thoughts you’ve listed:

  • Am I overreacting? Is it really that big of a deal? Is it important in the long run?
  • Am I overgeneralizing? Am I coming to a conclusion based more on opinion or experience than facts?
  • Am I mind reading? Am I assuming others have specific beliefs or feel a certain way? Am I guessing how they’ll react?
  • Am I labeling myself harshly? Do you refer to yourself using words like “stupid,” “hopeless,” or “fat?”
  • Is this an all-or-nothing thought? Am I viewing one incident as either good or bad without considering that the reality is rarely black or white? The answer usually lies in the gray area between the two.
  • How truthful and accurate is this thought? Step way back and consider the accuracy of the thought as a friend might.

Now that you have a better idea of how your inner thoughts are skewed, it’s time to switch gears and learn a new approach to self-talk. Look back at the thoughts on your list and reword them in a kinder, more positive light.

Example 1

  • “What an idiot! I really screwed up that presentation. Well, that’s the end of my career.”
  • Alternative: “I can do better than that. I’ll prepare and rehearse more next time. Maybe I’ll get some public speaking training. That would be good for my career.”

Example 2

  • “I can’t do that in just one week. It’s impossible.”
  • Alternative: “It’s a lot to do, but I’ll take it one step at a time. I think I’ll see if my friends can help, too.”

Example 3

  • “How ridiculous! I can’t teach myself how to think more positively.”
  • Alternative: “Learning to think more positively can help me in many ways. I’m going to give it a shot.”

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Banishing your inner critic and learning how to have productive, positive inner conversations has no downside. Some people may find it easier than others to adopt positive self-talk. Others may have to give it more time and put more effort into it. Either way, it’s a worthwhile step toward bettering yourself and improving your sense of self-worth.


Why is self-talk important?

Anonymous patient


Self-talk is important in many ways. It’s the script that we use to frame our lives. If we constantly give ourselves negative messages, then we begin to develop automatic thoughts that take us from a particular incident to a negative emotional reaction. Conversely, if we engage in positive self-talk, we begin to view the world in a more positive manner and will ultimately feel better about ourselves. We can’t always control what happens, but we can control how we react to it!

Tim Legg, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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