We’re all familiar with that voice – the one that brays in our ear at daybreak, telling us we’re lazy for not jumping out of bed as soon as the alarm sounds.
It’s the same voice that says we’re incompetent, clumsy, thoughtless – and far worse – for botching a work presentation, breaking a wine glass, or forgetting a nephew’s birthday.
In the echo chamber of our inner critic, there’s very little we get right.
Negative self-talk makes us feel lousy and lowers performance. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of therapeutic approaches, self-help books, and YouTube videos aimed at countering it.
So much so, that standing in front of a mirror and affirming our self-worth ala Stuart Smalley – “I’m good enough. Smart enough and, doggone it, people like me” – has become a classic groaner. (See On My Mind below.)
But long before Stuart Smalley, dating back to the 1800s, psychologists have sought to understand how our internal dialog impacts our thoughts, emotions, and actions. There’s also been a long-standing trend of trying to change how we talk to ourselves for the better.
In the 1920s, French pharmacist and psychologist Emile Coue advocated using autosuggestion and the phrase – “Every day in every way I’m getting better.” – to boost achievement. And since the 1970s, positive self-talk has been a go-to method for boosting athletic performance.
But does positive self-talk work?
The answer isn’t straightforward. Overall, pumping yourself up is better than putting yourself down. But how, when, and what you say to yourself matter. Also, positive self-talk might not be for everyone. Some of us just aren’t that chatty.
“Self-talk needs to feel right for the person using it in a particular situation,” says Judy Van Raalte, a self-talk researcher, and professor of psychology at Springfield College. https://www.cindrakamphoff.com/judy/
If you’re a football player, firing yourself up before a game by shouting “Let’s do this” might prime performance. But it could derail a golfer, who needs library silence to sink a putt.
Positive affirmations also backfire when the person uttering them already has low-self esteem. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x Telling yourself “I’m the best” when you believe “I’m not good enough” creates cognitive dissonance and makes you feel worse. So, too, does saying “I’m calm” when you feel a beehive of anxiety buzzing in your belly.
What to do? Reach for reasonable, encouraging statements and experiment with the tone, phrases, and circumstances to determine what works best for you.
Simple, statements such as “You can change;” “You’re capable” and “You’ve got this” might be more convincing to a skeptical brain than grandiose ones professing “You’re a genius.” Saying “I’m excited” when you feel anxious is a helpful reframe that matches your physiological state. And, during an athletic performance short, instructional phrases such as “breathe” or “focus” inspire while downplaying distraction and mental overload.
Another nuance: When using self-talk in stressful social situations, referring to yourself in the third person might be more effective than using first-person pronouns because it increases self-distancing and regulation, according to researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkley.
“Good job, Kelly. This blog’s a little humorless, but it’s still great information.”
Changing your inner dialog takes mindfulness, too.
After all, you need to know if you’re chiding yourself for hitting the snooze button before you can tell yourself it’s okay to get a few more winks.
On My Mind
For years, my inner critic carried a bullhorn.And because of that, I’ve long been a fan of saying loving things to myself while looking in the mirror and using compassionate and motivating self-talk throughout my day.
Doing that as well as loving-kindness practice, which is a mindfulness practice that entails repeating loving and kind phrases to yourself, others, and the world around you has muted my rampaging inner critic and opened my heart.
But ever since watching this hilarious and cringe-worthy Stuart Smalley video I make sure I talk to myself in the mirror when no one is around.