What is Positive Self-Talk?

Posted on December 6th, 2022.

Self-talk is generally thought to be a mix of conscious and unconscious beliefs and biases that we hold about ourselves and the world generally. It was Sigmund Freud who first created the idea that we have both conscious and unconscious levels of thought, with unconscious cognitive processes influencing our behavior in ways we don’t realize (Cherry, 2019).

Self-talk can be positive or negative – and paying attention to which you most often sway towards, can help you start making proactive changes about how you take on life’s challenges.

Negative Self-Talk

Our patterns of self-talk are all too often negative – we focus on preconceived ideas that we’re ‘not good enough’ or ‘always a failure’ or ‘can’t do anything right’. Our brains are hardwired to remember negative experiences over positive ones, so we recall the times we didn’t quite get it right more than the times we do. We then replay these messages in our minds, fuelling negative feelings (Jantz, 2016).

Positive Self-Talk

Positive self-talk, as you may have guessed, is the flip of negative self-talk. It’s not about narcissism, or deceiving ourselves into thinking things that are inaccurate. It’s more about showing yourself some self-compassion and understanding for who you are and what you’ve been through (Jantz, 2019).

Positive self-talk sees our internal narrative switching to ideas like ‘I can do better next time’ or ‘I choose to learn from my mistakes, not be held back by them’.

What Does the Research Say?

In terms of how impactful positive self-talk can be, the research unanimously agrees it’s quite a lot. From sports professionals to losing weight, to combatting depression: changing the way you talk to yourself can have a proactive roll-on effect in behavior changes.

  • Keizer, Smeets, and Dijkerman (2013) conducted a study where they asked patients with anorexia nervosa to walk through a doorway that became increasingly narrower. Participants with the disorder began to turn their bodies when the doorway was 40% wider than their shoulders, compared to participants who had no diagnosis, who only began to turn when the doorway was 25% wider than their shoulders. The researchers surmised that the negative self-talk the anorexic participants participated in had a dramatic effect on the way they viewed their bodies – making them believe they were larger than they actually were.
  • Conroy and Metzler (2004) explored the ways self-talk impacts cognitive anxiety in sports performance. They looked at state-specific self-talk, so the way athletes spoke to themselves while failing, while succeeding, while wishing for success, and while fearing failure. They measured these alongside expressions of situation-specific trait performance anxiety: fear of failure, fear of success and sport anxiety. They found the strongest results for self-talk associated with fear of failure and sports anxiety, essentially the athletes experienced higher anxiety when using negative self-talk.
  • Similarly, Kendall and Treadwell (2007) also explored the ways self-talk effects anxiety. They investigated self-talk as a predictor for anxiety in children with and without a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. They found that reducing negative self-talk mediated substantial treatment gains in the children with a diagnosis.
  • Wrisberg (1993) found that self-talk can help to improve learning performance, by assisting with the concept of ‘chunking’ complex information, which has been proven in aiding recall and carrying out complex tasks accurately.
  • Chopra (2012) found that providing students with effective strategies to turn negative self-talk into positive self-talk enabled them to successfully transform their negative thought processes and the value of doing so in their lives.
  • Todd, Oliver, and Harvey (2011) carried out a review of the literature and research surrounding self-talk and unanimously found that positive self-talk interventions are effective in mediating cognitive and behavioral change.

The Importance and Benefits of Positive Self-Talk

As the research suggests, positive self-talk is important for a number of reasons.

From helping to overcome body dysmorphia to sports performance, mediating anxiety and depression, to more effective learning: positive self-talk can make a world of difference.

Three additional benefits include:

1. Helps to Reduce Stress

Research has shown that people who are more inclined towards thinking optimistically, are also more inclined towards positive self-talk and utilize more active coping strategies when faced with stressful situations and challenges (Iwanaga, Yokoyama, and Seiwa, 2004).

Positive self-talk helps you reframe the way you look at stressful situations, understanding that you will approach challenges with the best of your ability and that whatever the outcome – you did the best you could. Tackling these situations with an ‘I can do this’ mindset rather than a negative ‘This is too hard’ one, opens up new ways of thinking and problem-solving.

2. Helps to Boost Confidence and Resilience

Approaching life with a positive self-talk approach can help to boost your self-confidence. Individuals who score highly for optimism and positive self-esteem are more likely to achieve their goals, score good grades and recover quickly from surgery (Lyubormisky, 2008).

Regular positive self-talk can help you to feel more confident in the face of achieving your goals, as you instill yourself with the belief that the things you want are achievable, and when problems do arise, you find workarounds.

3. Helps Build Better Relationships

You’re probably aware of what it feels like to be around someone who is positive, self-assured and content in who they are as a person. They exude confidence, and it reflects positively on those around them. Assad, Donnellan, and Conger (2012) found that couples who were more optimistic cited higher levels of cooperation and positive outcomes.

People who utilize positive self-talk are also extremely capable of picking up on the positive traits of those around them.

Is There any Evidence that Suggests it can Help with Anxiety and Depression?

The research seems to support the idea that positive self-talk can indeed help with disorders like anxiety and depression. This is mainly because negative self-talk has been widely linked with disorders such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, aggression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Leung and Poon, 2001, Owens and Chard, 2001).

Flipping self-talk to positive has also been shown to mediate some really great results with young people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (Kendall and Treadwell, 2007).

What this tells us is that positive self-talk can help to overcome these disorders, by correcting the bias towards negative thoughts and beliefs we might hold about ourselves.

Can it Help Combat Stress?

In a nutshell, yes. As touched on briefly, one of the benefits of positive self-talk is that it can help you approach challenges and stressful situations with a more open and optimistic mindset (Iwanaga, Yokoyama, and Seiwa, 2004).

Positive self-talk isn’t about knowing all the answers or thinking you’re amazing, it’s simply about reframing how you view things, removing negative bias, and approaching life with the idea that you can tackle things – and even if it doesn’t go perfectly – you’ll learn from it for next time.

10 Examples of Positive Self-Talk Statements and Phrases

If positive self-talk seems like foreign territory to you, it might be difficult to know where to begin in terms of effective positive statements and phrases to try.

It’s important to know that not everyone’s positive self-talk will be the same, and you should try a few different approaches to find the ones that ultimately work for you.

Here are ten just to get you started:

  1. I have the power to change my mind.
  2. Attempting to do this took courage and I am proud of myself for trying.
  3. Even though it wasn’t the outcome I hoped for, I learned a lot about myself.
  4. I might still have a way to go, but I am proud of how far I have already come.
  5. I am capable and strong, I can get through this.
  6. Tomorrow is a chance to try again, with the lessons learned from today.
  7. I will give it my all to make this work.
  8. I can’t control what other people think, say or do. I can only control me.
  9. This is an opportunity for me to try something new.
  10. I can learn from this situation and grow as a person.

How to Use Positive Self-Talk: 4 Strategies and Techniques

Before you can begin to use positive self-talk, you first need to identify how often and what type of negative thinking/self-talk you engage in. Once you understand this, you can make a start on retraining your thoughts.

Negative self-talk tends to fall into one of four categories:

  1. Personalizing – Meaning you blame yourself when things go wrong.
  2. Polarizing – Meaning you see things only as good or bad, no gray areas or room for middle ground.
  3. Magnifying – Meaning you only focus on the bad or negative in every scenario and dismiss anything good or positive.
  4. Catastrophizing – Meaning you always expect the worst.

You might identify with only one of these categories or multiple. The point is once you start categorizing your thoughts like this, you can then begin to work on switching them for more positive frames.

This won’t happen overnight, and you’ll need to ensure you put in the practice to really hone in on your self-talk and identify where changes are needed. 

Source: PositivePsychology.com

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