Self-talk: How to make it work for you

As kids we used to make fun of those we saw talking to themselves. We would laugh and say that they were going mad! But psychologists tell us we all do it, and we do it every day! We self-talk non-stop, and what we say to ourselves will affect our thoughts, interpretations, and behavior all through life. We guide ourselves, belittle ourselves, support ourselves, criticize ourselves, motivate ourselves, and doubt ourselves with this internal dialogue. And what we say to ourselves can lead us to stress out, freak out, calm down, or overcome our fears.

Suppose you are looking for a job and come across an ad that appeals to you. Will you go for the interview? Much will depend on what you are telling yourself. If you think, “Man, I’ll never get that job. There’s no chance in the world they’d pick me,” then most likely you won’t even try! However, if you tell yourself, “Mmmm, this will be a challenge, but I think I have a chance. I’ll give it my best shot.” This positive way of looking at the same situation will encourage you to set up an interview! Amazing as it seems, self-talk is much like a self-fulfilling prophecy—something you think will happen for so long that you actually make it come true!

Self-talk and how we interpret events

Another interesting fact about self-talk is that it affects how we interpret events in our lives. Many believe that events in our lives cause us to feel angry, hurt, stupid, or anxious. Thanks to the work of Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and Daniel Meichenbaum, to name a few, we now know that it is actually our belief about what happened to us that makes us respond the way we do to any situation. For instance, a young man brings his girlfriend a dozen red roses. She sees him coming and says to herself, smiling, “He truly loves me. He remembered my birthday, and I’m special to him.” What do you think her reaction will be? Whatever she does, we know it will be positive, right? But, on the other hand, let’s say she thinks to herself, “That rat! He knows I found out that he’s also been dating Patty, and now he’s bringing me flowers to appease me!? We’re finished!” How will the girlfriend respond to him now? Roses or no roses, most likely not positive at all! And, even if he says to her, “But I truly love only you!” if the girlfriend continues to believe and think he’s a rat, nothing will change her mind. Nor will her reaction.

Now whether she will fall into depression or not depends on her self-talk. Let’s say she tells herself, “I’m no good. I’m undesirable…that’s why he’s going out with another,” then most likely this will reaffirm her feelings of low self-esteem and possibly lead her into a depression. If, however, she tells herself, “I’m glad I found out now what he’s like. I deserve better. I’m willing to wait for someone who loves me like I want to be loved,” then she will be able to get over the event quicker. You see, it is not really the event that affects our feelings, but rather what we’re believing and telling ourselves about what happened that makes us feel the way we do.

Negative self-talk

One of my favorite Bible stories that illustrates how powerful self-talk can be is found in 1 Kings 18 and 19. Here God asks Elijah to go up and confront King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and her 450 prophets of Baal, in order to see who was more powerful, Baal or the God of Israel. After a long, grueling day of watching the prophets of Baal shout and plead to their god unsuccessfully, Elijah steps up, prays a simple prayer to God and, zap! The sacrifice, which had been drenched in water, is suddenly consumed by a bolt of fire from heaven. And as a bonus, no sooner had Elijah requested God that the three-year drought end, the skies “grew black with clouds, the wind rose, [and] a heavy rain came on” (1 Kings 18:45).* What a victorious day for Elijah and all of God’s followers! God’s power was manifested for all to see! Yet isn’t it odd that soon after this great triumph, Elijah was so frightened of Jezebel that he not only fled to the desert to hide from her, but was expressing his own death wish: “‘I have had enough, Lord’. . . ‘Take my life’” (1 Kings 19:4). This does not make sense to any of us looking on! How can Elijah, one minute, have experienced God’s great power and omnipotence, and the next, run scared? What’s going on?

This is a good example of irrational self-talk. Most likely Elijah’s inner talk went something like this: “I better get out of here. Jezebel is going to kill me. What if God can’t help me? I’m doomed!” Even though Elijah was standing in the “rains” of God’s almighty power, his negative talk overtook him.

Fleeing the negative

Thankfully, we can break away from the negative self-talk that plagues us and get our thoughts to work for us, not against us. How? Try these five steps:

First, listen in on your inner talk, and train yourself to hear the exact thoughts that cause the emotions you feel. Because our attitudes and beliefs develop throughout our lives, and often result from the feedback we receive from loved ones, teachers, friends, etc., they tend to occur at a low level of awareness. By tuning into these feelings, identifying them, and evaluating them, we can then decide how we will respond to an event in our life. We can change the thoughts that drive us into failure only if we know what they are first. Repeat them out loud. If you don’t recognize them, they will continue to dominate your mind.

Second, pick out the messages that are detrimental to your internal dialogue and not in your best interest. Highlight that which poisons your thoughts and makes you weak. Key words to look for are absolutes like “never,” and “always.” Statements such as “I will never make the team,” or “I’m always a failure” are not only destructive but also irrational. Suppose you are trying to learn a new skill, such as skiing, and continuously fall and then get extremely frustrated. When you tune into your self-talk, you might find your body telling you that you are physically out of shape and should have prepared better for this task. Is this true? If it is, then do something about it. Stay on the easier slopes, get lessons, start a daily plan to get fit. If, however, when you listen in on your internal talk and hear yourself saying, “I’m dumb and stupid and will never learn how to ski,” this is a sign that what you are saying to yourself needs to be corrected—and corrected immediately. The self-talk is irrational here.

Third, practice shutting off the negative words by actually telling yourself to “STOP” the thought. This will actually help you snap out of the negative cycle you probably are already in. The earlier you can jump in and cut off these attitudes, the better.

Fourth, substitute the negative with more positive self-talk. Inserting the positive as quickly and as concretely as possible is the key. For example, if you catch yourself saying “I’ll never pass this test,” stop this negative thought immediately, and replace it with a belief that is more rational and accurate, such as, “I can pass if I prepare myself adequately for the test. I’m no dummy. I’ve passed many tests before. I will just start preparing right this minute.” Not only is this thought more truthful, but also it displaces the negative attitude with a more productive, helpful one.

Fifth, maintain a close relationship with God, allowing Him to dwell within us, so that His peace and word will “richly… teach [us] all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). A committed life to God prompts one to say, “Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), and one chooses to be influenced by His Word. Whereas the secular persons’ thoughts originate from their own inner thinking, influenced by themselves and others in their lives, Christians believe they can be influenced by the self-talk that originates from a spiritual realm. In other words, the human mind can find a new resource in God, which can also improve our self-talk. Thoughts such as “I’m no good” can be transformed to “God loves me so much, He died to give me eternal life. I’m valuable” (John 3:16). Or messages of “I’m alone and have no one” can be substituted for words of comfort from Christ who tells us “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18).

Paul’s thoughts, when understood in the light of the importance of positive self-talk is, take on a whole new meaning: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.… And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:8-9, 7).

By repeating these steps you will be able to get into the habit of thinking positively. Be patient with yourself. It may take weeks or months to refute your repertoire of negative messages. Identifying this kind of “self-indoctrination,” challenging it, and replacing it with healthier self-talk will take time—just as it does when you want to break any entrenched habit. It may take a lot of work, but in the end, it is well worth it. You will be amazed at how much more effective you will be each day, leading a healthier, happier, and more productive life.

Nancy J. Carbonell (Ph.D., Andrews University) is associate professor of counseling psychology at Andrews University. Her mailing address: Andrews University; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104; U.S.A. E-mail: carbonel@andrews.edu

*All Bible passages in this article are quoted from the New International Version.