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What you say to yourself matters.

By Louise Roberts, Mind Tree Therapy (March 2022)

What you say to yourself matters.

By Louise Roberts, Mind Tree Therapy (March 2022)

Self-talk is a touchy subject for some. It can conjure uncomfortable images of losing your mind or self-delusion that everything is better than it actually is and the only one who can't see it is you. In reality, we all have an internal narrative; what we tell ourself. Our beliefs, automatic thought processes and emotional responses all come from what we have been told and how we thought about our experiences.

Self-talk is the most powerful psychological tool available to each and every one of us. It shapes every aspect of our lives including our habits and attitudes. While we cannot always control what others say to us about us, we can control what we say to ourselves and that makes a huge difference when it comes to making positive mental changes. That is why we see some people that struggle under the weight of negative experiences and those that seem to shrug things off, sometimes even seeing the benefits, no matter how small.

By understanding how thoughts affect behaviour and how we can develop our attitudes and beliefs, we unlearn unhelpful ones and replace them with more useful counterparts.

Most of us aren't aware of the majority of what we say to ourselves, about ourselves. This makes the programming hard to detect and enables it to disguise itself as the truth. It is, in actual fact, just one point of view that tricks us into going along with it because it has either been given to us or has, at some point in the past, worked for us, even in a backward way.

Negative Self-Talk Example:

Walking across a room with colleagues or peers and you trip. What immediately goes through your mind? Setting aside the possible expletives, many people will not have noted that they then tell themselves something unhealthy.

Some things you might say to yourself:

I'm stupid! I always mess up! What an idiot! I am useless! Everyone is laughing at me!

On top of feeling bad, you then attack yourself.

If a close friend tripped and looked to you for genuine reassurance, would you really say any of those things to them? Setting aside the jokes we make stating that we would laugh, we would rarely be cruel. We might help them laugh it off but we would be with them, not criticising them. We would make light of it and offer some reassurance that it is ok.

If a child falls, often we say, "Oh, dear. It's ok.", or something to that affect. We should not see adults laughing cruelly or telling the child they are stupid for an innocent mistake.

How would it feel to say something supportive to yourself, instead? How much more quickly would you recover from the error? How easily could you move on with your day, knowing you are ok? It changes everything, and yet we continue to believe the best way to speak to ourselves it to cruel and critical.

Being self-critical simply doesn't work

We fear going easy on ourselves will make us more susceptible to making avoidable mistakes. We believe we need to be harsh to drive us towards perfection, when really the opposite is true. When we are hard on ourselves, we become tense, anxious and stressed. This makes it more likely we will make mistakes. We become over-thinkers to avoid our own punishment.

The neurobiology changes with stress. Our brain goes into a form of survival mode. The learning centers shut down. Speech and processing functions become limited and our body prepares for fight, flight or freeze to protect from the impending 'danger'. Wouldn't it be much healthier to be in 'living' mode? A state of being where we can embrace our potential for mistakes and use them as they are intended - a learning experience? How much braver would we be knowing we have one less critic to face if the plan doesn't go perfectly? Our neurobiology opens up, relieving stress responses and engaging all our creative functions. We become more of what are capable of being by being realistic about the potential for mistakes and being kinder to ourselves when they happen.

Where do we start?

First of all we need to be prepared to look deep into the inner workings of our thoughts and beliefs - our inner landscape. We need to listen to what is being said inside our head.

Take a moment to reflect on what you are saying to yourself about yourself. Is it helpful? Would you say it to close friend? Make note of what you discover and keep a journal to help you track your self-talk.

Changing Negative 2 Positive

Once you have identified one or more of the things you say to yourself which are unhelpful, think about how you can change it next time. Some examples below but it works best if you make it your own.


Laughter is the best medicine

Another tip is to laugh with yourself. It relieves momentary stress and changes the physical response. Humour releases and relaxes the mind and body increasing physical and mental wellness. But you must watch your words. Change the I to It and depersonalise your reflection of the event. This tells your brain it is ok and doesn't tell your brain you are bad which causes mental distress.

EG. Change " I'm stupid" to "That's silly."

We all do silly things - it does not mean we are stupid.

Adding "Whoops!" or "Oh Dear" helps your brain to feel less stressed. You are tell your brain it is ok and your brain responds by reducing the stress responses.

Notice the good stuff

Another powerful addition to your daily mental workout is to really notice what goes well, what you did right and what you can be proud of. You can tell yourself and have what I call a 'Yay!' moment to let your brain register the positive reflection and you can keep a notebook of all the positive reflections you have each day then look back before bed and remind yourself that you did well. Positive reinforcement is a very powerful tool - use it.

Small changes for big positive impact

It really does work. We really do internalise what we say to ourselves. We really do have over 20 years of objective research proving physiological and neurobiological changes occur based on how we speak to ourselves, especially during periods of stress such as making mistakes.

When we give ourselves the care and kindness we need, we can find the strength to grow and we are better able to give that care and kindness to those we love.


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