Most of us have an inner dialogue, a series of messages we tell ourselves about ourselves, others, and the world at large. If this inner conversation is either positive or neutral, those words can be our best friends, a tall glass of water during times of stress and anxiety. If they are negative, however, they can send us further down the spiral we have been trying our best to avoid. Unfortunately, negative self-talk can be almost habitual, a terrible influence that you have had around since childhood but just can’t seem to let go. Many of us engage in negative self-talk unconsciously, and do not realize that the way we are talking to ourselves is leading to that one terrible outcome we have feared and dreading. Our thoughts influence our feelings, and then this creates our behavior and actions. What you choose to do in any given situation is based on the way you are thinking about not only the dilemma, but also the way you think about yourself. When the stakes are high, developing an awareness of your inner script is a great first step in working toward the outcomes you desire.
The way we talk to ourselves is based in the messages we received in early childhood, as well as the experiences that we have gone through. If a child grows up feeling as though they are not going to be good enough, regardless of the effort they have put in, they might grow up to tell themselves, “there’s no use in trying.” Similarly, if a child performs well on an examination, and gets praised for their A despite not studying with, “You got an A and you didn’t even try,” then they may be more likely to approach only things that are sure-fire successes, believing “things should be easy for me.” While these messages are generally subconscious and unintentional, they tend to stick around well into adulthood, and shape the way individuals choose a major in college, their future careers, and even the way they interact in relationships.
Understanding Your Inner Dialogue
When faced with a challenge, what is the first thought that enters your mind? Is it, “This might be hard, but I can do it.”? Perhaps it is, “I’m not sure if I can do this, but I’m willing to try.” It may also be, “There’s no point in trying this, I know I can’t do it.” With each of these thought processes, the behavior that follows will be different, and directly in line with your train of thought. If your self-talk most closely aligns with the first option, then you’re more likely to expect struggle, accept failures as learning experiences, and continue to give effort despite a lack of success. If your self-talk most closely aligns with the second thought process, then you are likely to have some doubts, but still have a willingness to give some amount of effort. However, you might give up quickly when success is not imminent. Lastly, if your self-talk is closely aligned with the third self-dialogue, then you will not be willing to put forth adequate effort required to achieve the goal, and will inevitably not be in the best position to reach the outcome you desire. You’ll be upset that you didn’t achieve the outcome you were hoping for, but you didn’t mentally put yourself in a position to make choices that would make that outcome likely. If I believe that I will inevitably fail my Calculus test, I’ll be less likely to complete my homework, will not take advantage of tutoring sessions, and won’t bother to study for the exam. Did I fail because I just can’t pass Calculus, or did I fail because I didn’t put myself in a position to pass?
If you find yourself falling into the negative self-talk spiral, there are steps that you can take to make changes to your inner dialogue. Start by identifying the first thought that comes to your mind when faced with a challenge, then identify any associated thoughts that present themselves in succession. What is the basic tone or quality of those thoughts? Are they generally positive, negative, or relatively neutral with very little emotional charge one way or the other? If they are negative, consider identifying what the opposite of that thought would be to allow it to become more positive in nature. Despite the negative nature of many of our thoughts, there’s generally a way to think about it in a more positive light. If your thought is, “I fail at everything,” then changing it to, “this didn’t work out, but something else will” is positive, and is likely to put you in a better position to keep trying, working hard to achieve your desired outcome. This isn’t lying to yourself, or even ignoring reality. It is choosing words carefully that reflect the truth, while also remaining respectful of yourself.
Making changes to the nature of your inner dialogue and self-talk opens up possibilities of positive outcomes, and improved communication. If you transition negative thought processes to more neutral, positive, or less emotionally charged thought processes, you set yourself up for more desired outcomes through your own good efforts. While many are familiar with the saying, “You are what you eat,” it is also true that “You are what you think.” What you believe fuels your feelings, which in turn informs and influences your behavior and choices. If you have a specific goal in mind, identify the negative thoughts you have that are getting in the way, making it more difficult for you to achieve what you desire. Take those thoughts, find the truth with positive, respectful words, and rehearse those thoughts until they come up as quickly as the old negative self-talk did. When your inner dialogue is filled with the positive, and you’re able to find the hope and possibilities in any situation, your personal potential is boundless.
Breaking the Cycle:
Applications of Self-Talk
Once we are stuck in a rut of negative self-talk, we have to work to build new patterns of internal dialogue that are more positive, gentle, and growth oriented. You might have recurring thought patterns that feel comfortable, but are negative in nature, and are not setting you up for achieving your desired outcome. Identifying negative thought patterns helps to put you in the best position to change them. Here are some tips and examples for making that transition from negative to positive self-talk:
Embrace the word “yet,” and integrate it deeply into your vocabulary.
One of the areas where our self-talk can be particularly damaging is in taking a fatalistic, permanent stance on temporary, one-time, and/or isolated events. Just because I haven’t seen the changes that I want for myself yet does not mean that I won’t see them in the future. I might not know everything I need to know about a topic that’s been introduced in my job, or in a class I’m taking, but that does not mean that I won’t learn more as time goes on. The word “yet” allows you to stay honest and true to the situation, while maintaining the possibility that things could change, getting you closer to that desired outcome.
Negative: No matter how hard I work, nothing ever changes.
Positive: Things haven’t changed much yet, but they still can.
Negative: I can’t figure this out!
Positive: I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m still learning.
Resist labeling yourself with a negative character trait due to a negative experience.
We can all call ourselves worse names than what others could ever do, and we are often our own worst critics. Calling yourself names is not going to motivate you, and in fact could do the exact opposite. As people can engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy, becoming that one thing that they fear, it’s especially important to pay close attention to how you describe yourself. If you are a failure, what chance do you have to do better in the future? Framing your inner dialogue to allow the possibility of growth and future success is essential in meeting your goals.
Negative: I messed this up. I’m such a failure!
Positive: This didn’t go as planned, but I learned things I can apply in the future.
Negative: I don’t get this, so I must be stupid.
Positive: I’m not understanding this yet, so I need more information.
Beware of the tyranny of the “shoulds.”
People can find themselves stuck between what they believe should be happening, and what is happening in reality. Our “shoulds” come from our own ideas of how the world works, and how we should be within that world. These often come in a form of an extreme standard that is unrealistic to meet. We often hold ourselves to standards to which we would never hold another. If you find yourself “shoulding,” take note, and transition your thinking patterns to remove the judgement and unrealistic standard, and instead insert compassion and understanding.
Negative: I should have known better.
Positive: I made the best choice I could with the information I had at that time.
Negative: I should be more like my co-worker; they have it all together.
Positive: I admire that my co-worker is so organized. I’m going to try some of their strategies!
Be your own advocate and avoid the comparison trap.
People can sometimes count themselves out of a situation before they have begun. If we tell ourselves that we don’t matter or we don’t have value, we are less likely to even make an attempt to contribute. In these cases, we have to advocate for ourselves, asserting that we are an important piece of our world. Others might do something different, or even better, but that does not diminish or define your value. Your greatest competition is yourself, and you control your own efforts and how you view them.
Negative: It never matters what I think.
Positive: I have valuable thoughts on this matter and it’s OK to share them.
Negative: Everyone else did better than me; I don’t know why I even bothered.
Positive: I was brave for putting myself out there and trying something new.
Remember that you are (likely) not a fortune teller.
Our greatest barrier to achieving something in the future is often the way we think about it in the present. When we assume that we know how something will end then there’s no reason to work toward a different outcome. It seems inevitable, like an unavoidable outcome. If this isn’t going to work, why try? Often, we cannot predict the future with 100% certainty, and we cannot know for sure what lessons we my learn and information we can gather along the way. Leave the outcome open to possibilities, rather than making an (often negative) assumption about what will happen.
Negative: I can’t finish, so why start?
Positive: Any step toward a goal, no matter how small, is a positive one.
Negative: I can tell it’s going to be a bad day.
Positive: This was a bad moment, but the day can still be good.
Supporting Your Positive Self-Talk:
Just as it is the case with the implantation of any new habit, transitioning your negative dialogue to positive self-talk will take a conscious effort and lots of practice. Use the above guidelines to find areas of your inner dialogue where your internal conversations can change from negative to positive, and incorporate language that is more open, compassionate, and provides the possibility of a desired outcome. Try to consume positivity in all areas of your life: find the beauty and humor in situations where you can, share your time with positive people, read positive information, and listen to positive music. As your surroundings can infiltrate and impact you, keeping them positive can make a difference in your quest for positive inner dialogue. While making this type of internal change can be hard and take time, it will most certainly be worth it!