How to Positively Change Your Self Talk


October 18, 2021

We’re all familiar with that voice – the one that nags in our ear at daybreak, telling us we’re lazy for not jumping out of bed as soon as the alarm sounds.

It’s the same voice that says we’re incompetent, clumsy, thoughtless – or far worse – for botching a work presentation, breaking a wine glass, or forgetting a nephew’s birthday.

In the echo chamber of our inner critic, there’s very little we get right.

Negative self-talk makes us feel lousy and lowers our performance. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of therapeutic approaches, self-help books, and YouTube videos aimed at countering it. So much so, that standing in front of a mirror and affirming our self-worth a la Stuart Smalley – “I’m good enough. Smart enough and, doggone it, people like me” – has become a classic send-up of positive affirmations.

But long before Stuart Smalley, dating back to the 1800s, psychologists have sought to understand how our internal dialog impacts our thoughts, emotions, and actions. There’s also been a long-standing trend of trying to change how we talk to ourselves for the better.

Improving the Way We Talk to Ourselves

In the 1920s, French pharmacist and psychologist Emile Coue advocated using auto-suggestion and the phrase – “Every day in every way I’m getting better.” – to boost achievement. And since the 1970s, positive self-talk has been a go-to method for boosting athletic performance.

But does positive self-talk work? And how can we talk to ourselves in a way that actually makes us feel better about ourselves?

The answer isn’t straightforward. Pumping yourself up is better than putting yourself down. But how, when, and what you say to yourself matters. Also, positive self-talk might not be for everyone. Some of us just aren’t that chatty.

“Self-talk needs to feel right for the person using it in a particular situation,” says Judy Van Raalte, a self-talk researcher, and professor of psychology at Springfield College. 

If you’re a football player, firing yourself up before a game by shouting “Let’s do this” might prime performance. But it could derail a golfer, who needs library silence to sink a putt.

Positive affirmations also backfire when the person uttering them already has low-self esteem.  Telling yourself  “I’m the best” when you believe “I’m not good enough” creates cognitive dissonance and makes you feel worse. So, too, does saying “I’m calm” when you feel a beehive of anxiety buzzing in your belly.

So, what do you do to improve the way you talk to yourself?

Reach for reasonable, encouraging statements. Experiment with the tone, phrasing, and which circumstances to use positive self-talk to determine what works best for you.

Simple statements such as “You can change,” “You’re capable,” and “You’ve got this” might be more convincing to a skeptical brain than grandiose ones professing “You’re a genius.” 

Saying “I’m excited” or “My body is getting me ready to perform” when you feel anxious is a helpful reframe that matches your physiological state. And during an athletic performance short, instructional phrases such as “breathe” or “focus” inspire while downplaying distraction and mental overload. Another nuance: When using self-talk in stressful social situations, referring to yourself in the third person might be more effective than using first-person pronouns because it increases self-distancing and regulation, according to researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley.

Self-Talk and Mindfulness

Changing our internal dialog for the better also takes mindfulness as well as practice. After all, we first need to be aware that we’re chiding ourselves for hitting the snooze button before we can soften our self-talk. We also need time to uproot the tentacles of our reflexive inner critic.

To help you add more mindfulness to your self-talk, check out these on-demand programs:

Written by Kelly Barron