Take a moment and listen to yourself. Listen to the thoughts you are having. What are you often telling yourself? Are your thoughts supportive, critical, negative or positive? Based on Cognitive Therapy, we all have automatic thoughts throughout the day. When we are journaling or just talking to a friend, we are sharing these automatic thoughts. They make up your self-talk, which is also known as your inner dialogue or inner voice. Most people think of it as the running commentary that is going on in the background.
Your self-talk can have a big influence on how you feel and what you think about yourself. The research studies have proven that the way we think affects the way we feel. So “If you are struggling with anxiety, low self-esteem, anger, or depression you are also having thoughts that feeds into these feelings. For example, when you are feeling guilty or ashamed, you are telling yourself that you are bad or a failure. If you are feeling hopeless, you are telling yourself that things will never change. If you are feeling angry, you are telling yourself that someone is treating you unfairly or trying to take advantage of you. When you are feeling anxious, worried, or panicky you are telling yourself that you are in danger and that something terrible is about to happen” (When Panic Attacks by David Burns, MD., pg 11-12). There is a vicious cycle where your thoughts feed into the feelings and in turn feelings “prove” the thought is accurate. When you understand how your thoughts are shaping your feelings, then one way to learn to manage your emotions is through changing your self-talk.
Self-talk can also shape your overall opinion of yourself and your self-esteem. When you have a specific pattern of a thought all day long or across situations, then you will start to make conclusions based on these thoughts. For example, every time you run in to a problem at work and think “I can’t do this” or “this is too hard,” then you will develop a more deeply rooted belief about your self as “inadequate” or “incompetent.” You will start to feel self-doubt and insecure. In contrast, if throughout the day or across different situations, you are able to have an inner voice that says “I did my best,” “let me give this a try,” or “I might solve this,” then you are more likely to see yourself as “competent” or “good enough.” If you like to test this out, then in a moderately difficult situation, check in with your thoughts, and ask yourself how does that particular thought make you feel about yourself? You will quickly find out that a positive thought leads to positive feelings and opinions of yourself.
Given the multiple benefits of positive self-talk, let’s review some helpful tools to practice:
1) Start with paying attention and noticing your thoughts. In the early stages of therapy, most people keep track of their thoughts by writing them down. There are different forms of thought-recording sheets that can assist you in this exercise. This will start giving you awareness of your inner voice.
2) The next step is to identify them as unhealthy, unhelpful or negative. If you don’t notice that a thought is unhealthy or negative, then you are more likely to continue to think that way. If you are unsure of how to label a thought as unhealthy or unhelpful, then think about someone else having that thought. Would you think that particular thought is helpful if someone you love said it to himself or herself? Often it is easier to objectively evaluate our thoughts if we can step back and take a look at it.
3) The last step is to challenge your negative self-talk by replacing it with more neutral and positive thoughts. Positive affirmations are phrases that you can use to replace your negative thoughts. For example, if one of your negative automatic thought sounds like “I can’t do this,” then you can replace it with “I can handle it,” “I have what it takes,” or “let me give it a try.” Similar to above step, if it is difficult for you to think of a replacement statement, step back again and think how you would respond if someone you love had the negative thought. Once you can think of how you would respond to your loved one, then you would practice it saying the positive statement to yourself. As Brene Brown says, “talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love.”