Negative thoughts are like yoga pants: You can't just have one. Once one negative thought ("I'm not good enough," or "I really messed up that conversation/presentation/text message/insert action here") weasels its way into your mind, it's all too easy to start spiraling. That's where positive self-talk comes in as a tool for switching that internal narrative.
If you're unsure of how to begin, keep reading to learn what positive self-talk really is (hint: It's not just about positive affirmations), the benefits of positive self-talk, and expert tips on how to implement it as a daily practice without feeling like an imposter.
What is positive self-talk?
Positive self-talk is about speaking to yourself and treating yourself with kindness and compassion, just like you would treat someone you love, says clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Judy Ho, PhD. It stems from positive psychology, which she defines as "the study of what makes humans flourish and operate at their best. It's about leaning into strengths rather than focusing solely on our weaknesses, and using our strengths to solve problems in our lives."
Despite its benefits, positive self-talk is often conflated with "toxic positivity," or the tendency to shove down negative feelings in pursuit of a "good vibes only" vibe. But, there's nothing toxic about positive self-talk. Whitney Goodman, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist based in Miami, Florida, says positive self-talk is not about continually being positive, because—let's be real—that's not possible, nor would it be healthy. Instead, Goodman explains that positive self-talk takes on more of a neutral approach as a way of interacting with your thoughts and feelings in an understanding way.
"It doesn't mean that we will always feel good when we use [positive self-talk] or that it will be easy to access," Goodman says. "Sometimes, it's incredibly hard. Some situations just aren't positive." So if you've tried reciting all the affirmations and they don't quite resonate, think of positive self-talk as a realistic and empowered way of thinking versus constant positivity.
Positive self-talk is also about perspective. Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of Innovation360, an outpatient counseling service, says positive self-talk is a skill you develop as you gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for perspective. You're able to see hope and optimism in a situation. "When humans struggle with depression or anxiety or any form of a psychological issue, we tend to develop a negative bias, seeing the impossible and the negative and overlooking things that are encouraging or hopeful," Dr. Gilliland says. "When we get a broader, more balanced, or fair view of the situation, we can see the other possibilities that aren't negative."
The connection between mental and physical health
We can't talk about mental health without also discussing physical health. The two are connected and impact one another. "If something happens to you physically, you're going to experience some mental symptoms around that change," Goodman says. "You will likely create a story about what is happening to you physically. You will interpret the symptoms and signs. You may develop certain emotions about the physical changes or experiences you're having."
This is why, Goodman adds, it's common for people with physical illnesses also to develop mental health issues like depression and anxiety as either a symptom or due to the stress of managing the physical illness.
And vice versa: Dr. Gilliland says it's also common for people struggling with a mental illness to develop physical symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome or sleep problems. "I personally think that's good news because we have a lot of options [including positive self-talk] to help manage our psychological health, more than just counseling and medications," he says.
4 benefits of positive self-talk
1. New perspective to help during hard times
Let's be honest: Life is rough sometimes (we're looking at you, 2020), and, often, our thoughts and negative internal dialogue and pessimistic thinking can make things harder than they need to be. When this happens, Dr. Gilliland says, we aren't looking at things from a fair perspective. Positive self-talk helps us take a step back and actually see the whole picture, which is a critical component when going through difficult times.
One of the benefits of practicing positive self-talk is that it helps you see certain situations from a new perspective. "Some people tend to fall into black-and-white thinking: Everything is all good or all bad," Goodman says. "When we work on our self-talk, we can view the gray in situations. Sometimes there is a lot of bad and good, but this flexibility allows people to access their coping strategies and find what works for them."
2. Better relationships
Positive self-talk doesn't just impact our own mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It can also affect our relationships. "When we're able to see the good in ourselves, we're able to see it in others," Goodman says. "Having a well-rounded sense of self and knowing what our strengths are often allows us to put ourselves out there more easily and opens us up to new relationship opportunities."
3. Increased self-confidence and self-efficacy
According to Dr. Ho, positive self-talk (or as she refers to it, "balanced self-talk") also helps you build confidence and better control over what's happening in your life. In other words, you're less likely to feel like life is happening to you and more like you're in the driver's seat, which is a much more empowered viewpoint. Dr. Ho adds that people with higher self-esteem are also more likely to achieve their goals and be realistic in how they get there.
4. Decreased loneliness
When the negative self-talk is running rampant, that typically makes people want to hide and isolate, because they feel ashamed or guilty, even though this is likely the time when you need the support of others the most. Positive self-talk has the opposite effect. "Increasing positivity or balanced self-talk will make it easier for you to stay connected to loved ones and people who support you," Dr. Ho says. Having that sense of community and connection and emotional support makes it easier for people to navigate difficult situations.
6 methods for implementing positive self-talk in your daily routine
1. Ensure the positive self-talk feels true
When you're in the thick of feeling crappy and are mentally in a dark place, Goodman says positive affirmations can feel forced, inauthentic, and like straight-up lies, making them not as effective.
For example, let's say your positive affirmation is to love your body every day. That sounds awesome, but in reality, there will be times when you just don't. For those days when you look in the mirror and negative thoughts take over, it can be difficult to integrate that positive affirmation.
Instead, Goodman recommends creating a more dynamic phrase, so it doesn't feel forced or fake. Replace "I love my body" with "I will try to show my body love" or "I am working on loving my body." The more authentic it feels for you for where you currently are and what you're feeling, the less resistance there will be, and the easier your mind will be able to accept it. There's no one-size-fits-all affirmation. So play with words until you find the ones that resonate with you.
2. Change your behavior
Saying or thinking a positive thought is one thing, but backing it up with new behavior is what really creates the transformation. "If you are continuing to engage in behaviors that deny this belief or are completely opposed to it, it will become even more difficult to integrate the positive affirmation," Goodman says.
Basically, using positive self-talk alone is like talking the talk but not walking the walk. Goodman recommends getting into the practice of asking yourself: How can I act out this affirmation? Or, how can I live this affirmation? For example, if your affirmation is to work on loving your body, what daily actions will you take to show your body love?
3. Start with positive self-talk in one area
If you've ever tried to implement a new habit, you know that change is hard. And trying to change too many things at once, no matter how ambitious you may be, is usually a recipe for failure. Instead of attempting a complete makeover of your self-talk at once, Goodman suggests focusing on just one area of your life at a time in which you'd like to improve your self-talk, such as self-love, health and wellness, or confidence.
Start with the area where you tend to be the hardest on yourself, then think about how you would rather feel about that area and come up with positive statements around those intentions. Remember to make it feel realistic and authentic so you can get your energy and mindset behind it. Like most healthy habits, positive self-talk builds momentum. So, Goodman says, once you're on a roll with positive self-talk in one area, it'll be a lot easier to integrate it in other areas.
4. Collect all the data without judgment
Another way to implement positive self-talk is to get into the habit of collecting all the data about a situation first and without judgement. "When we are going through a difficult time, we tend to be biassed towards what's not working, what's broken, or what we can't do," Dr. Gilliland says. So by collecting all the data, not just the bad pieces, you get a more balanced perspective and can see more clearly what actually is working, what isn't broken, or what action steps you can take. This alone, of course, Dr. Gilliland adds, won't change the situation, but shifting your perspective on it can make a huge difference in the way you feel and the way you navigate it.
5. Question your thoughts
Although they may feel true, remember that thoughts are not necessarily facts. So, when a negative thought pops up, Dr. Ho recommends asking yourself if the thought is complete, accurate, and balanced. "If your answer is no to any part of that, then this thought may need some retooling," she says. "It's really about recognizing that thoughts are just mental events and nothing more. Just because you have a thought does not mean that it's the truth."
To construct a more complete, accurate, and balanced thought, Dr. Ho suggests using the "yes, but" technique. So you'd say something like: "Yes, I haven't finished this big project yet, but I made a lot of progress, and I can keep going." Or: "Yes, 2020 has been a shit show, but I also had a lot of alone time that allowed me to focus on my well-being."
6. Work with a professional
Lastly, if you're struggling with integrating positive self-talk, seek help from an expert such as a therapist or a psychologist. "Sometimes negative self-talk can go so deep that it is a major contributor to a person's clinical depression or anxiety," Dr. Ho says. "So that's when it will be crucial to get the support of a professional to work through some of these strategies even more and to dig deeper."
Dr. Gilliland echoes that working with someone can help you see the broader perspective that you may have been missing and can help point out aspects or options that our anxious, stressed out, or depressed mind overlooks.
Learning positive self-talk is not the same as donning rose-colored glasses. It boils down to treating and speaking to yourself with love, grace, compassion, and kindness—and seeing the whole picture versus only focusing on your faults. It doesn't have to be overly cheerful, either. Taking a more balanced self-talk approach can be very beneficial if the positive self-talk doesn't resonate.
Gilliland shares a quote from Ironman professional triathlete Sebastian Kienle that perfectly illustrates the essence of positive self-talk: "Never judge your life by one bad day; judge it by the best day."
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