We carry inner monologues with us throughout the day. Sometimes we have internal messages that monitor and judge how we’re coming across in a particular situation. Other times we’re psyching ourselves up for a challenging interaction or preparing for an important life event. Or, more often than we’d like, we’re analyzing and over-analyzing what’s already transpired.
These conversations normally go on inside our heads, not outside—there’s something unsettling about watching a person having an animated conversation with what appears to be thin air. But as a therapist, I am keenly interested in the way people talk to themselves. In fact, there’s nothing more powerful than the way we talk to ourselves about ourselves.
Self-talk—both verbal and mental—is important because the way we talk to ourselves attaches meaning to our experiences. What’s actually happening or has just happened doesn’t influence us as much as the positive or negative spin we give it, including our assessment of the role we played in a given situation. This is what influences us most and becomes our long-term truth.
If our internal monologues are judgmental, critical, shaming, or perfectionistic, it impacts our sense of self-worth, confidence, and competence. We all know that bullying takes an emotional toll, so why would we ever believe that bullying ourselves would be appropriate or productive? Negative self-talk puts a glass ceiling on healthy risk-taking, as well as personal and professional growth.
But when our self-talk is kind, compassionate, encouraging, forgiving, and optimistic, it enables us to move beyond old wounds and approach life’s challenges with confidence. It encourages us to engage in self-care and move away from chaotic drama. We’re therefore more likely to be choose relationships that are respectful and loving, and pursue careers that are fulfilling.
In the same way that repetitive negative thoughts can cause us to spiral into anguish, positive self-talk has a positive domino effect. When we look at ourselves through a lens of kindness and compassion, it impacts the way we look at others in the world, too. When we are patient and allow ourselves to make mistakes, we become more generous in the ways in which we perceive others—and find it easier to forgive their slights. Positive self-talk also leads to increased gratitude, which changes brain chemistry in positive ways and promotes emotional and physical wellbeing.
Talking to yourself more kindly
Although much of the external world is beyond our control, we have the power to change our inner monologues. Ultimately, we cannot change what other people think and feel—this is their choice. But when we consider our own thoughts and the voice we use to convey them, we can begin to let go of the negative beliefs and harsh tones that don’t serve us.
Finding the courage to assess the nature of our thoughts is the first step toward changing them. Consider the following questions: Do your thoughts hinder or enhance your self-esteem? Do you talk to yourself in the same way you talk to people in your life whom you love and respect? Do you talk to yourself in the same way that people who love you talk to you?
Once we notice how often our inner monologue is demeaning or negative, we can increase positive self-talk. Since this internal conversation happens so spontaneously, it takes conscious awareness to both identify it and then alter it. Each time you have an automatic negative thought, replace it—either out loud or in your head—with a more positive one. If you find it challenging to come up with positive re-frames, ask yourself what a loving friend or family member would say. This process is rooted in classical conditioning, where the repeated pairing of an old thought with a newer one begins to replace and override the negative thought with a more positive one. Practice and repetition of this process will allow new beliefs to take hold.
We go to bed and wake up with our thoughts, and our inner monologues guide all of our beliefs, emotions, and behavioral choices. So instead of trying to mute that comforting voice, listen to it. If you don’t like what you hear, know that you have the ability to change it. In this way, loving, unconditional self-talk can become the foundation of a new and more compassionate script.