There’s no doubt about it: Words are powerful. As a professional counselor, I return to a few themes often because of their relevance to a wide variety of presenting issues and goals that clients bring to my office. Self-talk is among my five most-visited topics in therapy. Still, I have found that the subject usually isn’t treated with the deference it deserves. Its impact on our mental health and general wellness is significant and, in my opinion, well worth exploring with our clients — but always first within ourselves as counselors.
When I use the term self-talk, I’m referencing that voice in our heads — all the thoughts in our minds that sound like one or both sides of a conversation. The unmistakable reality is that we’re constantly talking to ourselves, regardless of whether we realize it. Much has been written on the topic using various terminology. One of my favorite terms used is inner critic. I appreciate this wording because of its intent to externalize our negative self-talk and help us refrain from mistakenly overidentifying with it. Regardless of the label used to describe our negative self-talk, however, key themes emerge in our understanding of its origins, impact and proposed remedies.
Origins, impact, remedies
Many different views exist about the origins of the nature of our internal dialogue. Peggy O’Mara, an author and editor whose work centers around children and motherhood, states simply, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Other authors and researchers also claim that our self-talk mirrors the way we were spoken to and dealt with as children. Geneen Roth explains that as children, we learned to internalize the messages our parents sent us, for better or for worse, as a survival strategy. For example, as children, it’s best that we internalize messages such as “Don’t run out into the street.” However, those messages that sound more like “You’re worthy of love and acceptance only when you accomplish something” don’t do us any favors, either as children or later as adults.
When I delve into this topic with clients, I usually tell the following story of an experience that forever shifted my view of the importance and impact of negative self-talk. It also served as the beginning of the end of my then-thriving inner critic.
While in graduate school, I was given the amazing opportunity to intern at a treatment center where, one evening, I was invited to observe an eating disorders group. During my first visit to the group, the group therapy agenda was set to include the reading of a letter that had been assigned to one of the group members the previous week. After discovering the extreme nature of a group member’s self-talk and its connection to her disordered eating, her therapist had asked her to write a letter to herself from her inner critic, just as she experienced it inside her head on a daily basis.
During the group therapy session, this woman was asked to pick the person in the group whose voice sounded most like her inner critic. The friend she chose was a champ, following through on what he was asked to do, which was read the letter aloud to her, knee-to-knee, in the tone in which it was clearly written. The scene was heartbreaking — not only watching the emotional reaction of the woman who was being read to and hearing the awful things written in that letter, but also watching the friend who was tearfully reading those words, of which he didn’t believe a single word.
Although years have passed since I witnessed that scene, I still can’t tell the story without tearing up. It was an incredibly powerful object lesson about what our unchecked negative self-talk can turn into and just how toxic it can be for all of us and for our relationships. I think most of us can relate to this on some level with a look in the mirror. I encourage you to take a moment and imagine yourself in this woman’s shoes. If others could see and hear your inner critic, how would that change the way you talk to yourself?
Now let’s take it a step further. Not only does this inner critic mirror something we likely have no desire or intention of reflecting, but it is also self-sustaining. Imagine that you have the most healthy, robust self-esteem of anyone you’ve ever known. Then you hire an assistant who is with you continuously and who never ceases to criticize you. Even with your world-class self-esteem, your assistant’s constant monologue about your work and your worth would eventually wear you down. Without anyone else there to defend you (which is the case when this is all playing out only in our heads), you would slowly move toward believing the negativity and criticism, regardless of whether it was true. Like a slow and steady gas leak, this toxicity would filter into the way you think, slowly poisoning your view of yourself and the world around you — likely without you even realizing it was happening.
In many respects, our self-talk is no different than this hypothetical “assistant.” Regardless of whether the messages are true, if we listen to them for long enough, we will eventually come to believe them. The more deeply we believe something, the more likely we are to see the world through that lens of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Brené Brown illustrates this beautifully in her 2017 book, Braving the Wilderness: “Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world.”
In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz posits that our acceptance of someone else’s abuse is contingent on the severity of our abuse of ourselves. He claims that we will only leave an abusive situation when the abuser treats us worse than we treat ourselves. Regarding a solution to this pattern, Ruiz goes on to say, “We need a great deal of courage to challenge our own beliefs. Because even if we know we didn’t choose all these beliefs, it is also true that at some point we agreed to all of them. The agreement is so strong that even if we understand that it is not true, we feel the blame, the guilt and the shame that occurs if we go against these rules.”
The process of seeing, challenging and replacing these rules is often a core element of therapy. We can’t go back and unsend the messages we’ve received. However, as Ruiz alluded to, we can make the choice to face the blame, guilt and shame that solidify our loyalty to these imprisoning messages. If we never make ourselves aware of these internal beliefs, we will likely continue to shoulder their burden unknowingly and to our great detriment.
So, then, what is the solution? As with many truths, it’s simple but not necessarily easy. In her excellent book Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything, Roth explains it this way: “Freedom is hearing The Voice ramble and posture and lecture and not believing a word of it. … Listening to and engaging in the antics of The Voice keeps you outside yourself. It keeps you bound. Keeps you ashamed, anxious and panicked. No real or long-lasting change will occur as long as you are kneeling at the altar of The Voice.”
Roth cites “living as if” as the solution for silencing our inner critic — living as if we don’t believe a word of it. When helping clients move toward healthier self-talk, I take a similar approach:
1) Name the lies that your inner critic is known to speak to you (they can usually be boiled down to a few major themes).
2) Label them as lies (some form of “Is this standard true for me but no one else?” or “Can I imagine speaking this ‘truth’ to a child?” usually does the trick).
3) Treat them as lies regardless of how you feel in the moment.
Every time we act out of the truth rather than a lie we’ve been led to believe, that voice becomes a bit quieter until, eventually, it fades into the background. Sure, it takes practice, but starting down the path to a healthier internal world really can be that simple.
I started with the negative side of the coin because, unfortunately, I think many of us are more familiar with it than with the positive side. I do not, however, want to suggest that it is only the negativity of our self-talk that makes it so compelling. Our positive self-talk can be equally transformative and, quite frankly, much simpler.
Similar to the inner critic, positive self-talk as a concept garners a substantial amount of attention via many different perspectives and traditions: modern psychology, meditation, mantras, affirmations, etc. The most recent mainstream perspective aiming to increase focus on the significance of our internal world is positive psychology.
In his highly entertaining 2011 TED Talk, Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, stated, “We’re finding it’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.” He posits that, as the adage says, we should work smarter not harder. We’re better off spending our energy remaining positive in the present moment than striving for the next thing that promises to make us happy or successful (and probably won’t deliver).
In his work with businesses, Achor reports, “What we found is that only 25 percent of job successes are predicted by IQ; 75 percent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.”
Near the end of his talk, he gets more practical: “We’ve found there are ways that you can train your brain to be able to become more positive. In just a two-minute span of time done for 21 days in a row, we can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually work more optimistically and more successfully. We’ve done these things in research now in every company that I’ve worked with, getting them to write down three new things that they’re grateful for for 21 days in a row — three new things each day. And at the end of that, their brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first.”
If you’re anything like me, you are thinking, “Nope. Sorry, I just can’t believe it could be that easy. Something that affects so much of us so deeply can’t shift significantly with an intervention so simple.” I hear you, and I by no means want to oversimplify a profound topic such as self-talk. As I mentioned earlier, many different factors play into our self-talk, many of which are the stuff of therapy. However, I do believe that the jumping-off point can be as simple as a small consistent habit such as practicing gratitude.
This concept applies across the board, well beyond the scope of gratitude specifically. As Achor mentioned, a daily practice of noticing and acknowledging something shifts how we operate on a subconscious plane. We can change our thinking on a fundamental level, in whatever category, by sheer force of focus. That focus is changing our internal world over time in a way that can bring more lasting change than any amount of in-the-moment, conscious white-knuckling. As Kristen Neff aptly states in Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, “Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.”
One of the biggest real-life examples of this for me came from an experience during my college years. One day, a friend invited me to a weekly small group she had been attending for a while. She explained that the group wasn’t studying anything and didn’t have a specific agenda. Group members simply spent their time together talking about the ways they had seen God show up in their lives over the past week. Looking back, I’m sure I went to this group to prove that nothing good could come from warm-and-fuzzy share time without some intellectual bounty involved. What I found, though, surprised me. At no other time have I been more aware of daily divine intervention in my life as when I was attending this group. Do I believe now that God was moving more at that point in my life than at others? No, not at all. What was different was merely the fact that I was looking for it and paying attention. So, I found it.
For those who perhaps need a more research-based example, keep reading. This topic also rose to the surface while I was working at a residential treatment center soon after finishing graduate school. It was a small facility, and I was the rookie therapist, so, naturally, one afternoon I found myself scrubbing some graffiti off one of the bathroom walls next to my office. Apparently, I was using my outside voice while saying “I love my job” over and over to myself (sarcastically, in case that’s not evident).
At that point, one of my supervisors walked past and said, “Hey, you know that actually works, right?” After pausing a second to take in my more-than-slightly aggravated facial expression, he proceeded to tell me about an article he had read on a common practice of Navy SEALs. In doing some fact-checking, I found that Navy SEALs have used positive self-talk as a part of their training curriculum for years, resulting in significantly higher passing rates in their training program.
Eric Barker, in his book Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, says we should pay close attention to what Navy research has shown us about the impact of self-talk: “A Navy study revealed a number of things that people with grit do — often unknowingly — that keep them going when things get hard. One of them comes up in the psychological research again and again: ‘positive self-talk.’ Yes, Navy SEALs need to be badass, but one of the keys to that is thinking like ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ In your head, you say between three hundred and a thousand words every minute to yourself. Those words can be positive or negative. It turns out that when these words are positive, they have a huge effect on your mental toughness, your ability to keep going. Subsequent studies of military personnel back this up. When the Navy started teaching BUD/S [Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL] applicants to speak to themselves positively, combined with other mental tools, BUD/S passing rates increased from a quarter to a third.”
Let’s sum up some of the practical pieces of positive self-talk. As I mentioned earlier, elements of our internal world create barriers to the simplicity of what I presented here about changing our self-talk. This is where a wise, trusted friend or personal work with a therapist can help you navigate what gets in the way of harnessing the power of healthy self-talk.
When trying to help clients (or myself) understand how self-talk should best sound, I try a few different avenues, asking questions that challenge the internal beliefs that function as the cogs of the internal self-talk machine. If we force one gear (the negative) to stop turning and instead focus our efforts on movement of the positive gear, our mind will automatically begin moving in the direction of wellness.
Even our simplest intentional daily actions change our brains and the brains of our clients. It really is that simple.
Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives:
Whitney Norris is a licensed professional counselor and somatic experiencing practitioner in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 2017, she co-founded Little Rock Counseling, where she practices as a trauma specialist. She also provides case consultations and private practice business coaching for professionals. Contact her through her website at whitneynorris.com.
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