The Connection Between Self-Talk and Wellbeing

Our inner voice matters

Photo by Kaylah Otto on Unsplash

What’s the last thing you said to yourself? Was it positive? Negative? Maybe it was wholly irrelevant. But, the answer to that question, especially in times of stress, has a lot to do with our physical and mental health.

There is a growing body of research showing that our physiology is directly affected by our internal monologue. As negative self-talk increases, we’re prone to self-doubt and develop poor self-perception. All of which contribute to stress, anxiety, and shame.

What is Self-talk?

With the rise of meditation, the West has opened up to a new mental framework; mindfulness. While I genuinely believe it’s an outstanding mindset to adopt, it can’t operate in isolation. Part of that framework is self-compassion — the act of treating yourself with loving kindness. At the core of this concept is developing a healthy, motivating sense of being. And, central to this behavior, at least in the West, is self-talk.

Self-talk is our inner voice or monologue. It’s how we plan, problem-solve, practice critical thinking, and reflect. For most people, it’s tied directly to our sense of self; the beliefs we hold about who we fundamentally are.

Our inner monologue develops at an early age from social speech. That is, as we hear people speak in the world around us, we learn to internalize those patterns and behaviors. Lev Vygotsky, who championed this theory, called it an “internal collaboration with oneself.”

In Mental Health

Since our social groups’ communication is the basis of our self-talk, we have little say in its development. As children, we get what we get in terms of developmental environment. And, the ramifications of that aren’t clear until we’re much older.

Yet, we do know this much. If language directed at us from our peers or parents is negative, there’s a good chance we’ll carry it with us as adults. It’s because of this that self-talk can have an outsized impact on our mental health. Not to mention the frequency that some of us experience our inner monologue.

Psychologists are even pointing to self-talk as a cause for procrastination. Rather than innate laziness, we talk ourselves out of completing our work. Believing that we’re not capable of completing such a task. Procrastination itself is a precursor to various mental health issues.

Negative self-talk, or self-criticism, is prevalent in disorders like depression, anxiety, and stress. And, it’s often a focus of therapists during cognitive therapy.

Identifying Negative Self-Talk

Triggers for Self-Criticism

Part of this therapy involves participants learning to identify when they use self-criticism. So, they need to understand the triggers, what it sounds like, and how it makes us feel. Once we’re able to recognize these thoughts, it becomes far easier to manage them.

One of the primary triggers of self-criticism is personalizing. Individuals who personalize are keen to see every mistake as something they caused. My favorite example of this is when someone gets passed over for a promotion or a new role. Instead of any of the 100’s of other possibilities, we blame our personal failings. It’s just as fair to assume the position got trashed, or the hiring manager quit, or the company wanted, but couldn’t afford you.

Yet, personalizing foregoes every other plausible explanation to focus solely on what we should have done. In most cases, there are outside factors that must be considered to get a clear picture, but, more often than not, we don’t have all the information.

Another trigger is the Impostor Syndrome or the self-doubt that arises in the face of success. People who experience Impostorism believe their success is luck or that they’re “getting away” with an act. Due to this, they undercut their capabilities with self-criticism. They can go so far as to stifle their growth. They wrongly believe that taking on more responsibilities will expose their inadequacies.

This can be a particularly sticky feeling as opening up about it feels as though it would go disastrous. If you ask others to evaluate and affirm your work you run the risk of them finding out you’re a fraud.

The Words of Self-Criticism

When our inner monologue starts prattling, there are specific speech patterns to focus on. Negative self-talk is restrictive and defeating. It stops you in your tracks and fills your mind with every reason not to try.

It can sound like, “I’m not capable of handling this” or “I’m not worth” any number of rights all humans deserve. I heard this most often working with students, but it’s just as accurate for adults reflecting on their childhood. It’s possible it’s more severe in adults, but we’re all less inclined to open up. I know I am.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “I’m just not good at math.” Or, “I’ve just never had a math brain.” As far as I’ve seen, these responses are always rooted in mere moments — not understanding geometry on the first go or failing a test they felt prepared for. But, because they were never corrected, a snowball effect occurs and they adopted a fixed mindset.

But, that doesn’t need to be the end of the story. Research shows some quick, subtle changes we can make to improve our inner monologue and turn it into a coach in our corner.

Improving Self-Talk

Phone a Friend

Positive self-talk, or self-compassion, is the act of supporting your growth. Particularly the act of working your way through challenges instead of avoiding them. A best practice for identifying compassionate language is to examine if you’d say the same thing to a friend.

For instance, in the case of a missed promotion, I’d remind a friend that their experience was a great fit and that they’re excellent communicators. But, if they felt like their interview skills weren’t good enough, I’d offer to practice with them before next time. This is the exact style of language I can use when I talk to myself. It’s not a scapegoat, it merely reminds me of my strengths and areas I should look to improve.

In contrast, negative self-talk would pile on to an already stressful situation. I’d tell myself that not having a great answer for a single question was enough to get me passed over. That applying for a higher position was way out of my league, and there is nothing I can do to change that.

Practice Self-Distancing

The closer we are to a situation, the more likely we are to personalize. One research-backed practice suggests changing from first to third-person pronouns or using your name in place of “I”.

This simple change allows us to take a mental step back from the situation and appraise it. Neuroscience shows that, when talking in the third-person, our brain behaves as it does when thinking of another person. This transition from self to others adds clarity to taxing situations, reducing anxiety.

Journaling is another form of self-distancing. It’s especially useful as a tool allowing us to develop a positive inner dialogue. Journaling has a myriad of mental and physical benefits that I’ve written on before, but the main take away is a reduction in anxiety.

Writing in a journal gives you a judgment-free space to practice being your own coach and friend. The more practice you get, the easier it will be to internalize these beneficial behaviors.

In all, positive self-talk should encompass the following,

  • Offer reassurance, the same as you would do for a friend who’s struggling.
  • Use self-distancing to provide yourself space and clarity.
  • Acknowledge the emotions coming into play. Don’t merely dismiss negative emotions because they’re unpleasant.
  • Take a goal-directed approach. If you feel like you can improve, make a plan to do so, don’t sandbag your develop based off a single moment.

Practicing these behaviors is essential to replacing self-criticism with an encouraging self-coach.