Imagine that a close friend calls you on the phone, sounding very upset and stating that they just need to talk to someone they trust. They launch into a story about how they misunderstood what their boss wanted them to do on a work assignment, and the boss asked them to do it over. The story is punctuated with exclamations like, “I can’t believe I made such a stupid mistake; I’ve been working there for 3 years now!” and “Leave it to me to mess up something that simple.”
How would you respond to this friend? Would you say, “Wow, yea, that really sounds stupid of you!” or “I don’t know; how did you manage to mess that up?”
Of course not! (Or, at least, if you would, you should really take a step back and evaluate your friendship strategies.) You would probably say something like, “I’m sure that no one is going to hold this one mistake against you forever. You can show that you’re dedicated by turning it around on the second try!” Or you might say, “Everyone makes mistakes at work. Just because you don’t always see other people’s mistakes doesn’t mean they’re doing their jobs perfectly.”
So why do we so often talk to ourselves like the upset friend in this example? Mental health professionals call the things we tell ourselves about ourselves “self-talk.” Writing for Psychology Today, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., defines self-talk as the act of providing “opinions and evaluations on what you’re doing as you’re doing it.”
So what’s so important about self-talk?
It might seem like a passing part of your life, the fleeting moments when you talk to yourself about yourself, but a couple of recent studies have shown that self-talk actually has profound effects on your behavior and overall mental health. Need proof? Consider the following two studies:
- Steven Roselberg, a researcher working out of UNC-Chapel Hill, published a study in 2013 that looked at the kind of self-talk that professional managers performed, based on their own self-reports. Rogelberg found a positive correlation between constructive self-talk and skills like leadership, creativity, and originality. In other words, there’s a relationship between constructive self-talk and an open mind that can find creative solutions to problems. The more you talk down to yourself, then, the more you might be closing off chances to think innovatively, therefore making the negative self-talk almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- According to a 2014 NPR article, a team of scientists in the Netherlands observed the behavior of women with anorexia as they walked through the doorway of a lab. Shockingly, they found that many of the women, though often emaciated and frail, would physically turn their shoulders sideways when they entered the doorway; they thought they might not fit through it. Their self-talk – which told them that they were too large – had led them to a vastly inaccurate idea of how much space their bodies were actually taking up. It distorted their perception of reality.
Clearly, the drawbacks of negative self-talk are not just superficial, and the benefits of constructive self-talk are well worth the effort. So if you’re a habitual negative self-talker, how can you turn your self-talk around?
Developing Positive Self-Talk
Any habit takes time and practice to change, but here are 3 concrete things you can do to start silencing your inner critic and fostering your inner cheerleader:
1. Avoid thinking of constructive self-talk as looking at yourself through “rose-colored glasses.”
It’s imperative not to think of constructive self-talk as some sort of millennial “snowflake” trend that people have to take part in to make themselves feel better. Constructive self-talk is almost always more aligned with reality than negative self-talk. If you look at the negative self-talk in the example at the beginning of this post, you can see that it’s exaggerated and simply untrue; that friend isn’t a loser, idiot, or failure just because of this one mistake at work. Constructive self-talk realizes the reality that people make mistakes, but that this doesn’t detract from their self-worth or potential.
2. Practice writing down your negative self-talk and its sources.
This advice comes from Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today. Dr. Jantz says:
Try the following exercise. Write down some of the negative messages inside your mind that undermine your ability to overcome your depression. Be specific, whenever possible, and include anyone you remember who contributed to that message. Now, take a moment to intentionally counteract those negative messages with positive truths in your life. Don’t give up if you don’t find them quickly. For every negative message, there is a positive truth that will override the weight of despair. These truths always exist; keep looking until you find them.
This exercise can help you think about the source of your negative self-talk, which will help you realize that it’s not coming from your own inherent lack of worth as a human being.
3. Use your own name when engaging in self-talk rather than using “I.”
This one sounds deceptively simple, but many psychologists have found that it helps their patients. The idea is that referring to yourself in the third person – as in, “Manuel, you can recover from this” – leads to more positive self-talk than referring to yourself in the first person – as in “I can’t do anything right.” When you use your name, it actually creates distance from yourself; it helps you think of yourself as anyone else that you might be referring to by name, like a friend or a family member. And when you think of yourself with that distance, you’re less likely to tell yourself something cruel that you would never say to a loved one.
If you feel like you still need a little additional help, check out this fun New Yorker article that lists several positive thinking apps available for your mobile device. The article is from 2014, but the apps it mentions are still operational.
If you’d like to talk more about turning your self-talk around so that it works for you rather than against you,, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult .