5 Tips for Better Self-Talk
Become your own source of calm and encouragement
Illustration Credit: Take These Thoughts by Misty Mawn
Right now, you are probably getting an earful from your inner voice. You know, that little commentator in your head that is always chattering?
It can either sound like the leader of the pep squad, bolstering your confidence, whispering instructions, and boosting performance; or the nagging mother-in-law sabotaging your success with negative comments and cutting criticism.
Dozens of studies including recent experiments by Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, from the University of Thessaly, indicate that these inner monologues influence our behavior in both positive and negative ways. Here are five ways to alter your self-talk script and to use your inner voices to help make good on your goals, gain confidence, and perform better.
1. Listen Critically to Your Inner Critic
In high-pressure situations self-talk is often relentless and critical, says Ethan Kross, PhD, the laboratory director of the Emotion & Self-Control Lab at the University of Michigan. Instead of thinking deliberately and logically, our inner voices are stoked by emotion, and that influences everything from how we talk to ourselves to our behaviors and beliefs, attitudes, and habits.
So your first step is to listen critically to what you are saying to yourself—and how you are saying it. When your inner voices start running amok with words of disdain and discouragement, pause the conversation as you consider ways to change it.
2. Create Psychological Distance from Yourself
Using first-person phrasing, such as “why am I so stressed?” or “how can I do better?” may increase feelings of shame or anxiety.
Instead, Kross suggests using your own name or a second- or third-person pronoun when referring to your situation. Asking yourself, “Why are you feeling so stressed?” is one way to create the psychological distance you need to regulate emotion and be able to lessen your discomfort rather than add to it.
As Kross explains, “People who use their own name or ‘you’ begin to think of the task more as an interesting challenge rather than as a threat.”
3. Fit Your Conversation to Your Goal
You are talking to yourself, so consider where you ultimately want to go. Hatzigeorgiadis’s research indicates that different types of self-talk work best for specific goals.
Instructional self-talk like “shoulders back” or “keep the left arm straight” or “temper the eggs before mixing” work best to improve technique.
Motivational self-talk such as “you’ve got this,” or “you can do it,” “keep going,” can help with confidence, strength, or endurance.
4. Treat Yourself as a Friend
Demeaning, disparaging, or negative self-talk is only going to amp up your stress and hold you back. Instead, speak compassionately to yourself—just as you would to a friend.
Rescript negative messages to include a positive spin. “I am not good at this” can be changed to “Relax. You are prepared for this.”
“I don’t know what to say” can be rescripted to “Remember to smile and ask good questions.”
5. Say, “I Don’t,” instead of “I Can’t”
Several experiments by Vanessa Patrick, a professor of marketing at the University of Houston, found that people using the phrase “I don’t” to resist temptation fared better for longer than those who said “I can’t.” Saying “I can’t” communicates limitation or constraint. Saying “I don’t” demonstrates that you are in charge of your thoughts and behaviors, and that is a powerful reminder that will help you prevail.
Try it for yourself and feel the difference.
“I can’t miss my workouts” versus “I don’t miss my workouts.”
“I can’t buy these shoes until payday” versus “I don’t buy shoes until payday.”
“I can’t eat dessert” versus “I don’t eat dessert.”
When you replace inner smack talk with encouraging self-talk you will be better able to meet adversity and challenges and do things that will contribute to greater success. In this way, small linguistic changes can mean big life changes.