There is almost no problem I encounter in therapy that is not at least somewhat connected to self-talk—and the right modification in self-talk can help with almost every interpersonal and intrapsychic problem imaginable. Self-talk comprises all the words and phrases and statements we say to ourselves that other people do not hear. Whether you are deciding between two options, planning your day, reflecting on a social interaction, observing, evaluating, pondering, etc. you are engaging in some type of self-talk.
Depending on academic and social context, self-talk may be labeled the “internal monologue” or “internal dialogue” or “consciousness” or “conscience.” These terms are useful to an extent—self-talk is typically a series of words, it is often conversational, it is an indication of consciousness, and sometimes it provides moral guidance or considers moral quandaries. However, what these terms and their common use tend to ignore or take for granted about self-talk are precisely the reasons it comes up so often in therapy:
- Self-talk is often not a firm-but-fair inner Jiminy Cricket reminding you to do the right thing: it can be angry, critical, fearful, desperate, generally negative: towards life, circumstances, and you.
- Self-talk—both positive and negative—does not just report and weigh The Facts. Everyone’s self-talk has its own agenda and its own interpretation of reality; it is a subjective lens that seeks to prove what it already believes—and if you listen to yours unquestioningly, there is a good chance you are not hearing the whole story.
Take a moment now and consider how you talk to yourself: what tone do you use when you are planning or pondering? Are you gentle, patient, and encouraging—like you might be with a beloved friend or child or partner? Do you address yourself with kindness and affirmation, listing all the ways you are strong and worthy? In times of distress, are you validating and compassionate with yourself?
Sadly, many of us engage in self-talk that is generally disinterested and non-affirming. In times of distress, it may become critical or even hostile. Chronic internal criticism—also referred to as “negative self-talk”—can be difficult to bear. Over time, it may spill out as dysfunctional behavior, hostility towards others, emotional dysregulation, self-harm, substance use, or various other psychopathologies.
Below I have listed some examples of damaging self-talk that I have encountered personally and professionally: [NOTE: it is not a fun read.]
- “You are not good enough; you can’t do anything right; everyone already thinks you’re a failure.”
- “No one understands you; no one cares about you; you are alone.”
- “If you cannot figure this is out than you deserve to be unhappy; everyone else is happy/can do this, you’re just deficient.”
- “Everything is broken, and you cannot fix it; no matter how hard you try.”
- “The world is dangerous, and no one is safe; you could lose everything at any moment; you are powerless.”
If you can relate to any of these examples of negative self-talk, you are not alone. For some, explicit negative self-talk like this dominates our internal airwaves day in and day out; for others, it lies dormant for hours, weeks, or months—then interjects brutally and suddenly. High-functioning and high-performing individuals often make excuses for negative self-talk: e.g. it is motivational, it is more appropriate and moral than having a swelled head, etc. However, in vulnerable moments, negative self-talk’s veneer of functionality falls away: even very wise and capable people can make very bad decisions while trying to defend themselves against their own internal criticism.
The long-term etiology of negative self-talk, as well as what triggers it in the moment, are a little different for every person—and therapy can help us understand both. In the meantime, consciously choosing to practice positive self-talk now—particularly during moments of distress—can reverse the emotional and behavioral impact of negative self-talk and help all of us to become more resilient and compassionate individuals.
Here are a few of my favorite examples of positive self-talk, and why they work:
- Show yourself you are a good listener: “This is clearly a hard situation; I can see why this is upsetting for me; I am in pain, and my pain is valid; I can see why I might be lashing out or shutting down.”
- Demonstrate compassion for yourself: “It is OK not to have all the answers; it is OK to fail; it is OK to need help; the fact that I am struggling does not mean I am bad or deficient.”
- Practice unconditional positive regard: “I do hard things often; I have faced difficult circumstances before; I am worthy and valuable; I am already good enough; I am strong enough to endure this.”
- Offer yourself some hard-fought wisdom: “Life is really complicated, and sometimes the only way to figure it out is by living through it; ‘We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart’ (Chödrön, 2017).”
- Review your good options: “Which of my strengths should I summon to help me deal with this? What can I do to feel better right now [that I will be glad I did later]? Who could I trust to help me with this? What negative emotions am I feeling, and how could I express them constructively?”
I cannot guarantee that positive self-talk with help you feel 100% better—emotions are much, much more complicated than that. But it is a good start! And, perhaps more importantly, positive self-talk will tell you the parts of the story that negative self-talk always leaves out.
Janine Joly-DeMars, MS, LCMFT, provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Janine!