Each of us has a set of messages that play over and over in our minds. This internal dialogue, or personal commentary, frames our reactions to life and its circumstances. One of the ways to recognize, promote, and sustain optimism, hope, and joy is to intentionally fill our thoughts with positive self-talk.
Too often, the pattern of self-talk we’ve developed is negative. We remember the negative things we were told as children by our parents, siblings, or teachers. We remember the negative reactions from other children that diminished how we felt about ourselves. Throughout the years, these messages have played over and over in our minds, fueling our feelings of anger, fear, guilt, and hopelessness.
One of the most critical avenues we use in therapy with those suffering from depression is to identify the source of these messages and then work with the person to intentionally “overwrite” them. If a person learned as a child he was worthless, we show him how truly special he is. If while growing up a person learned to expect crises and destructive events, we show her a better way to anticipate the future.
Try the following exercise. Write down some of the negative messages inside your mind that undermine your ability to overcome your depression. Be specific, whenever possible, and include anyone you remember who contributed to that message.
Now, take a moment to intentionally counteract those negative messages with positive truths in your life. Don’t give up if you don’t find them quickly. For every negative message there is a positive truth that will override the weight of despair. These truths always exist; keep looking until you find them.
You may have a negative message that replays in your head every time you make a mistake. As a child you have been told, “You’ll never amount to anything” or “You can’t do anything right.” When you make a mistake—and you will because we all do—you can choose to overwrite that message with a positive one, such as “I choose to accept and grow from my mistake” or “As I learn from my mistakes, I am becoming a better person.” During this exercise, mistakes become opportunities to replace negative views of who you are with positive options for personal enhancement.
Positive self-talk is not self-deception. It is not mentally looking at circumstances with eyes that see only what you want to see. Rather, positive self-talk is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself. One of the fundamental truths is that you will make mistakes. To expect perfection in yourself or anyone else is unrealistic. To expect no difficulties in life, whether through your own actions or sheer circumstances, is also unrealistic.
When negative events or mistakes happen, positive self-talk seeks to bring the positive out of the negative to help you do better, go further, or just keep moving forward. The practice of positive self-talk is often the process that allows you to discover the obscured optimism, hope, and joy in any given situation.