Self-talk is an important part of our daily lives. It helps us cope with stress, stay focused on tasks at hand, and even control our moods. But sometimes we say things to ourselves that aren’t true or are downright mean, and these negative thoughts can affect how we feel and act in the world.
We’ve heard the terms Negative Nelly or Debby Downer (cue the “waah waah”) or Inner critic or Inner voice. It’s all the same term for how we have been programmed by years of feedback—most of which is, sadly, negative. Sometimes, we don’t realize our inner dialogue is so pessimistic.
Research states that “77% of what we think is negative, is counterproductive and works against us.” Becoming more aware of this programming is the first task to changing it.
You have to believe in neuroplasticity— the brain’s ability to create and form new connections—especially after learning or injury.
In Shad Helmstetter’s book, What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, he defines self-talk as: “specific statements of self-direction designed to wire new neural pathways in the brain.” It’s not impossible to change our self-talk, but, like with all good habits, it does take practice.
Dr. Helmstetter identifies levels of self-talk which get in the way of being our best selves. The first is when we say “I can’t” or “ If only I could”, or “I just can’t seem to.” This is a ‘level of negative acceptance’ and the most harmful because we just state a negative about ourselves and accept it. “I just can’t …lose weight…be successful…find love…” It is completely limiting, and if we start with this kind of talk where can we possibly go from here?
The next level is when we acknowledge something is a problem, but don’t change it. We use words like “I should” or “I ought to.”
The founder of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), Albert Ellis, used to joke “You are should-ing all over yourself.” I often tell my clients should-ing is shaming. Any way you slice it, it is acknowledging something we feel bad about in ourselves without ever problem-solving it. “I really should do that thing better”…but I can’t, I don’t, so I won’t. Talk about feeling stuck.
Things get better as we move up the chain of self-talk. Helmstetter tells us Level 3 involves the desire for change and a willingness to do something. This is where reprogramming begins. Instead of saying, “I should quit smoking” we can say “I no longer smoke.” Even if it’s not true yet. It’s the same way hypnosis works by reprogramming the subconscious to believe what we want to be already true, although Helmstetter says it’s better because self-talk is self-directed. It’s also the way affirmations are intended to work, although Helmstetter says those are more spiritual.
When we state things in the present tense as if they were already true it will condition our subconscious into new thinking patterns. Our brains are ready to do new learning at any time.
Next is the self-talk we all need to make the best version of ourselves. It begins with “I am…” Instead of “I’m always late”, or “I just don’t have time”, it becomes “I am always on time” or “I am using my time wisely.” Again, we are trying to reprogram our brain. As I always say: what we fire, we wire.
Once we recognize the language we are using with ourselves, we can start to replace it with the new, more positive language. Like cleaning out the clothes in your closet. If we keep sending items to the donation bin, eventually we will have new, happier items in our closet.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself, just as I am, then I can change.” — Carl Rogers
So how do we change our old programming?
First be willing to make a change and believe that you can.
Start noticing your inner critic and then rephrase the things you say. Use lots of language, not just a sentence or two. You can do this by having conversations with yourself literally out loud (maybe in the shower) or by writing them down or even recording yourself and listening to it at least 15-minutes a day. ex: I never spend more than I earn, I don’t smoke, I eat only what nourishes my body, I set goals and follow them, etc. Our unconscious mind doesn’t know what is true and what isn’t so we get to choose! I can choose to think I’m fat or I can choose to think I am choosing healthier foods to nourish my body each and every day. Either could be true, but which one leaves me stuck and mired in misery?
Approach problems by solving them as if they are goals. Goals don’t have to be lofty. They can be as simple as aiming to make your bed every day or even each work day when you wake up. If you spent every day talking to yourself about how you make your bed and achieve your goals for things like making your bed, would you make your bed more often? You can certainly try it and let me know. With meeting the goal once, motivation begins and then you could be well on your way to a new habit.
Be your own Inner coach. Put enthusiasm behind this new talk and be your own cheerleader. A trip the dentist could be filled with dread or you could say: “this will be what it needs to be. I can sit through it patiently and calmly and reward myself after. I can think about that great vacation I had or that person I love while I’m there. I can do this.”
This may all seem too silly, but then I observe a child who is frustrated but then responds to someone telling them they can do it, cheering them on, encouraging them with positive enthusiasm and I see their face light up, and their back straighten and the look of determination come over them and I realize it does work. Children are less programmed than we are, but the evidence is there.
You can do this. I believe in you.
Reach out to me for help changing your Inner voice.