“Self-talk” is the psychological term for the inner conversation that streams constantly through one’s mind. Self-talk is something we all do. In fact, some believe that self-talk is the same thing as thinking.
Many voices contribute to your inner conversation. I refer not to the "voices" that may accompany a mental disorder, but to the various sides of one’s personality. In five seconds, you might hear from these different “sides” of yourself: “Worried about my son.” “I wonder what I’ll do about dinner.” “Hate my hair.” And so on.
Sometimes a negative voice takes over, pelting you with discouraging and hateful messages about who you are, what you’ve done, and your bleak prospects for the future. When this destructive voice predominates, you may feel a lack of self-esteem, a sense of worthlessness, or even depression. (If this voice is too strong or takes over too often, please see a therapist.)
To counter the negative thinking, you also have a positive inner voice. This voice takes your side, encourages you, soothes you when times are tough, and helps you accomplish what you need to. When your positive voice dominates, you have more confidence, self-esteem, motivation, and peace of mind.
I find it helpful to think of your positive inner voice as a chorus of many voices. To recognize, strengthen, and practice using that chorus, I’m going to distinguish five such voices. They are all distinct, but helpful, supportive, and/or loving:
Here are the 5 positive voices, how they can help you, and what to do to strengthen each one:
1. The Rational Voice
Your rational voice is like a life coach—realistic, encouraging, and a little hard-nosed when necessary, much like the voice of an honest best friend. This voice of reason helps you challenge any harmful, unrealistic, or self-defeating thoughts you may tell yourself. Certain forms of therapy—cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example—focus specifically on fortifying this voice.
How does it work? Think of the phrase, “Catch it, challenge it, change it.”
How to strengthen this voice: Practice the “Catch it, challenge it, change it” technique. (To better "catch" your self-defeating and irrational thoughts, read the post, “50 Common Cognitive Distortions,” by Dr. Alice Boyes.) Many excellent books and workbooks use CBT as a springboard. Feel free to recommend your favorites in the comments area, below.
2. The Kind Voice
Your rational voice can challenge self-defeating thoughts like a wily lawyer. But logic has its limits. Sometimes you just need to acknowledge the emotions you are feeling and validate them. Here’s where your kind voice comes in. It affirms that you feel sad or angry or frustrated and understands your feelings without judging you.
How does it work? Your kind voice can turn down the volume on your inner critic. It might tell you, for example, that someone’s cruel comment—including your own—does not reflect who you are. It can help you be kinder and less judgmental of others. It can tell you, “You don’t have to be perfect.” Self-compassion can dissolve negative thinking in the warmth of self-acceptance.
How to strengthen this voice: Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff is filled with mantras, long and short, that can help you when you are experiencing a time of suffering. My favorite: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.” Choose a mantra or saying you like and memorize it. For other quick sayings that will encourage self-talk that is kind and soothing, see this blog by Toni Bernhard.
3. The Values Voice
Your values voice is the still, small voice of conscience. It reminds you of your core values and goals, such as family, health, helping others, making that video, writing that book, or starting that business. Being mindful of your values and goals can activate your sense of purpose and boost your motivation to plug away at long-term goals, whatever the obstacles.
How does it work? Recent studies have confirmed the power of remembering personal values. For example, one study showed that reflecting on core values helped people become more open-minded to health advice. Another study revealed that people who wrote stories about their core values performed better under stress. Many studies back up the idea that people who are reminded of important values have better self-control and will persist longer on frustrating tasks.
How to strengthen this voice: Remind yourself of three values or goals that are essential to your best self. Make 3 x 5 cards of your most significant motivators and place them strategically around the house. Put reminders of those motivators at the top of your to-do list. Try the 5-minute exercise in this blog, where you'll also find the research mentioned above.
4. The Motivator
The motivator helps you fulfill your goals and values by giving you specific self-instructions and plans like, "Work on that report for 30 minutes, then check your email."
How does it work? These self-instructions are a great way to cultivate willpower. For example, your motivator could coax you into persisting by suggesting, "Just hang in there with your task for 5 more minutes, then stop if you want to." Someone who wants to abstain from alcohol could use "if/then" self-talk: “If someone offers me a drink, then I will ask for an iced tea.” Psychologist Walter Mischel, famous for his “marshmallow studies,” helped small children cultivate willpower by teaching them to tell themselves, “I’m going to keep working now so I can play with the fun toys later.”
The Motivator also encourages you by giving you compliments. "Good job on handling that sticky situation," it might murmur.
To strengthen this voice: An easy way to amplify this voice is to give yourself at least one genuine compliment per day. Or try giving yourself self-instructions as you drive to work or approach your day: “First thing I’ll do when I go in is…after that I’ll...".
5. The Emotions Expert
Your emotions expert is the voice of emotional intelligence. This voice can help you sense, name, and cope with your feelings, amplifying them or cooling them down, depending on what is necessary.
How does it work? Self-talk from this voice can help you with emotional regulation or help you develop strategies for either expressing those emotions in constructive ways or just becoming aware of them. To calm distressing emotions a notch or two, just labeling them with a word will often do the trick, as described more fully here.
To strengthen this voice: As you go through your day, take a few moments just to label what you are feeling or experiencing. Your self-talk could sound like this: “Sad.” “Curious.” “Angry.” “Tired.” Decide if you want to do something about any of those feelings. For example, “tired” could be the signal to take a break, while "angry” could be the signal to talk strategy with a valued colleague.
Where to Start?
A lot of mental activity is outside of your control, but you can strengthen your positive self-talk. The first step is making the decision to use one of these helpful voices when you need it. Choose a voice you'd like to hear more from, then choose one strategy to practice.
When you strengthen the positive voices inside you, you may notice that your emotions change, too. You begin to feel more hopeful or determined. You notice that you treat yourself with more kindness. These feelings signify that you have done some good work on yourself. Your mind has changed your brain! Odd as it may sound, it's true.
Pardon the shameless self-promotion, but for an excellent 5-page summary of how to change your self-talk the CBT way, I recommend the chapter, "Change Your Self-Talk," in my book Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Buy it and try it!
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© Meg Selig, 2015