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If we spoke to others the way we often talk to ourselves, we would lose all of our friends. Who would want to spend time with someone who constantly told others that they weren’t good enough, people didn’t really like them, or they should just give up now? Yet this is exactly what inner dialogue sounds like for many of us.

Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, cohosts of NPR’s “Invisibilia” podcast, explored this common subtext in a recent episode on "The Secret History of Thoughts." They called these ideas “the dark ones. . . . They come into our heads at random moments. Sometimes, they’re kind of shocking. . . . How should we think about these dark thoughts? Do they tell us something about ourselves, about our desires and our wishes? Or not?”

We can give grace to everyone else, but when it comes to ourselves, we pull no punches. Most people, especially women, are self-critical to a fault because we don’t allow ourselves to be flawed. My mother likes to remind me that this double standard is not acceptable. So when I complain about myself, she snaps back, “Don’t talk about my daughter that way!”

In the same way encouraging our friends is key to nurturing those relationships, speaking well to ourselves is critical to our personal success. Positive self-talk isn’t just important for living a healthy life, it’s also the secret to reaching your goals. A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that participants who told themselves "I can do better" on the second try outperformed those who didn’t employ positive self-talk.

We reached out to therapists across the U.S. to ask what employing the power of positive self-talk actually looks like, so we can discover how to speak to ourselves more graciously and meet our goals in the process.

Is Being a Self-Critic Just Being Aware?

Many of us pride ourselves on being our own worst critics because it reveals a degree of self-examination. But there is a difference between being aware of our shortcomings and critical of ourselves as a whole. Psychotherapist Alena Gerst says former “worst critics” become her most dramatic success stories of clients using self-talk to achieve their goals.

“One of my clients in particular believed she needed to be harsh and critical of herself in order to succeed as a high-achieving person,” she says. “But it wasn't until she began encouraging herself with positive reinforcement for her efforts that she was able to secure a job she loved and felt proud of, and extricate herself from an abusive relationship. From there she has made new friends and become more active in spite of a chronic medical condition.”

One way to combat your inner critic is to switch up your inner communication. “It may seem odd, but talking to yourself in the second person provides a healthy distancing from your inner dialogue,” marriage and family therapist Dr. Cassidy Freitas says. Separating yourself and your thoughts helps you to take your inner dialogue at face value. “It allows us to really look at our thoughts for what they are—just thoughts,” Freitas explains. Rather than telling yourself, “I can’t do this,” she suggests saying, “You’re feeling like you can’t do this.” Notice how the subtle switch makes it much easier to conquer the fear. Similarly, by using the second person, “I’m nervous” easily becomes “You’re feeling nervous, but you’ve got this.”

So Should I Banish All Negative Thoughts?

Therapist Michael Drouilhet says self-talk is key to creating distance between our emotions and our goals because it helps the brain function more rationally: “When our emotions are in play, it is often difficult to access the neo-cortex part of our brain to more realistically assess a situation," he says. "The emotional limbic system (on the amygdala) does not allow for cognitive clarity or planning. When we self-talk, we can force access to the thinking part of our brain (cortex) which can allow us to more realistically assess a situation and plan a course of behavior, or at least avoid behaviors based on irrational emotions.” The key is recognizing and evaluating the negativity. 

Unveiling negative thoughts doesn’t always mean there is something wrong. We can certainly learn from negative experiences like disappointment, self-doubt, and failure, says psychotherapist and author Karen Koenig, who specializes in the use of self-talk to overcome eating disorders. But, once we’ve recognized our emotions and pinpointed where they’ve come from, it’s probably time to send them packing.

“We can talk ourselves out of negative thoughts by asking, ‘If I didn’t feel or believe this way, how would I think or believe?’” Koenig advises. “That shifts us out of our present mindset into one we never might have thought of having.” For example, we often talk ourselves out of success by focusing on every little mistake, telling ourselves we’re not doing a good job. If we shifted our attention away from how we felt about our performance, what would we think instead? Most likely, we’d consider what went well, stop criticizing our efforts, and get back to work.


How Can I Be Positive Without Feeling Phony?

Positive self-talk only works if it’s authentic. If you hype yourself up with unrealistic promises, your brain will register them as illegitimate, and the negative thoughts will become even stronger, warns Freitas. Instead, face your negative feelings head on, but redirect them toward positive thinking. Freitas says the most effective motivational phrases come from acknowledging your difficulty, but also reminding yourself what you truly want and how you’re going to get there. Instead of feeling defeated by a roadblock, tell yourself, “This is hard, but it’s important to me.”

Gerst agrees that looking toward your goals rather than focusing on negative statements is pivotal: “When I work with people on exploring their self-talk, I make sure to emphasize the importance of making affirmative statements, especially when it comes to something they want. Rather than stating, ‘I do not want X,’ state ‘I want…’” This allows you to dwell in the good rather than the bad. 

Harvard Medical School Scientist of Emotions Dr. Susan David calls this concept “emotional agility,” which is also the title of her upcoming book. “Emotional agility is the process by which we learn how to recognize the difference between stimulus and response,” she explains in a talk for The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts. It is about giving yourself space to experience emotions—and then choosing to respond differently by rising above them.

How Drastically Can Positive Self-Talk Change My Life?

In the realm of eating disorders, Koenig says swapping negative for positive self-talk has brought her clients from being unhealthy and out of shape to becoming healthy and fit. “I’ve done it myself and become a successful author and therapist,” she says. “One example is a former client who was unhappy as a secretary and kept telling herself how stuck she was. She recently called to tell me she’d completed nursing school and was studying to be a nurse practitioner, and much of this is because she changed how she talked to herself.”

There are specific times, as with disappointment or failure, in which positive self-talk is critical. But these experts stress the importance of keeping a continual positive inner dialogue. Clinical psychologist Dr. Dana Harron says positive-self talk is actually most important when things are going well so that you develop a healthy mental pattern before things turn south. Whether we’re struggling with anxiety, insecurity, failure, or just trying to make it through the day, treating ourselves well is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. By treating ourselves as we would have others treat us, we obtain peace and find the motivation to achieve our dreams.

Photo Credit: Julia Hembree