How to Practice Positive Self-Talk How Your Inner Dialogue Affects Your Mental Health and Goals
- Category Mental Health
How do you talk to yourself? Before you deny that you talk to yourself, take a second to recognize that an inner dialogue and talking to ourselves (intentionally and subconsciously) are normal and even helpful parts of life.
When you take a second to answer this question, you may notice a certain pattern. Maybe you are really encouraging toward yourself. Maybe you only talk to yourself to walk through the steps of a problem. Maybe you tend to be harsh and critical. Regardless of how you tend to talk to yourself, there are ways to leverage and be intentional about our self-talk so we can improve our mental health, performance, and live a life that is more congruent with our goals and values. This article will review what the psychological literature says about self-talk, why it is helpful, and how we can use it to our advantage.
What is self-talk?
When identifying self-talk, think about the statements or verbalizations that one makes toward the self. These statements can be subconscious, meaning we aren’t really aware of them, or we can be intentional about what we say and how we say it toward ourselves (Hardy, 2006). So, if you are looking out for your own self-talk, pay attention to your inner dialogue, particularly during difficult times.
As children, we are often talked through situations that are difficult or distressing. An adult in our lives talks us through how to solve the problem or manage our emotions. Over time, we internalize that their advice is a helpful way to get through those difficult moments and do it for ourselves. Therefore, our self-talk is more prominent in difficult times than in times where we are content or happy (though it shows up there, too!). When those adults are overly critical or harsh, that is when we take on this same negative self-talk style for ourselves later in life.
Why self-talk can be helpful
Self-talk can serve a few purposes for our lives and for performance on a given task. Often, self-talk is used instructionally to get us through the steps of a given task or situation (Hardy, 2006). For example, when I am doing one of Daniel and/or Kelli’s kickboxing routines, I will often say the steps of the combination (sometimes out loud!) to keep myself on track and doing the right movements. This instructional motivation can either help us to learn and engage in new skills or can help us to improve our skills or strategies over time (Hardy et al., 2001).
We can also use self-talk to motivate ourselves when a task is difficult or we are in the process of acquiring a new skill. There are three motivational components to self-talk: mastery, arousal, and drive. Sometimes, we need motivation to help us focus and feel confident and able to cope with difficulties in a task (motivational mastery). Other times, we are feeling one of the extremes of energy — either too nervous or not energized enough. We can use self-talk to either calm down or get hyped up, depending on our needs (motivational arousal). Finally, we might struggle with keeping ourselves engaged in a given task and we use self-talk to help us put more effort into the task over a long period of time (motivational drive; Hardy et al., 2001; Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2009).
Positive v. negative self-talk
While we know that self-talk is generally helpful, the way in which you talk to yourself also matters. Self-talk can be positive, meaning we use it to be positive and encouraging toward ourselves. When going through a difficult situation, telling yourself “I can do this” can be really helpful.
However, I would argue that many people (especially a lot who come in to see me in therapy) have a tendency to engage in negative self-talk. Negative self-talk typically takes the form of criticism and often causes anxiety or feelings of shame or doubt. For example, I have had people indicate that when they mess up they ask themsleves “Why are you so dumb?,” say “I suck at this,” or tell themselves “I’m never going to get this.” As you can imagine, these are not exactly the motivating statements we need to hear when times are tough.
A lot of people truly believe that negative self-talk is what they need to get through tough times, which is completely fine if that truly works for them. I sometimes ask people to simply imagine what could be different in their life if they used positive self-talk (either in addition to or in replacement of the negative). Often, it would make them happier, decrease negative emotions, or be motivating.
Though research seems to be mixed on the effects of positive and negative self-talk, there is some research that shows that winners in tennis matches used less negative self-talk, but they didn’t differ in amount of positive self-talk when compared with the losers of the matches (Van Raalte et al., 1994). Additionally, other studies have consistently shown that there are significant benefits of positive self-talk for improving our performance on a given task (Tod et al., 2011). In essence, it might be a good idea to optimize how much positive self-talk and reduce the amount of negative self-talk you engage in to improve your overall performance (and likely your mental health, too). Positive self-talk can feel forced if you’re generally a critical person and, in that case, it might be helpful to just try neutral talk.
Self-talk as related to sport/exercise and food behaviors
The way we talk to ourselves plays an important role in our health-behaviors. For example, it can impact how, when, and why we engage in a particular exercise behavior or can contribute to the types and quantity of food we choose to eat. Not to mention that the running internal dialogue is often a contributor to feelings of depression or anxiety prevalent in so many mental health disorders.
Research shows that within sports and exercise, self-talk is particularly helpful for fine motor skills that help us with precision in our movements (Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2011). When we are trying to do things that require small or precise movements, self-talk can help us to more effectively perform those tasks. So, when you are doing things that require precision, dexterity, or coordination, try out some self-talk and see how it helps!
Additionally, research tells us that when we engage in motivational self-talk, we tend to be more confident, have less anxiety, and perform better on sports/exercise-related and other tasks we are undertaking (Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2009).
Finally, we also tend to talk to ourselves when we are making choices about our food intake. I know that when I am hungry for a snack, I often think to myself “What am I hungry for?” in order to try to listen to my body and eat intuitively. There is research that suggests that self-talk is a powerful tool to help us make positive food decisions, particularly when we use it in a certain way. Specifically, using distanced self-talk — where we talk to ourselves in the third person — helps us to think more abstractly about ourselves and our food decisions, which leads to making positive food choices. When our health goals are primed (at the forefront of our minds), we are also more likely to use self-talk to make positive food choices (Furman et al., 2020). The idea here is that the distanced self-talk makes us think more abstractly and come up with a reason for our decisions rather than just going with whatever first comes to mind. Therefore, it might be helpful for me to switch from asking myself “what am I hungry for?” to asking “what is Haley hungry for?”
Self-talk “how to”
Based on this research and my general psychology training, I have come up with a list of tips that might help you out on your self-talk journey. As always, there is no one right or wrong way to engage in self-talk, so try out many things and see what works best for you!
- Monitor self-talk: The best first step in being intentional about self-talk is just noticing it when it happens. You likely have a running internal dialogue that you may or may not be aware of at any given time. If you aren’t aware of how you typically talk to yourself, stop and notice where your mind goes next time you’re in a difficult or stressful position. Notice that little voice in the back of your head: the tone, the content, and the impact this voice has on you. At the same time, we are sometimes able to observe the self-talk that other people engage in throughout their days. When someone we know does something difficult, they may say that self-talk out loud. While I don’t encourage you to try to change their self-talk (after all, we can’t change other people), it is helpful to be aware of how others close to us talk to themselves. This can help us make a mental note of how we do/don’t want to talk to ourselves.
- First v. third person: This one sounds interesting because most people don’t go about their days talking in third person (saying “you can do it” or “Haley wants an apple” to ourselves). However, research shows that talking in third person creates some psychological distance from the self-talk and allows us to more effectively regulate our emotions in a given situation. Talking to ourselves in first person, on the other hand, keeps us closer to our emotions and engaging with the emotions (Kross et al., 2014). So, it can be helpful to be intentional about whether you talk to yourself in first or third person based on the situation at hand. If you need to keep perspective, think abstractly, and regulate intense emotions, then third person is for you. If you have been avoiding your emotions and need to engage with or increase awareness of them, then first person is for you.
- Increase self-talk for novel tasks: Research shows that self-talk is particularly helpful for and has stronger effects on us when we are learning a new skill. Self-talk in these situations tends to have immediate and lasting effects on our ability to take on that skill (Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2011). Therefore, when you are doing or trying something new (such as a new training style!), be intentional about engaging in both instructional and motivational self-talk to help you get through it and keep going.
- Keep it positive: As mentioned earlier, the research on the impacts of positive versus negative self-talk is mixed. That being said, from experience working with people in a therapy setting, positive self-talk is often motivating and protective of one’s mental health. In fact, there seems to be little danger to engaging in positive self-talk. So, my advice here is not to necessarily lie to yourself (don’t say “you’re so good at this” if you are not), but keep the focus of the self-talk on honest positivity. Praise yourself for what you are doing well and for your efforts; you can always default to motivating self-statements as well.
- Whose voice is it? This might seem like a strange one; after all, if it is self-talk, then it must be my own voice, right? However, many times the internal voices that we utilize are actually internalization of the way that others have spoken to us throughout our lives. Most typically, an early caregiver will speak to us in a particular way, and we believe and take that to heart, adopting it for how we talk to ourselves later on in life. Sometimes this works out great for us. Other times, if that voice was critical or harsh, not only is it not our own voice, but it also isn’t helpful for us in achieving our goals. Therefore, if you recognize that this self-talk comes from someone else (parents/caregivers, coaches, teachers, therapists, peers, etc.) ask whether it serves you. If at any point, the answer is “no,” then allow yourself to challenge that voice because it isn’t yours. Over time, be intentional about making this voice your own and allowing the self-talk to serve you best.
- External reminders: Even though the large majority of self-talk is subconsciously generated and automatic, that doesn’t mean we can’t be intentional about changing or adding in self-talk that suits us. If you are working toward incorporating certain aspects of self-talk into your life, feel free to set external reminders so that you don’t forget. For example, use sticky notes, phone reminders, or trusted friends to remind you of how you want to talk to yourself. These external reminders can serve as a source of inspiration and help you to reroute when you are feeling down or talking negatively toward yourself.
As odd as it sounds, I encourage you to talk to yourself — and often! Just be sure that what you say to yourself and how you say it makes a difference to help you work toward goals or protect your mental health. I would love to hear from you about times when self-talk has been particularly helpful or ways you have changed your self-talk to work in your favor. Let us know in the comments below!
Furman, C. R., Kross, E., & Gearhardt, A. N. (2020). Distanced self-talk enhances goal pursuit to eat healthier. Clinical Psychological Science, 8(2), 366-373.
Hardy, J. (2006). Speaking clearly: A critical review of the self-talk literature. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7, 81-97.
Hardy, J., Gammage, K., & Hall, C. (2001). A descriptive study of athlete self-talk. The Sport Psychologist, 15, 306-318.
Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Mpoumpaki, S., & Theodorakis, Y. (2009). Mechanisms underlying the self-talk-performance relationship: The effects of motivational self-talk on self-confidence and anxiety. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, 186-192.
Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Galanis, E., & Theodorakis, Y. (2011). Self-talk and sports performance: A meta-analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(4), 348-356.
Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremmer, R. Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 304-324.
Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. (2011). Effects of self-talk: A systematic review. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 666-687.
Van Raalte, J. L., Brewer, B. W., Rivera, P. M., & Petitpas, A. J. (1994). The relationship between observable self-talk and competitive junior tennis players’ match performance. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 16, 400–415.