We all have an inner voice that comments on what we are doing, for better or for worse. Psychologists refer to this inner dialogue as self-talk. You are always going to engage in self-talk, but it doesn’t have to be negative. You can learn to notice it and reprogram it so that it is not negative but rather supportive of the changes in your life that you’re trying to make.
Negative self-talk is very common. Most of our self-talk consists of beliefs programmed into us when we were children. We heard these beliefs so often, or in such emotionally intense situations, that now we believe them and repeat them to ourselves whenever the occasion arises.
But do you really want major decisions about your life made by a 4-year-old or an 8-year-old? That’s what’s happening when we accept negative self-talk as the truth about us and about life. Some of our basic attitudes towards ourselves are rooted in unexamined childhood programming.
Self-talk tells us what to do and how to feel about events and situations. A lot of self-talk feeds us valuable information that serves us well, that helps us succeed and even ensures our survival. For example, “Look both ways before crossing the street” and “Stand up for yourself” are constructive reminders.
But other self-talk undermines us and keeps us from fully experiencing parts of our personality. Your inner voice may be telling you things like this:
- I know it won’t work.
- It’s just no use.
- I never have enough time.
- I never know what to say.
- Everything I touch turns to bleep.
I wince whenever I hear an adult tell a child something like, “You’re stupid,” or “Academics are just not your strength.” If you want a person to act stupidly, both as a child and as an adult, telling them they’re stupid is a reliable way to program them to do so.
Working on your self-talk is a good way to challenge the idea that there’s some inherent flaw in your personality. If you have deficits, you are not doomed to live with them forever; you can change your programming. When that changes, you may find you have hidden strengths where previously you had problems.
Start paying attention to your self-talk. Write down some of the attitudes expressed during self-talk. Ask yourself, would I say to a friend the things I say to myself? Probably not. As adults, we know that saying negative things is hurtful and destroys friendships. So why do we say such things to ourselves?
Self-Talk and Conflict Resolution
Many of us repeat self-talk phrases that oppose our efforts at conflict resolution. For example, here are some self-talk phrases about conflict that many people accept without thought:
- Whenever anybody says anything bad about me, I must correct them by pointing out their personal flaws.
- The best defense is a good offense.
- There are winners and losers—and I’m going to be a winner.
- People who disagree with me are opponents to be overcome.
- Once I’ve picked the best option, I need to hang on to it and defend it.
These phrases all describe a win/lose model of conflict resolution, and they all make it harder to reach a mutually acceptable solution to the conflict. If you approach conflict with these attitudes, your relationship will be the loser.
Moving to Positive Self-Talk
So how do we change negative self-talk? Using the computer programming analogy, we need to overwrite the negative programs and replace them with a new program. It sounds easy, but it is hard work.
Here are the basic steps in reprogramming your negative self-talk to positive self-talk:
1. Watch for the self-talk statements about yourself.
The first step is to pay attention to your self-talk and identify anything that is negative. You won’t be able to change your negative self-talk without noticing it.
Some people find it helpful to keep a self-talk log. Carry a small notebook, and every time you notice negative self-talk, write it in the log.
2. Monitor the self-talk of people around you.
Sometimes it is easier to see the impact of negative self-talk by noticing its effect on other people. Obviously, you won’t be able to listen in on their inner self-talk, but people often speak their self-talk out loud: ‘I’m just not good at those sorts of things,” “I haven’t got time to deal with that,” “I’ve always wanted to do that, but I just don’t have what it takes.” How does their self-talk limit them? Do they stop doing things they should or want to do? Do they avoid new behaviors that might be helpful or just plain fun?
3. Identify negative self-talk that you want to change.
Next, identify those areas you want to work on. A lot of self-talk is useful. What kinds of self-talk are giving you a problem?
Since we’re working on conflict resolution between loved ones, here are some of the issues and skills you might be thinking about:
- Accepting that the other person has a different emotional reality
- Listening until you understand the other person—and they feel understood
- Learning to express feelings rather than judgments
- Avoiding seeing the other person as an adversary
- Learning not to personalize everything that is said about a situation—being less defensive
- Believing that there are many possible solutions, not just the one you thought of
If you have negative self-talk that makes it hard to make these changes, those phrases might be a place to start your work to reduce negative self-talk.
4. Eliminate internal negative chatter.
Once you’ve learned to notice your negative self-talk, you can work on actively resisting it when it occurs.
Here are a couple of things that can help eliminate negative self-talk:
- Some people wear a rubber band and snap themselves with it whenever they start to engage in negative self-talk. (I’ve never tried this, but I’m told it works.)
- Some people set up an internal signal, such as telling themselves, “Cancel, cancel,” which tells them to stop the negative self-talk.
5. Replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk.
You are always going to engage in self-talk, but it doesn’t have to be negative. The trick is to use it to help you. Change your self-talk so that you program yourself with the behaviors and attitudes that help.
Look for phrases that really resonate with you, things you really feel. Here are some phrases that you could use:
- I trust that [person] loves me.
- We have worked things out before and will again this time.
- I can control myself and my behavior.
- I trust myself to speak up for myself.
- I have everything I need to be able to do this.
- I can stay right here and remain calm and confident.
- I choose not to react and be pulled into what is going on.
- I trust I can talk to my partner about this later.
- I can ask for help.
- I am not alone.
- It is okay for me to have whatever feelings I have.
- I can choose how I act.
- If I trust myself, I can act differently.
- I am a good listener. I am attentive, interested, and aware of everything that is going on around me.
- I have the courage to share my feelings. I take responsibility for everything I say and do.
Some of these phrases may hit you as overly sweet, while others give you a feeling of hope and real promise. Just ignore the too-sweet ones and pay attention to the ones that give you a charge of energy.
You need to find your own phrases to address the issues you are working on. You need the emotional investment that comes from choosing phrases that have meaning for you. Write your positive self-help phrases in the present tense, as if the desired change has already taken place.
Now try identifying the issues you want to work on, then write down the positive self-help phrases that will help you with these issues.
The essential ingredient in any effort to change negative self-talk is repetition. You’ve been repeating the old self-talk for years, and it will take a while to overwrite this programming. Some people have even reported that it seemed like the old programming tries to talk them out of the new programming. It’s important to select positive self-talk phrases that have meaning and power for you, phrases that you like hearing. Persist!
Here are some of the techniques people use to program positive self-talk phrases:
Mirror, mirror on the wall: First thing in the morning, as you are in the bathroom preparing for your day, repeat your positive self-talk phrases aloud to your image in the mirror. Do this a minimum of 10 times. Say the phrases with energy and enthusiasm.
Sticky notes: One way to remind yourself of your new positive programming is to put sticky notes up in visible places. The note doesn’t have to contain the whole phrase, just enough of a cue to trigger the full phrase in your mind.
Index cards: Some people pit their positive self-talk phrases on 3" × 5˝ index cards. During the day, they take out the cards and read the phrases aloud.
Tape talk: One of the most effective ways to reprogram your self-talk is to play audio recordings of the new phrases. There are professional recordings available, but if you want to use your own personal phrases, you can make your own. Most smartphones can record and play your phrases. People in the field claim that playing these recordings quietly in the background while doing something else is a particularly effective approach.