Many people are conscious of an inner voice that provides a running monologue on their lives throughout the day. This inner voice, or self-talk, combining conscious thoughts and unconscious beliefs and biases, provides a way for the brain to interpret and process daily experiences.
Our self-talk can be cheerful and supportive or negative and self-defeating. Self-talk can be beneficial when it’s positive, calming fears and bolstering confidence. Human nature, unfortunately, is prone to negative self-talk, including sweeping assertions like “I can’t do anything right” or “I’m a complete failure."
Some people believe they can credit their success to having a strong inner voice. In some cases, even a critical inner voice can push individuals to achieve by raising awareness of internal and external obstacles to achievement. Over time, though, that type of self-talk can take a toll on one’s confidence, fostering shame and limiting personal growth.
Many people use self-talk, either internal or aloud, to motivate themselves, and research shows that it can be beneficial, if done properly. In a study, people who used the first-person when talking to themselves before a task were less effective than those who spoke to themselves in the second- or third-person. Creating psychological distance in our self-talk, then, can help us calm down and face challenging moments.
You can make your self-talk work for you by closely monitoring it. It’s easy to allow self-talk to become critical or dwell in second-guessing. When this happens, research shows, we become less successful at finding creative solutions for problems—and others may come to doubt us as well. Correcting your self-talk when it’s unconstructive can keep it focused on boosting you.
When self-talk focuses on how we can thrive, and not just survive, it can provide essential motivation to achieve goals. Self-talk that helps us take a wider view of our lives and opportunities, rather than narrowly focusing on threats, and self-talk that acknowledges and directly addresses our doubts and fears, have been shown to promote happiness, well-being, and success.
Self-talk can veer toward the negative when we think back to past situations in which things did not go well—and when we ponder a future full of things that could go wrong. Research finds that when self-talk focuses on the present moment instead, and on seeing that moment and its opportunities as valuable, it more effectively helps us reach our goals.
The problem with negative self-talk is that it typically does not reflect reality, and so it can convince people, wrongly, that they are not only not good enough, but that they can never get better, paralyzing them into self-absorption and inaction.
People with depression and anxiety frequently experience destructive and dysfunctional self-talk; the internal chatter they hear may be incessant and overly critical. Overwhelmed by the negativity, they can wallow in painful rumination, attacking themselves ceaselessly. In severe cases, this type of inner dialogue can be curtailed with professional treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
People who believe negative self-talk is valid often imagine that it is honest; that it limits their ego; that it prepares them for disappointment; or that they simply deserve it. Considering whether they think it would be useful or fair to speak to a good friend the same way can help them understand why they should stop justifying their self-criticism, and instead work to silence it.
Negative self-talk can infiltrate every aspect of a person’s life, including sex. When people are critical of their looks, fitness, or sexual skill, it can lead to performance anxiety and encounters that are unsatisfying for both themselves and their partners. Cutting off self-criticism when it starts to interfere with a sexual experience, and replacing it with mindful or self-compassionate thoughts, can help restore sexual self-confidence.
The technique of reframing negative self-talk can be especially valuable when those thoughts focus on people's bodies or appearance. When such thoughts arise, one can remind themself, “Everyone feels like this sometimes, but how I feel about my appearance does not determine my worth,” for example, or “These are the legs that move me around in the world and the arms that hug the people I love.”
Even harsh self-talk can be effectively challenged and sidelined. Becoming consciously aware of its role is the first step. Then, some simple and straightforward self-help techniques can be useful, such as rehearsing a more constructive inner voice with more positive tones, and learning to address oneself in the third person. Using one’s name instead of “I” during moments of inner dialogue, research has found, can create useful psychological distance from the emotional intensity of the self, enabling one to avoid rumination and move forward with greater perspective, calm, and confidence.
You can silence an inner critic, and one often-effective approach is self-transcendence: When people can shift their focus away from themselves and toward others, or the world at large, research shows, they are more likely to ignore or turn off their self-criticism and become more patient, self-compassionate, and open to self-improvement or seeking help from others.
To overcome toxic self-criticism, pay close attention to your thoughts to detect negativity when it arises, and then either try to distract yourself or challenge the self-criticism by considering whether it’s even true—because often it isn’t. Then replace exaggeratedly negative thoughts with more realistic statements that move you toward self-acceptance and confidence.
To stop beating yourself up, once and for all, it’s important to distance yourself from an inner critic, perhaps by naming it and addressing it directly; research suggests that separating the critical voice from your own identity helps you free yourself from it. You can then introduce a new inner voice that is an ally who consciously seeks, notices, and focuses on more of the good things about yourself.