Most people know that saying negative, critical things to yourself doesn’t make you feel good about who you are and usually isn’t very effective at helping you get what you want. Calling yourself stupid, ugly, or a loser is more likely to make you want to crawl into bed and hide under the covers than inspire you to go out and accomplish something. But what many people don’t realize is that the things you don’t say to yourself can also sabotage your life. When you want a raise, and you don’t tell yourself that you are worth it and have worked hard to deserve a raise, you are far less likely to ask for one.
Even when people I work with have worked hard at quieting their inner critical voice, they often still have considerable difficulty saying things about themselves that are positive. What you say to yourself is the foundation for your actions. If you don't tell yourself something is possible, you won't act on it. In order to achieve the things you want in life, you often have to be your own cheerleader, believe in your abilities, and tell yourself that you can do it. Learning how to talk to yourself in a positive, loving way is just as important to having a good life as stopping the self-criticism.
Below are some ways to overcome common reasons people struggle with positive self-talk:
1. "It sounds fake."
When self-criticism is more familiar than self-love, it can feel strange and even untrue to start talking to yourself in a positive way. Going from I am a loser to I am a winner is a big leap, and when you make large leaps in thought, the brain will resist, and you will end up feeling like you are just lying to yourself. At this point people start generating resistant thoughts — Who am I kidding? I am a total phony. But as you learn to talk to yourself in a positive way, you want to work your way up to where you would like to be. The goal is to reach for thoughts that feel like an improvement, but are still within the realm of what you know is true about yourself, like: Sometimes when I try, I can succeed. When you choose phrases that are hopeful, but not absolute, you are more likely to buy into their truth, and they won’t sound so fake. When you stick with picking improved thoughts, eventually you get to the place you want to be — I really do like myself. Some phrases that may help you choose improved thoughts without leaping too far include: I am capable of...; I can learn to...; I am working on...; I can start...; I am trying…; and I am willing to...
2. "I'm not a narcissist."
People often worry that if they say too many positive things to themselves, they will become egotistical or narcissistic. Human behavior, however, lies on a continuum. Being egotistical is at the opposite end of the spectrum from someone who is struggling with being able to talk to themselves in a positive way, and there is a lot of space in-between. Being too far at one end of the spectrum or another generally tends to cause some problems. What you are aiming for is to simply move more to the middle. The balance in behavior exists when you are centered. For someone who struggles with being able to say kind things to themselves, the chances of becoming a narcissist are practically zero.
3. "Nothing's ever worked before."
One of the biggest obstacles to learning how to engage in positive self-talk about your future is looking at past failures and making the assumption that you won’t be able to succeed at doing things differently. The important thing to keep in mind is that the past only matters to the degree that you use it to limit your future. If you remember that in the past when you asked for a raise you didn’t get one, and then use that as the reason to not ask for one now, then you are using the past to limit your future. Often the biggest change necessary to make your future different is telling yourself that it can be different. Keep your attention focused on telling yourself the reasons why it can be different: I have learned a lot and grown as a person; I am open to change and have learned from past mistakes; I am OK with not succeeding sometimes, because there is always something new to learn.
While self-criticism can damage your self-esteem, not engaging in positive self-talk about your future can prevent you from moving forward and achieving what you want in life.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.