Every day we have an ongoing internal dialogue with ourselves. Our self-talk is automatic and often unconscious. The way we talk to ourselves develops over time and has an underlying tone.
Given the same experience, some of us engage in positive self-talk and others in negative self-talk. For example, if you oversleep and wake up 20 minutes before you need to leave the house, you might have a negative internal dialogue such as: “I can’t believe I overslept! How could I have been so dumb? Now I am rushing and I will be stressed and in a bad mood all day.” In contrast, your self-talk could be positive and sound like this: “I am so lucky I woke up. If I keep moving quickly I can get my day going on schedule.“ These two examples of self-talk depict opposite ways of interpreting the same situation.
Self-talk does more than narrate events; it can predispose us to experience the world in a certain way. We tend to seek out experiences that confirm our self-talk, thereby making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you expect the day to go wrong because you overslept, it is likely you will find evidence to validate this belief. In contrast, if you think you were lucky for waking up “just in time,” you will selectively find experiences that reinforce this belief throughout the day. Experiences that confirm your self-talk firmly cement a certain tone into your internal dialogue.
A continual pattern of negative self-talk is characteristic of individuals with anxiety, depression and insomnia. These individuals often use self-talk characterized by catastrophizing (giving great weight to a negative outcome no matter how improbable it may be), all or nothing thinking (seeing things in black and white instead of shades of gray) and disqualifying the positive (ignoring positive accomplishments).
Examples of this negative dialogue include: “I will never sleep at all again since I didn’t sleep the other night.” “My exercise regime is ruined because I didn’t have time to exercise yesterday.” And, “Even though I did well on my last math exam, I know I will not do well on this next one.” This negative self-talk lacks an internal locus of control, minimizes accomplishments, focuses on perceived failures and maximizes the potential for negative outcomes. Cognitive behavioral therapy that targets changing self-talk and making it more flexible and positive is helpful in treating anxiety, depression and insomnia.
While your internal dialogue may not be consistently negative, it may be limiting your potential. Gaining an awareness of your self-talk, challenging it and replacing it with more rational self-talk can be empowering and lead you to greater productivity and happiness. Ideas for how to assess and change your self-talk follow.
» Focus on “catching” what you are saying to yourself throughout the day. Examine your self-talk prior to entering new or important situations and when good and bad things happen.
» Critically assess how accurate your self-talk is. What evidence is there to support your belief, and what evidence contradicts your belief?
» Correct faulty thinking that underlies your self-talk. Ask yourself if there is another way to think about a situation.
» Look for and try to correct examples of all or nothing thinking, catastrophizing and disqualifying the positive in your self-talk. Remember that self-talk that has an external locus of control, minimizes achievements and maximizes failures should be corrected.
» Practice positive self-talk during your daily routines. The more you practice talking positively to yourself, the more able you will be able to catch and correct negative self-talk when you hear it.
» Every morning make a positive affirmation about your day. Start your day with this positive self-talk.
» Look for models of people who engage in positive dialogue about themselves and situations. Model how they view their achievements and events. Incorporate their thinking into your self-talk.
» Use a visual cue as a reminder to catch your negative self-talk and replace it. Rubber bands around your wrist, a drawing on the palm of your hand or a note on the refrigerator are all good visual reminders.
» Record yourself on your mobile device as you practice positive self-talk statements. Play the recording daily and when you feel you have gotten into a negative self-talk rut.
» If you like to journal, write five positive statements daily or write these statements prior to an experience that you find triggers negative self-talk.
Now go have a positive talk with yourself!
— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at email@example.com. She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.