The Power of Self-talk

“The words you speak become the house you live in.”  ~ Hafiz

We all have voices talking to us in our heads. Each is competing for our attention. Some of them are louder than others, some are more quiet. Some more convincing, others less believable. Learning to harness and amplify the positive voice(s) is an exercise or skill we can focus on to be more kind to ourselves and productive in life. This is called positive self-talk. It all sounds like a little bit of mambo jumbo, so let’s break this down.

Self-talk is the way we talk to ourselves–our inner voice. We may not even be aware that we do it, but we most certainly carry on dialogue with ourselves. This inner voice combines our thoughts with our beliefs and biases to create conversation throughout the day. Self-talk is important because it has a significant impact on how we feel about ourselves. It can be supportive and beneficial, motivating us, or it can be negative, undermining our confidence–which influences how we live our lives, the choices we make, and the perceptions we have of the world around us.

Thoughts like, “I’m never going to be able to do this” or “I’m no good at this,” are examples of negative self-talk.  More often than not, negative self-talk does not reflect reality. It can lead to rumination, which is essentially just intrusive negative thoughts on constant repeat. It is important to understand what negative self-talk looks like so we can catch ourselves in the act and replace it with something more uplifting. 

There are four common kinds of negative self-talk to watch out for. The first is filtering—when we magnify the negative aspects of any given situation and filter out anything that is positive. Second is personalizing— when something unrelated to us happens and we automatically blame ourselves. The third is catastrophizing—when something minor occurs yet we escalate it and anticipate the absolute worst-case scenario. The fourth is polarizing—when we see things only as either good or bad with zero middle ground. 

We are all prone to some negative self-talk from time to time.  Because negative self-talk can creep up easily, it is often hard to notice until we are neck-deep in the repeating cycle. Here are some ideas we can implement when we catch ourselves listening to negative self-talk:

  • Stop and replace those negative messages with positive ones. “I’m so bad at this,” can become, “I am proud of myself for trying. With practice I will only get better at this!” Similarly, “I shouldn’t have tried” becomes, “That didn’t work out as planned—next time will be better!”
  • Sometimes our negative thoughts are not as obvious as the above examples, which makes it tricky to simply swap them out with something more upbeat. In these cases, I recommend pausing, taking a breath and examining our thoughts. We can ask ourselves if we are filtering, personalizing, catastrophizing, or polarizing. The simple act of pausing and recognizing negative thoughts for what they are is the first step to working through the problem.
  • We can also ask ourselves if we would talk like that to someone else we care about. We are nearly always our own worst critic and would not dream of demeaning someone else the way we do ourselves. 
  • Another tactic is to challenge our thoughts—ask ourselves if it is true (often it is not). Ask ourselves if there is another explanation or way to look at any given situation.  Challenge those negative thoughts and they begin to unravel. 
  • We can also put our thoughts into perspective by asking, “So what?” Negative self-talk often makes mountains out of mole hills, so when we ask this, we put things into true perspective and see that we are making a bigger deal than we should. This gives room for more positive self-talk. 
  • Try to look at things from a different person’s perspective. This will help clarify things in our minds and give us a little more room to see the good in ourselves or in a given situation.
  • We can also try writing our thoughts down or even saying them out loud. This is a great way to deflate negative self-talk… it doesn’t sound as powerful when we say it out loud!
  • And finally—we can ask ourselves if whatever we are fretting about will matter in a few years’ time. This is another way to ground that negative self-talk, by giving it an expiration date and making it seem less permanent. 

These are quick ways to spot those negative thoughts we think and ground them in order to have more positive self-talk.

While negative self-talk drags us down, positive self-talk builds us up. The benefits of self-talk are far-reaching! If we think positively about ourselves, we will feel good and optimistic about ourselves, others, and life most of the time. Research shows that positive self-talk can improve self-esteem; reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety; improve body image and treat people with eating disorders; reduce risk of self-harm and suicide; increase feelings of being in control; help with chronic pain; improve motivation; and increase inner calmness. Learning to have more positive self-talk is a powerful tool to a happy, thriving, successful life, and we are in the driver’s seat. 

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.


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Melissa Cluff, MS, LMFT, CSAT

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.