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Self-Talk Secrets for More Happiness

Bringing curiosity to life.

Key points

  • Slowing down to notice your self-talk and bring curiosity pays big dividends.
  • Sometimes self-talk comes from inner parts that haven’t been updated on your current life.
  • Exploring and updating your self-talk is “gold” for personal growth.
Piotr Marcinski/Adobe Stock
Source: Piotr Marcinski/Adobe Stock

Co-authored with Joel Klepac, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

You’re making a quick breakfast on your way out the door, anticipating a busy day at work. Then you notice a bitter smell—and see smoke rising from the toaster. What's your reaction?

Is it, “Oh no! This shouldn’t happen!” That inner voice is known as “self-talk.” It can be brutal or kind and everything in between.

Self-Talk Tips That Help

The good news is this: You can shape your self-talk in ways that serve you. The first step is awareness—noticing that inner voice. Is it helping you or adding to your distress?

If you notice a harsh inner voice, consider saying to yourself: “Ah, a part of me is feeling critical. It wants me to have breakfast and be on time for work. In a way, it’s trying to take care of me and protect me.”

Recognizing that it’s a part of you bringing a critical voice—not all of you—makes room for other parts, including ones that say, “It’s not a catastrophe, it’s just a burned piece of toast.”

Attuning to your self-talk, and the various aspects (or parts) of yourself it suggests, is an approach from Internal Family Systems. Developed by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., and others, it can help bring more kindness and care to your self-talk. Doing so can help you navigate the ups and downs of life with more ease and success.

Bringing Curiosity to Your Self-Talk

At times, we all have critical self-talk—a voice that is pushy, demanding, and impatient.

A key to working with critical self-talk is to engage your curiosity. Using your name as you do so is also helpful, research indicates. For example, I could ask myself, “David, when did this critical part start to feel this way? What might it be afraid of if I don’t get the toast perfect?”

And as you explore with curiosity, you may discover that "should" thoughts are coming from a part of your inner self that hasn't been updated on your current stage in life, your present values, or your current level of safety.

By gently letting this younger part know that you’re now an adult, not a child, it can bring online the skills and experiences of your adult self: “I can manage burned toast—and much more.” And no one is going to yell at me—not even parts of me—because I choose kindness and understanding.

This kind of exploration can be "gold" for personal growth and for making emotional and behavioral shifts that last.

Adding Compassion

As you tune into your self-talk, you might also notice “shoulds” coming up. For example, “I should not have forgotten Sarah’s birthday.”

There is value in exploring your “shoulds," and in changing “shoulds” to “coulds." And as you pause to engage your curiosity about the "should," tap into compassion to meet the intent and fears of this particular voice. Is it trying to protect you from failure or loss? Is it afraid others might think less of you if you make a mistake?

If it feels helpful, the next step is to ask yourself, “If I wasn’t operating out of old fears, what would I really want to do? What would serve my desire for the well-being of others? My own curiosity and values?”

These questions can spark new ideas and soothe well-intentioned parts that are holding you back. Noticing your self-talk, and bringing curiosity and compassion, grows confidence. Personal growth and more inner calm can be the happy result.

Invited to a Party—And You’re Not Feeling It

Let’s apply this approach to another real-life example: Imagine you’re invited to a party, but you don’t want to go. Perhaps you’re thinking, “I should really get some work done instead.”

Can you bring gentle awareness and curiosity to your feelings and needs? How are you really feeling, and what might you be needing? “I could go to the party, but I’m feeling worn out and need some quiet tonight” might be a more complete reflection of your needs. It also honors your power to choose.

Awareness of your feelings and needs—and others’ too—is essential for a satisfying life. And, yes, not all feelings are pleasant. Feeling powerless, trapped, or helpless are common human experiences. Especially as a child, you might have encountered them in one form or another. All of us do—it’s part of being human.

Events of your current life can easily bring up old experiences. Often this occurs below the level of conscious awareness. Your emotional system hasn’t caught up with your growth and development—with your current power as an independent adult, capable of choice, with skills to navigate your choices.

From “Should” to “Could” With Awareness

A big step in reclaiming your power is noticing your verbalized and unverbalized ”shoulds" and bringing awareness to your power to choose. Using your name, ask yourself, “______, are you really trapped or helpless in your current life?”

As you pause and reflect with curiosity, you just might notice that you have more options than you realized. It can be helpful to call on a friend, mentor, or counselor for support in sorting through your feelings, needs, and choices.

It’s energizing to be able to stand in your power and say, “I could do it, if I choose to.”

As you bring curiosity and understanding to your self-talk and to your “shoulds,” you can engage with a deeper intention. Even something as mundane as doing the dishes can be an opportunity for self-connection. “I should do the dishes,” can shift to “I’m choosing to have a mindful experience of the beauty of life while doing the dishes.”

With curiosity and compassion, you can notice your self-talk—and see it sparkle.


Schwartz RC, Sweezy M. Internal Family Systems Therapy, Second Edition. Guilford Press, 2020.

Kross E. Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It. Crown Publishers, 2021.

Nhat Hanh T, Miracle of Mindfulness, Beacon Press, 1999.

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