This post can be found in Psychology Today.
With anxiety and depression rising at alarming rates, we need to create greater awareness around effective coping mechanisms to navigate the challenges that put us at risk for these conditions. Creating a more balanced perspective can be attained through ‘self-talk’, or dialogues that we have within our own minds. Forming more positive internal dialogues with ourselves helps us move through challenging situations that may otherwise lead to intense anxiety or even depression.
Is self-talk innate or learned?
If we were fortunate, when we were infants and small children, our parents and caregivers provided us with verbally and physically expressed messages of emotional validation, kindness, and hope. These external messages provided us with emotional soothing, encouragement, and empathy as we struggled through stress and negative emotions. If we were unfortunate and had harshly critical parents or caregivers, or we overly internalized harshly critical messages, this poses a real challenge to overcoming stress and anxiety in our adult lives.
Thankfully, as adults, we can learn how to dampen the negative self-talk by building a repertoire of positive self-talk messages. As we developed into our adolescence and adulthood, we needed to learn how to internally validate ourselves to provide those same types of positive messages from within to overcome stressful situations. In this way, we could become emotionally independent adults.
When we establish a strong and varied set of positive self-talk messages, we can overcome emotionally negative situations and be able to form strategies and solutions that work. Overcoming adversity builds confidence and hope that we can survive through whatever obstacles come our way, therefore building our self-esteem. We also have the opportunity to understand and develop our personality strengths to come up with viable solutions to our problems, thus building success with a greater sense of and appreciation for ourselves.
Managing challenging situations
Negative emotions are painful and can prompt us to ignore the situation or create distractions (i.e., avoidance behaviors that prevent us from forming viable solutions). And negative emotions bias our perception towards pessimistic, self-doubting, and even despairing beliefs and attitudes about a situation, greatly impacting our ability to see a situation with a balanced perspective that is comprised of positive, negative, and neutral aspects. Positive self-talk can reduce the intensity of these negative emotions such that we can confront the problem, form a more emotionally balanced perspective, and develop an effective solution to solve the problem.
Why is negative self-talk so detrimental?
Negative self-talk leads to enhancing and intensifying experienced negative emotions. This will oftentimes lead to avoidance or distraction behaviors, such as procrastination or even addictive behaviors. In some cases, a person who has some, but weak positive self-talk skills with predominating negative self-talk can start off doing well with adversity but eventually drift towards self-sabotaging behaviors, which will undo any progress.
Negative self-talk includes messages of criticism, shame, hopelessness, or despair. Some examples include “I am an idiot,” “I am a failure,” “no one will like me,” or “I’m never going to make it!” These messages are negative reactions to negative emotions, and therefore will cause additional emotional pain.
Creating positive internal dialogue
In order to get us over our barriers of fear, the most effective positive self-talk or internal dialogue messages are ones that provide emotional soothing, kindness, compassion, acceptance, hope, and logical grounding. Some examples include, “I am rightfully sad, but I know that this feeling will pass,” “If I don’t put myself out there, I’ll never know whether I can make it,” “It was painful to fail, but I will learn from it so that I can achieve my goals,” or “You can do it because you’ve done it before.” These messages can soothe emotional pain while providing a platform to build effective solutions.
It is also worth noting that positive self-talk messages often have more components than negative self-talk messages. For example, it is quicker and easier to say to yourself “I am an idiot” than it is to say to yourself “I may not be good now, but I have to practice and learn from each mistake I make.” At the start of the process, many people state that building positive self-talk messages is “unnatural” or “ingenuine,” which is precisely why the process works through guidance, rehearsal and practice.
Although there is no known way to completely get rid of negative self-talk, we can build a greater repertoire of positive self-talk messages through psychotherapy or self-guided worksheets. The therapist may offer guidance, rehearsal, and practice while the person relays their negative emotions associated with stressful situations. Over time, the person will adopt more positive self-talk messages that can override and dampen any negative self-talk messages.