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Power of Positive Self Talk: Benefits and Strategies

By Liam McAuliffe Updated on

Self-talk is the internal dialogue that is constantly running through our minds. It can be a positive or negative commentary on events in our lives, people we meet, challenges and triumphs, desires and aversions, judgments and appreciations. 

The quality of our self-talk can tell us about our self-esteem and sense of worthiness. Practicing positive-self talk techniques can help us improve our self-esteem and increase motivation. 

Let’s peel back the veil of our unconscious and get to know this inner voice, what it’s been telling us, and how we can influence it in ways that create a more positive view of ourselves and our lives. 

Table of Contents

What Is Self-Talk?

Self-talk is the internal dialogue that is influenced by both subconscious and conscious parts of our mind. 

The idea that humans are driven by both conscious and unconscious forces within us was first developed by Sigmund Freud [1].

You can think of the subconscious as a storehouse of past experiences going back to early childhood and even in-utero experience. The combination of our past experiences, especially those that occur in the first four years of life results in our personality structure. 

The personality structure is responsible for the quality of our internal self-talk. 

Origins of Positive and Negative Self Talk

People that have had more challenging developmental experiences tend to have more negative self-talk. 

In fact, studies show that the more adverse childhood experiences a person has, the more likely they are to suffer from negative ruminative self-talk [2]

Self-shaming, self-critical, self-limiting, and self-sabotaging self-talk can often be understood as an internalization of the way that we were treated by caretakers, and/or as a way that the unconscious is limiting exposure to threatening experiences. 

For example, negative self-talk that says things like “I’m not good enough” when faced with the opportunity to apply for a job one is well-qualified for, is a way that one’s internal defense structure is attempting to limit exposure to the possibility of shame and failure. A limiting internal voice often forms in response to the person being shamed by a parent or caretaker early in life. 

In this instance, negative self-talk can be understood as a kind of psychological allergy to shame. 

Inversely positive thinking, optimistic outlooks, and pro-active engagement with life correspond with positive internal dialogue. Positive self-talk is also often an internalized voice of our primary caretakers. 

For example, if you believe that you are intrinsically capable of accomplishing your goals, taking risks, and growing through failure, such thinking and behavior was likely modeled to you by your parents, teachers, and other influential adults. 

Recognizing that the quality of our self-talk is largely a product of our developmental environment is a first step in changing it. If your self-talk was essentially implanted, it is not intrinsic, and you have the ability to change it. 

It is worth noting that not all negative self-talk is bad. In fact, it is helpful to let go of good or bad thinking when it comes to assessing your inner voice. Good and bad thinking is actually a symptom of judgment, which itself can be a limiting expression of negative self-talk. 

Studies show that some forms of negatively coded self-talk can actually be beneficial. For example, degrees of self-criticism may positively affect cognitive performance by inducing a less confident state that increases internal motivation and attention [3]. Therefore it is possible that having an overly positive outlook can actually reduce perspective acuity and inhibit performance. 

The takeaway is that some negative self-talk is normal, natural, and helpful, or we wouldn’t have evolved the capacity to experience it. But, due to challenging developmental experiences,  many people suffer from an acute imbalance of negative self-talk. 

Having an intensely negative internal monologue can impedes psychological, professional, and emotional growth, keep people trapped in abusive relationships, and generally inhibit life satisfaction [4]. 

Benefits of Positive Self-Talk?

Positive self-talk is a way to interrupt maladaptive internal dialogue and replace it with a more constructive, adaptive, and self-esteem-building inner dialogue. 

The benefits of positive self-talk and a related optimistic outlook on life are far-reaching and affect both the body and mind. These benefits include [5][6][7][8][9]: 

  • Increased longevity
  • Lower rates of depression
  • Reduced pain
  • Less stress and anxiety
  • Better immune response and protection from illness
  • Reduced risk of death from infections
  • Better mood and psychological wellbeing
  • Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Reduced risk of death from cancer
  • Better coping skills and less stress in challenging situations

So far, the research does not identify exactly why positive self-talk and optimistic outlooks correlate with such profound health benefits. Preliminary interpretation suggests that positive self-talk is associated with other mental, social, and problem-solving skills. 

This allows people to better cope with challenges and hardships both material and psychological. Nearly everyone will face major difficulties in our lives, but it’s how we respond to the difficulties that account for the levels of stress and anxiety. Since stress and anxiety are responsible for numerous negative health outcomes it follows that positive self talk and constructing problem solving that reduces stress and anxiety may be the root cause of these numerous benefits.

How to Practice Positive Self-Talk 

To practice positive self-talk it is first important to identify negative thinking patterns that show up unconsciously in self talk. 

Identify Negative Thinking Patterns

Common negative and maladaptive thinking patterns include: 

  • Filtering: Magnifying negative aspects of a situation and filtering out all the positive ones. 
  • Personalizing: Automatically blaming yourself whenever something negative or challenging occurs. 
  • Catastrophizing: Anticipating that the worst possible outcome of a situation will happen even without facts to support this view, and often in spite of contrary facts.
  • Blaming: You assign responsibility to others for negative situations and feelings when you yourself are responsible and have the ability to make necessary corrections. 
  • “Should” phrasing: You fixate on all the things you think you should do and blame yourself for not doing them.
  • “I don’t want” phrasing: You talk about all the things you don’t want in your life without focusing on the things you do want and the steps in front of you that will get you closer to your goals. 
  • Magnifying: Making a big deal out of small problems–this is a self-sabotaging habit aimed at shielding you from the experience of failure. 
  • Perfectionism: Setting yourself up for failure by maintaining unreasonable or unrealistic goals. This is another self-sabotaging technique. 
  • Polarizing (black and white thinking): You see things only as either good or bad. There is no middle ground, no tolerance for more nuanced and accurate ways of thinking and problem-solving.

Once you identify negative thinking patterns it’s important to be aware of reactions like judgment and self-shame. 

The key is to have compassion for yourself even as you unearth these maladaptive thinking patterns. As discussed above, all these patterns begin in us as a response to challenges that we were not prepared for and in the absence of positive responses. 

The good news is that you can transform your patterns of self-talk. Studies show that even small children can make this revolutionary change [10].

Flip the Script

Girl practicing positive self talk for self care

Here are examples of ways to flip your internal self-talk script: 

Negative: If I change my mind everyone will get mad at me.

Positive: I am allowed to change my mind. Others will understand, and if they don’t I can explain what feelings led me to this change.

Negative: I failed, I’m embarrassed, and I suck. 

Positive: I’m proud of myself for stepping up to the challenge. That was courageous, and though failure can hurt, let’s focus on what I learned, how I wouldn’t have learned this any other way, and what I can take with me when I try again.

Negative: I’m fat and feel unattractive, why even try. 

Positive: I am capable, I know what I steps I need to take, and I know how good it feels to be healthier. 

Negative: I failed my whole team when I didn’t score, everyone was counting on me. 

Positive: Team sports means that we’re in this together, we all make mistakes and we all lift each other up. 

Negative: This is new to me so I’ll just suck at it. 

Positive: This is an incredible opportunity to learn and grow. 

Negative: There’s no way in hell this is going to work. 

Positive: The best I can do is give this my best shot, at the very least I’ll learn a thing or two. 

Tips to Practice Positive Self Talk Everyday

Like nearly everything that challenges our status quo, positive self-talk takes practice. 

Positive self-talk takes practice if it’s not your natural instinct.

Here are a few tips to help improve your positive self-talk. These tips can help:

  • Track negative self-talk triggers: Notice scenarios and situations where your negative self-talk is most intense. Prepare yourself in advance by imagining these scenarios and reacting with positive self-talk. 
  • Check-in with your emotions: Naming your emotions and accepting them in the moment takes the fuel out of negative self-talk. Everyone feels sad, embarrassed, hurt. Most of the time the simple act of acknowledging these feelings with compassion and acceptance is enough to help them release. 
  • Comic relief: There are lots of funny videos out there and sometimes all we need is a little laughter to help us reset our mood and our corresponding internal dialogue. 
  • Chose deeply feeling, thoughtful, and present people to hang out with: Humans are intensely social creatures and are deeply and easily influenced by the moods and outlooks of the people we associate with. This doesn’t mean you need to hang out with people who have a 24/7smile on their face–that would be toxic positivity. Choose people who can be present for the full spectrum of emotions in themselves and in others. The ability to be present for all aspects of life is itself a powerfully positive experience. 
  • Practice positive intentions: Setting positive intentions helps us aim our awareness towards positive aspects of life. To a large extent, people see and experience the things they look for. Setting positive intentions puts a target on positive experiences that reinforce positive self-talk. 

Positive Self Talk: The Bottomline

Self-talk is the internal running monologue that shapes much of how we experience life. Many people who have had difficult childhoods and who have experienced trauma can have intensely negative internal self-talk. 

By tracking negative self-talk, understanding when, why, and how it shows up, you can re-write the internal script to be more positive and therefore more true to reality. Positive self-talk promotes both physical and mental wellbeing by improving problem-solving and reducing stress.