Improve Your Self-Talk

Self-talk is our internal dialog — the words we say to ourselves. These words reflect and create our emotional-physiological states. We can feel confident or nervous, motivated or discouraged, often depending on what we tell ourselves.

“Oh no! I have to speak at the committee meeting next week! I can’t possibly find time to prepare for it. I’ll do a terrible job. I always get nervous and make mistakes. It will just be another disaster. I’m such a klutz!”

Do you recognize this negative self-talk? Sounds dismal and depressing, doesn’t it? How many times have you had a similar conversation with yourself? Let’s try it again.

“Gee, I get to speak at the committee meeting next week! Hmmm. Maybe I can rearrange my schedule to allow for preparation time. The last time I spoke, I felt nervous and made mistakes. I’m sure I can do better this time. I know I can improve if I keep at it.”

Does that sound different?

Self-talk is our internal dialog–the words we say to ourselves. These words reflect and create our emotional-physiological states. We can feel confident or nervous, motivated or discouraged, often depending on what we tell ourselves. Self-talk can influence self-esteem, outlook, energy level, performance and relationships with others. It can even affect health, determining how we react to stress, and how easily we change bad habits such as smoking, overeating, or drinking.

Many of us are careful about how we communicate with others, but give little thought to how we communicate with ourselves. To improve the way you communicate with yourself, the first step is to recognize negative self-talk and replace it with positive self-talk. This article will tell you how.

Avoiding the Negative

How would you feel if a friend said to you, “You’re just not smart enough! You screw everything up!” Some friend! Yet, do you ever talk that way to yourself? Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism against the possibility of making mistakes. Perhaps a pre-emptive self-rejection will somehow lessen the hurt if others reject you or disapprove of your ideas. Negative thinking really doesn’t make things better. Negativity breeds pessimism and anxiety. It impedes problem-solving, distorts perceptions, and hinders interpersonal relationships. Cognitive psychologists, such as author and founder of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, Dr. Albert Ellis, have identified the types of “irrational” thinking that forms the basis of negative self-talk. Here are a few examples:


  • Focusing Only on Problems: This means complaining and focusing only on what’s wrong, rather than on what could be done to solve the problem.
  • “Catastrophizing”: Everything that goes wrong is a horrible disaster! We expect the worst and magnify problems.
  • Stereotyping: We put others into preconceived (usually negative) categories so that we don’t have to bother with understanding them, or seeing how they are similar to us.
  • “Shoulds”: Sometimes we think we should choose what others want us to, rather what we truly want to do. When we give in to the “shoulds,” we feel resentful, but if we don’t we feel guilty! Too often we judge our own or another’s behavior by saying what they “should have done.” It’s like closing the barn door after the cow has run away. “Should have done” doesn’t solve the problem.
  • Thinking in black and white: We think in extremes without allowing for shades of grey. The project was either a complete success or a complete failure.
  • Blaming: Instead of looking for a solution to the problem, we look for someone to blame.
  • “Yes-but”: When someone offers advice or a new point of view, we think of reasons why that won’t work.
  • Generalizing: We take a few examples, or maybe even one, and generalize what we perceive to an entire class or category. “I can do anything right. Everyone hates me!”

Examine Your Self-Talk

You can replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Listen to what you say to yourself. According to Harriet Braiker, author of Getting Up When You’re Feeling Down, negative self-talk usually occurs when emotions are in turmoil, or during a stressful event or personal transition.

When you find yourself using negative self-talk, take a deep breath, calm yourself, and remove yourself from the situation if you can. Some psychologists recommend saying a commanding “STOP!” to yourself to jar yourself out of a negative rut. Ask yourself: “Is what I’m saying to myself true? Are there other possibilities, solutions, or explanations?”

You can replace your negative self-talk with objective and encouraging thoughts. Fill your mind with uplifting ideas. Read inspiring books. Listen to joyful music. Hang out with upbeat people! Give recognition to your strengths and comfort yourself when things go wrong. Let your self-talk sound like the soothing words of a friend, counselor, or mentor. As your self-talk improves, commit to changing your actions accordingly. Braiker says, “Thinking correctly does alter your negative moods, but enduring change comes only with modifying your behavior.”

Say “Yes!” to Affirmations

One way to get into the habit of positive self-talk is by using affirmations. Affirmations are short, declarative statements that you repeat to yourself often in order to change your limiting beliefs and sullen attitudes. “I am an asset to my company” is a positive affirmation. Affirmations gain power through repetition because our emotions, perceptions, and actions are shaped by our most dominant thoughts.

Much of negative self-talk is actually negative affirmations. Examples are, “I’m just a klutz,” or “I have a terrible memory for names.” Unfortunately, such oft-repeated ideas can actually lower our expectations of ourselves, reinforce weaknesses and bad habits, and decrease performance.

No one is completely sure how affirmations work. Perhaps repeated thoughts form neural pathways in the brain that eventually streamline to the point of being automatic. Alternatively, the theory of cognitive dissonance states that the mind cannot entertain two opposing ideas simultaneously and as the mind tries to resolve the difference, the idea that receives the most repetition will win out. The theory of psycho-cybernetics states that frequent thoughts represent goals which the subconscious mind will strive to actualize. Thus, what we most often tell ourselves becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Guidelines for Affirmations

Make your affirmations personal. Don’t try to change others. Your affirmations should reflect your goals and values. Personal affirmations contain words such as “I” and “me” and “my.”

State your affirmations in the present tense. If your affirmations are future-oriented (as in “I will…”) then your subconscious may feel no urgency to produce results now. If you feel awkward expressing an affirmation in the present tense, as in “I am a confident speaker,” then state your affirmation as a process of improvement instead: “Each day I am more confident in my speaking abilities.”

Make your affirmations believable and realistic so that you say them with sincerity. Begin with small achievable goals and eventually work up to bigger achievements. “I am the world’s greatest teacher” is a fine affirmation, but probably more believable as “I am a good teacher who knows my subject matter and I get along well with my students.”

State affirmations in the positive. If you state your affirmations in the negative, it only focuses your thoughts on the things you want to avoid. For example, you could say “I don’t eat fattening foods,” or you could say “I eat nutritious, slenderizing foods.” Which statement is more motivating? If I say to you “Don’t think about a blue cow!” what image comes to mind? A blue cow, of course! But I told you NOT to think of a blue cow! Be careful where you direct your thinking because that’s where your energy follows.

Make your affirmations short and easy to remember. “I like myself,” is better than “I am now achieving the psychological state of self-esteem and personal dignity that is essential to positive mental health.”

Affirmations can become a part of your daily routine. Write them on index cards and post them in prominent places in your home and office. Make a tape recording of affirmations and play it for yourself as you fall asleep at night. Set your affirmations to music and sing them! Say them aloud while driving alone in your car. Write them in a journal. Make posters of them for your walls. Have your favorite one printed on a tee-shirt. Everyone I know who uses affirmations can attest to their beneficial influence—and you can too!

Decades ago, the great French philosopher René Descartes stated this simple concept: “Cogito, ergo sum.” It means “I think, therefore I am.” If, indeed, the act of thinking is a measure of existence, then there is surely a relationship between the quality of our thoughts and the quality of our lives. Let’s value our internal dialogs and keep our self-talk healthy, productive, and caring.

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