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Make Your Self-Talk Work for You

Learn from the pros how to use constructive, not dysfunctional, self-talk

We all hold internal conversations as we go through our days, and sometimes our nights. Psychologists have identified one important type of these inner monologues as “self-talk,” in which you provide opinions and evaluations on what you’re doing as you're doing it. You can think of self-talk as the inner voice equivalent of sports announcers commenting on a player’s successes or failures on the playing field.

Unlike that sports commentary, which athletes never hear while they're competing, you can actually “hear” what your own self-talk is saying. When this is upbeat and self-validating, the results can boost your productivity. However, when the voice is critical and harsh, the effect can be emotionally crippling.

Consider what happens after you’ve done something embarrassing. Does your inner voice say “that was sure stupid”? How about if you haven't even done anything wrong or stupid at all, but your self-talk is just as critical? This destructive type of self-talk causes you to question yourself so constantly that you can soon become paralyzed with doubt and uncertainty.

As an example of how destructive self-talk works, consider the following scenario. You’re at a small party hosted by one of your family members when the conversation turns into a debate about the latest episode of a popular TV show. You express an opinion that the others disagree with, and although there’s no facts involved, you feel that you’ve just made a huge faux pas. You hated the episode and everyone else thought it was among the best of all time. The self-talk chatter starts to build in your head: “You should’ve kept your mouth shut. Why can’t you just keep quiet when you disagree with someone? You came across as completely ignorant. They looked at you like you were nuts, etc. etc.” The more you listen to your own self-criticism, the more you retreat from the actual conversation going on around you. Within a few minutes, you feel so horrible that you just leave the party, running through the whole episode in your mind over and over until you wish you had never even gone to the party in the first place.

Let’s turn the situation around now, and imagine the scene but instead, you respond with constructive self-talk. Nothing has changed—you’ve still expressed views that differed from everyone else’s. You thought it was the worst episode of all time, and they thought it was the best. Your self-talk, though, takes the following form: “I’m glad I stuck to my guns.” “I think I expressed myself very clearly.” “It’s just a TV show; so what if I didn’t like it!” In constructive self-talk, you cheer yourself on, focus on the positive aspects of a situation, and allow yourself to feel good about what you’ve done.

Researchers studying the thinking patterns of people with clinical levels of depression find that their self-talk tends toward frequently and relentless form of destructive self-talk. However, there were few studies actually examining different outcomes of constructive and dysfunctional self-talk. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Steven Rogelberg and colleagues decided to investigate the nature of self-talk among effective and ineffective managers. They defined effective managers as those who showed strong leadership skills and creativity. The experimental task involved having participants write letters to themselves about their plans and accomplishments. The data from this study thus consisted of written examples of self-talk that could then be rated.

189 senior executive managers completed the task, and raters evaluated the extent to which they language they used exemplified constructive or dysfunctional self-talk. Raters also evaluated the extent to which the letters reflected creativity, originality, and leadership skills.

Letters rated high in constructive self-talk included statements that fit the criteria of being insightful, thoughtfully constructed, self-reflective, and motivational in nature. The constructive self-talkers, in other words, saw themselves as capable of achieving their desired goals.

Here’s one example of constructive self-talk: “You are good at what you do, so you are going to start giving yourself credit—publicly. And the next time someone compliments you on something, do not brush them off before they finish with a quick ‘thank-you’—take it all in.”

Raters judged the language used in dysfunctional self-talk as indicating that the manager tended to shy away from challenges instead of facing them, focused on the negative aspects of challenging situations rather than on their positive aspects, and had a pessimistic attitude toward change of any kind.

This was an example of dysfunctional self talk: “And how’s the mess at the office? Still cancelling appointments or showing up in wrong meetings? Hope you can handle your schedule a little better now…”

Also telling were the ways that the managers ended their letters to themselves. The constructive self-talkers concluded on a positive and encouraging note, expressing confidence in their ability to succeed. Letters ending with dysfunctional self-talk concluded with doom and gloom predictions that the manager would never be able to achieve his goals.

On average, scores were higher on the constructive self-talk scale, quite likely reflecting the fact that these were managers who had achieved a degree of success in their careers. The question of interest was then how these scores related to measures of their effectiveness. In correlating the scores on their self-talk measure with indices tapping leadership, creativity/originality, and perceptions of job strain, Rogelberg and his team found that, as they expected, the constructive self-talkers were in fact higher in the desirable qualities on these scales. As the authors concluded: “When it comes to work-related outcomes, what a leader says to him/herself does indeed seem relevant.”

Even if you’re not in charge of leading throngs of subordinates in a high-pressure managerial job, there’s an important take-away message from the Rogelberg study. The more you talk yourself down, second-guess yourself, and see changes as calamitous, the less free your mind will be to roam through creative solutions of the problems that you face. Others will question you too, wondering whether you’re really up to the challenges in your life. These outcomes will only further cause you to doubt yourself, leading to a negative, downward spiral.

You may have already developed such strongly ingrained dysfunctional self-talk patterns that turning them around seem impossible. Here’s a great way to start on the road to constructive self-talk. Tell yourself that you can in fact see yourself in a more positive light. Nip the dysfunctional self-talk in the bud. Once you get in the habit of observing your self-talk, noting whether or not it’s constructive, you’ll find it that much easier not only to inspire others, but also yourself.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Rogelberg, S. G., Justice, L., Braddy, P. W., Paustian-Underdahl, S. C., Heggestad, E., Shanock, L., . . . Fleenor, J. W. (2013). The executive mind: Leader self-talk, effectiveness and strain. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 28, 183-201. doi: 10.1108/02683941311300702

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