A women staring at herslef in a cream mirror. The lady is wearing a orange blouse.

Why self-talk matters – and how to get better at it

Here’s a question: You may be very careful about being polite when you talk to others, but how much time do you spend considering how you speak to yourself?

When it comes to our inner dialogue, a.k.a. self-talk, what we say to ourselves is often careless, critical and even cruel. And while we may not think much of it, that self-talk is powerful and has more of an effect on our mental well-being than we realise. 

What is self-talk?

Self-talk is our inner voice. It encompasses the beliefs we have about ourselves and the way we see ourselves. It shapes our perception of reality, influencing our emotional, psychological and physical well-being. 

When we look in the mirror, self-talk is the thought that pops into our heads saying, “You look great today!” or, “You look terrible again.” When we go for a job interview, self-talk is the voice in our heads that says, “I’m going to crush it because I’m really good at what I do!” or, “I hope I don’t stuff this up like I do with everything else in my life.” 

Where does self-talk come from?

“There are many factors that influence our inner voice during the course of our lives,” says Maya Rutstein, who holds a degree in Psychology and is a product architect for digital well-being platform, soSerene. “It starts early on. Our past experiences and upbringing play a significant role in shaping what our inner voice sounds like. Interactions we have and feedback we receive early in life shape our self-perception into adulthood.

“Social comparisons also play a role. When we compare ourselves to others and find ourselves wanting, this can lead to negative self-talk. Often this is exacerbated by social media, because we’re comparing our whole lives to carefully curated snapshots of other people’s lives,” she adds.

Cultural, societal and family expectations can also set standards that individuals strive to meet, influencing self-criticism or encouragement. For example, when family members expect you to have ticked off certain milestones (such as marriage, children or buying a house) by a certain age, you may start to feel like a failure if you haven’t met their expectations.

Personal achievements and failures can directly impact self-talk, too, with successes boosting positive self-dialogue and failures often leading to negative self-talk.

Power of positive self-talk

When self-talk is positive, it can have a range of positive effects on our lives: from how we feel to how we show up in the world. People with a positive inner dialogue tend to be more confident, more productive and happier. 

“Have you ever felt frustrated because someone with less technical ability than you got promoted and you didn’t? Or that someone else built a successful business off an idea that you also had, but didn’t have the guts to pursue?” asks Rutstein. “That’s self-talk at work. Positive self-talk enhances mental well-being by reducing stress and anxiety and fostering a positive outlook on life. That optimism makes the other person believe the business idea will be a success, making them more inclined to pursue it.”

Positive self-talk also boosts self-confidence and self-esteem, empowering individuals to tackle challenges and pursue goals. Rather than being held back by self-doubt, the person believes they are the one who should pursue the idea and turn it into a business.

“What’s more,” says Rutstein, “Positive self-talk encourages resilience, enabling individuals to recover more quickly from setbacks and maintain motivation. This emboldens the person to take the risk of starting the business, because even if it doesn’t work out, they’ll bounce back and try something else. Positive self-talk can even improve physical health. It has been linked to lower stress levels, better immune function and better overall well-being.” 

Dangers of negative self-talk

Unfortunately, as powerful as positive self-talk can be for improving our lives, negative self-talk can be just as powerful in a destructive way. Unchecked, it can lead to mental health issues such as chronic stress, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, as well as exacerbate physical ailments.

“Negative self-talk can result in a defeatist attitude toward goals and aspirations, hindering personal and professional growth. If you’ve ever given up on something before you even tried because you expected the worst, that was negative self-talk in action,” says Rutstein.

“It can also strain relationships by projecting insecurities and negativity onto interactions with others. When you feel bad about yourself, you may enter social interactions defensively. This may cause you to misinterpret what other people say or do as an attack because that’s what you’re expecting,” she adds.

A classic example is when someone says, “You did well today,” but what you hear is, “You did well today for a change because you’re usually incompetent.” That’s negative self-talk causing you to perceive a compliment as an insult.

How to change the narrative

According to Rutstein, if you typically engage in negative self-talk, the good news is that you don’t have to settle for negativity – it is possible to change with her 5 easy steps:

  1. Practise mindfulness – It starts with awareness. Become aware of negative self-talk as it occurs. Acknowledge these thoughts without judgment and gently redirect your focus to more positive or neutral thoughts. Caught yourself feeling bad that the person on the treadmill next to you is running so much faster? Instead, think about how well you did to make it to the gym at all and how many excuses could have held you back, but didn’t. 
  2. Challenge and replace negative thoughts – Question the validity of negative self-assessments and replace them with positive affirmations or realistic assessments of situations. Thinking about how you’re definitely going to mess up your job interview? Focus on all the ways you are qualified for the position.
  3. Gratitude journalling – Regularly write down things you are grateful for or proud of about yourself. This can shift focus from negative to positive aspects of your life and self. 
  4. Surround yourself with positive influences – Engage with supportive friends, family and content that uplifts you, reducing exposure to negativity that can feed into self-criticism. And when they compliment you, accept the compliment instead of deflecting it with a negative counter-statement.
  5. Set small, achievable goals – Accomplishing even little goals (making your bed every morning; not snoozing the alarm) can boost your sense of efficacy and foster a more positive dialogue about your capabilities and achievements.

Remember, if you want to be loved and respected by other people, it starts with how you show up for yourself.

Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

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