Self-Talk: Why The Words We Use Matter

We all have an internal dialogue – whether we’re aware of it or not. Some of us may be conscious of it as a constant stream. For others, it might seem less often and more ‘remember to put the bins out’ and ‘oh you dingo, why did you drop the toast on the floor?’. Our self-talk matter because it affects our emotions, mood, and ultimately our actions.

Self-Talk: Why The Words We Use Matter

What Is Self-Talk?

Put simply, self-talk encompasses both the things we say to ourselves and how we say them. It can affect our emotions, mood, and actions.

For some of us, our self-talk might include an internal monologue, providing ongoing commentary of our life. Our self-talk could be quite negative, criticising everything we do. Alternatively, we might speak to ourselves in a positive, encouraging voice, cheering ourselves on.

Some of us might speak out loud when talking to ourselves whereas others of us keep our self-talk inside our head.

What Is Self-Stigma?

Self-stigma can form part of self-talk. Most of us have heard of stigma – an (often negative) opinion that we develop of certain people or things, based on the general views of the society we grew up in.

Although it’s improving, there can be a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness. An example of stigma against those with mental illness would be assuming that everyone with a particular diagnosis is dangerous.

It’s often derived from false assumptions, misinformation, and fear; it can lead to discrimination.

Self-stigma comes from internalising societal stigma. We hear beliefs shared by those in our society, agree with them, and then apply them to ourselves. For example, we may have grown up in a society that believes those with depression are attention seekers. With no evidence to dispute that belief, we might agree with it and apply it to ourselves. This could then prevent us from accessing help when we’re worried about our mood because we believe that we’re an attention seeker who just needs to cheer up. (To clarify: those with depression aren’t attention seekers and we all deserve help and support.)

Self-stigmatising doesn’t make us a bad person. If everyone in our believes something or sees something as ‘fact’, and nobody has ever given us an alternative point of view, then why would we think any different?

Where Does Our Self-Talk Come From?

Our self-talk comes from all of our experiences and the people we’ve met throughout our lives.

This could include things people have said to us and the way(s) they’ve said it, films we’ve seen, books we’ve read, things we’ve seen in the news, or stuff we’ve read online. The things we hear most often and those that have affected us the most are likely to be the things that stick in our minds most strongly.

Why Does It Matter?

The voice we’re likely to hear the most often in life is the one in our head because it’s with us all the time.

Self-talk can affect the opinion we have of ourselves, our emotions, confidence, self-belief, and mood which can all inform our actions. For example, if we repeatedly tell ourselves that we’re rubbish at everything, then we probably won’t believe that we can do hard things. This often means that we give up on difficult things more quickly than if we believe that we’re capable, resilient, and an excellent problem-solver.

Negative self-talk can hinder our ability to learn, limit our growth, stunt our achievement, and drag us down. Positive self-talk tends to empower us, encourage us to try new things, and build our confidence.

Negative Self-Talk

As humans, we naturally zone in on the negatives. This includes things like the mistakes we make, things we don’t like about the way we look, or ‘constructive criticism’ we’ve received from others. Research has shown that we need something in the region of four to seven positive comments to balance out one negative one.

But, even though it comes naturally to us; negative self-talk isn’t very helpful. If we had a little troll sat on our shoulder all the time, whispering in our ear, telling us that we’re useless, rubbish, incapable, and a burden – how long would we listen to it before we flicked it away? Yet many of us speak to ourselves like that all the time. And it drags us down.

“Why Try”

There is something called the “why try” phenomenon. If we write ourselves off, and believe that we’re rubbish, useless, and can’t do anything right; then why would we bother trying? What’s the point in trying if we ‘know’ that we’re not going to get things right? Or we ‘know’ that we can’t do something?

“Why try” can limit the things we do, and how much effort we put into them, which in turn, can limit our growth and the experiences we have. We might begin to isolate ourselves because we think we ‘can’t’ be sociable. It might affect the jobs we apply for, the things we choose to study, the places we visit, or the hobbies we take up.

Identify Self-Talk

Though we can’t necessarily stop automatic thoughts that pop into our head, we can learn to identify how we speak to ourselves and how we respond to our thoughts.

The first step is to notice our self-talk. How are we speaking to ourselves? What words are we saying, and what is our tone of voice like? Is it encouraging or are we constantly criticising ourselves?

We might never have stopped to notice or listen to our self-talk before. For many of us it just witters on, and we don’t actively take notice of what we’re saying or how we’re saying it.

Question Your Self-Talk

Are the things we’re saying to ourselves true? Do we have any factual evidence to back them up? For example, if we think that we’ll never be able to learn French, what evidence do we have for that? Have we ever tried to learn it before? How long did we try for? Did we try a few different methods of learning or did we keep trying the same way that has never worked for us?

Are the things we say to ourselves kind? Would we say them to a friend? Could we phrase our self-talk differently? If we said our thoughts out loud, what might others think? Would they agree? Would they think that we were being kind to ourselves?

Questioning our self-talk can be difficult, particularly to begin with. Many of us are used to going along with the things we’re saying to ourselves without really thinking about them. Trying to question or fight it can be exhausting. It’s worth remembering that we don’t have to question absolutely everything we say to ourselves. Slowly beginning to question things one statement at a time can help us to start opening up to the idea that our thoughts aren’t necessarily facts, and the way we speak to ourselves is something that we can have control over.

Re-framing Self-Talk

We can learn to re-frame the way we speak to ourselves. For example, if we make a mistake, many of us will immediately tell ourselves that we’re useless, disorganised, and can’t do anything right. Re-framing can allow us to recognise the mistake, but flip it around and think about the things we’ve learned from it instead.

If we’re struggling to reframe things for ourselves, we could think about how we might speak to one of our friends. Would we have a go at them if they made a mistake? Or would we tell them it’s okay, and work through it alongside them?

We All Have Strengths

Every single person has strengths. Whether we’re amazing at helping people to feel comfortable around us, remembering strings of numbers, painting, looking after kids, or particle physics, every single one of us is good at something.

Rather than ruminating over the mistakes we make, and the things we struggle with, starting to think about our strengths, can increase our confidence and help us to learn and grow. We can begin to see things as possible or achievable, to believe that we are good at things, and to see ourselves as a worthy, valuable person to have around.

Identify People Who Can Help

It can be helpful to find people to speak to about our self-talk. Whether it’s friends, family, professionals or a mentor figure, other people can often help us to reframe our self-talk, and find evidence to dispute any unhelpful ‘facts’ that we might tell ourselves.

Most of us will know someone who has nice things to say about us. Keeping a record of nice messages, compliments, and any cards we receive, can give us something to look back on at times when we struggle to remember our strengths and to be kind to ourselves.

Positive Self-Talk

Positively speaking to ourselves can help us to feel hopeful. To feel empowered, and to believe in ourselves. It can increase our self-confidence and self-esteem.

Taking note of our self-talk helps us to have an awareness of times when we’re being unkind to ourselves. Once we’re aware of any negative self-talk, with practice, self-kindness, support and understanding, we can work to turn it around.

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