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If Your Self-Talk Is Ruling (and Ruining) Your Life

Here's how to change the story.

Key points

  • A person's inner talk can be either healthy and motivating or toxic and self-defeating.
  • It's possible to replace negative self-talk with more positive messages.
  • Being aware of harmful self-talk, watching out for triggers, and having a realistic perspective can all help someone flip the script.
Source: Boonyachoat/iStock

In 2021, it is estimated that each person is exposed to somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 external marketing messages a day. On any given day, it is estimated a person engages in about 27 conversations and probably speaks about 7,000 words. Depending on lifestyle, whether you are out meeting with people or online virtually speaking with people, you might have 5-25 or more individual interactions each day.

Suffice it to say, there is a lot of external activity going on where you are talking, listening, considering, pondering, and learning something each and every day. The messages you have to process can be vast, and the implications for what you need to do, or what you might care about, in a given day can be small or have a high impact.

Interacting in the external world takes time and focus, and on many days, it takes a great deal of energy. But have you considered the interaction going on in your internal world? Your own mind’s dialogue, discussions, and opinions are also interacting with you, and oftentimes you aren’t even aware of the impact these messages are having.

Not all self-discussions are bad. In fact, if you want to shift behavior, prepare for a meeting, introduce new ideas, or nail that important presentation to your boss, speaking it out loud to yourself can be helpful. Recording it on your smartphone and then listening back can help you hone your message.

Remembering how to do something you learned, or preparing for an exam, or reminding yourself about something your spouse asked you to do on the way home from work—these are all useful ways you might spend your mindshare.

What isn’t useful is the negative self-talk.

The self-defeating, down-on-yourself, “nothing is going to work, and I’m no good” sort of self-talk. When you didn’t do well on an exam in school, your self-talk likely told you that you weren’t smart in this area, you didn’t test well, or you were going to fail the next time around.

When your spouse didn’t follow through on a commitment, your self-talk could be about picking the wrong partner, having someone who doesn’t listen to you, or your inability to communicate and get through to someone who just doesn’t care.

When your boss gave you the evil eye walking by you in the break room, your self-talk might have been about downsizing, how much your boss doesn’t like you, and how hard you are working for no respect.

These are all everyday occurrences that the mind uses to grab onto and make ourselves feel terrible about ourselves, about others, and about our circumstances. The nature of anxiety and worry is the mind telling you a negative story about a forthcoming event that might never even happen. Rather than giving you strength, your mind tears you down and defeats you before you even get a chance to encounter what’s coming!

How to transform negative self-talk

Changing your self-talk is life-changing, but it involves discipline and a willingness to see that you are talking to yourself about things that aren’t necessarily true. The messages become embedded in the subconscious, and even though you may try consciously to take a different viewpoint, that tape just keeps playing.

To change your self-talk and take back your life, over the next few days, try the following:

1. Notice what you are talking about that brings you down.

This can be learned by observing how you think and feel about something. What do you encounter that you like or don’t like? What do you ruminate over? What do you feel sick about, or what gives you a headache? Recognizing the triggers and their corresponding events and results is the first important step.

2. Understand the related self-talk.

Think of that person who is always making trouble for you, who never gives you a break and doesn’t like anything you do. What sort of self-talk do you engage in when this happens? What do you say to yourself about the neighbor? About defending yourself? About your conditions?

3. Once you recognize the triggers and the self-talk, you can start to shift your messages.

Rather than saying, “I’m a terrible test taker,” you can shift the language: “Tests can be challenging, but I know the material, and my mind will help me retrieve it when I need it.” This means you do have to study; you do have to know the material in advance—after all, this is not magic we are talking about here! Rather than, “My wife never listens to me,” shift to, “I need to find ways to engage with my wife differently.” Rather than, “I hate this neighborhood; everyone is so mean around here,” shift to, “When I don’t like people, there is often something I don’t understand about them. What can I learn?”

4. Realize that this isn’t about rose-colored glasses.

Not everything you see will be wonderful and welcoming. This is about you taking your power back and seeing the circumstances of your life differently in order to make different choices. Your self-defeating self-talk is bringing down only one person—you. Giving yourself more objective, data-oriented messages will help you to loosen the ties that negative self-talk has on your life.

Do this over and over again for two weeks on one topic that is particularly challenging for you, and see whether your approach, your insights, and your experiences don’t change just a bit. In a worst-case scenario, you will be a bit calmer and more present in your life.

The material offered herein is based on the book Self-Talk for a Calmer You by Beverly Flaxington.