What is self-talk?
As we go about our daily lives, we constantly think about and interpret the situations we find ourselves in. It is like we have an internal voice that determines how we perceive every situation. We call this inner voice our “self-talk,” and it includes our conscious thoughts as well as our unconscious assumptions and beliefs.
Negative self-talk often causes us to feel bad, and can make us feel hurt, angry, frustrated, depressed or anxious. It can also make us behave in a self-defeating way. For instance, thoughts like ”I’m going to fail for sure” might discourage you from working hard when you are preparing for your exams, and you might actually fail as a result.
Positive self-talk is challenging the negative or unhelpful aspects of your thinking, and replacing them with more reasonable and helpful thoughts. This is a powerful way to feel better either about yourself or a situation.
An example of negative self talk would be if you tell yourself that there’s no reason to study for an upcoming test because you already know that you’re going to fail. You may not even try to study because you believe you won’t pass, regardless. However if you believe that you will do well on the test or that studying will help, then you’re much more likely to do well on the test. Don’t doubt yourself, you’re capable of achieving a lot more than you think.
A challenge with negative self-talk is that what you think or say to yourself might seem true. You might assume that your thoughts are facts, when in reality they are based on your perceptions. If you are feeling down on yourself for some reason, this can lead to your thoughts being especially harsh.
Negative self-talk can also affect your self-esteem. When you feel down, it is likely that you’re hard on yourself, and you might criticize and judge yourself unfairly. The worse you feel, the more negative your self-talk is likely to become. It can be helpful to put a more positive perspective on things. For example, challenge your self-talk by imagining it's a friend in your situation and reframe it based on what you'd say to them. We're often nicer to friends than we are to ourselves!
Challenging the negative or unhelpful aspects of your thinking enables you to feel better and to respond to situations in a more helpful way. You can practice noticing your own negative self-talk as it happens, and consciously choose to think about the situation in a more realistic and helpful way. You might be surprised to realize how distorted some of your previous thoughts were before.
Challenging negative self-talk
Identifying self-talk can sometimes be tricky because it's so automatic, you might not even be aware of what’s going on in your own mind. However, whenever you find yourself feeling depressed, angry, anxious or upset, use this as a signal to reflect on your thinking. A good way to test the accuracy of your perceptions is to ask yourself some challenging questions. These questions will help you check out your self-talk and see whether your current interpretation is reasonable. It can also help you discover other ways of thinking about your situation. Recognizing that your current way of thinking might be self-defeating—and prevent you from getting what you want out of life—can sometimes motivate you to look at things from a different perspective.
1. Reality testing
- What evidence supports my thinking?
- Are my thoughts based on facts or my interpretation of the situation?
- Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
- How can I find out if my thoughts are true?
2. Alternative explanations
- Are there other ways that I could look at this situation?
- What else could the situation mean?
- If I were being positive, how would I perceive this situation?
- Is this situation as bad as I’m making out to be?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
- What’s the best thing that could happen?
- What’s most likely to happen?
- Is there anything good about this situation?
- Will this matter in five years?
4. Goal-directed thinking
- Is thinking this way helping me feel good or achieve my goals?
- What can I do that will help me solve the problem?
- Is there something I can learn from this situation to help me in the future?
Try it out
Think of a situation in the last week when you have found yourself feeling bad. You might have been feeling upset, stressed, angry, sad, depressed, embarrassed or guilty. Try applying some of the above tools.For example:
- ”I tried on my jeans and I looked so disgusting and ugly and fat” turns to ”I tried on my jeans and they were too small”
- ”Sally said ’hi’ to me and I made a total idiot of myself" to ”Sally said ’hi’ to me and I blushed and looked away. It's perfectly ok to be shy”
- "I totally messed up that exam, I'm a loser and I'll never get a good job" turns to "I didn't do as well in that exam as I would have liked but that doesn't mean I'm not going to get the job that I want".
Read common thinking errors for more tips on ways to challenge negative thinking.
This fact sheet comes from Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions by Dr. Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond (2005).