Increasing Self-Kindness Through Positive Self-Talk
“Where are my keys? Didn’t I leave them right here? Ugh, I’m going to be late. Why can’t I ever get places on time?”
Sound familiar? I bet it does. “Talking to yourself” is also referred to as “self-talk,” and it is involved in such a wide range of cognitive experiences that some researchers believe it is “a key aspect of our mental life” as humans.1 We can talk to ourselves out loud (called private speech) or silently in our head (called inner speech) about a variety of different things: our emotions, a to-do list, something that happened earlier in the day, etc. There’s no limit to the topics that could be included in our self-talk, but it commonly includes reflections and evaluations of ourselves and others.2 Have you ever thought back on a conversation and wished you had handled it differently and cringed a little bit? That’s self-talk.
But it’s not just what we talk to ourselves about that matters; it’s also about how we do it. Self-talk can be further separated into “positive” and “negative” categories. Positive self-talk includes things like encouraging yourself (“I’ve got this!”) and reassuring yourself (“I’m going to be okay.”). Negative self-talk, on the other hand, is typically focused on self-blame (“this is all my fault”) and self-criticism (“that was the worst thing I could have said”). Not surprisingly, positive self-talk has been linked with increased emotion regulation abilities and higher self-esteem, while negative self-talk correlates to increased levels of anxiety and depression.3 So, how do we get more positive self-talk in the mix?
From the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT),4 our brains are thought machines that generate an enormous amount of thoughts every day. We can’t stop a thought from appearing, and if it happens to be a distressing thought of negative self-talk like “I’ll never be able to show my face at work again,” it’s understandable that most of us would like to get rid of that thought as soon as possible. But thoughts have a boomerang effect: the harder we push a thought away or try not to think about it, the more strongly it comes back again. ACT suggests that instead of trying to stop negative thoughts, we notice them as nonjudgmentally as possible and let them go without fusing with them. At that point, we have a chance to add in positive self-talk to coach ourselves or work on solving the problem.
So the next time you catch yourself thinking that you’ll never be able to show your face at work again, a new pattern of responding could go like this: “Oh, that’s negative self-talk. I know it feels like I completely messed everything up at work, but I can talk to my manager about the situation tomorrow and explain what happened. She has been understanding and supportive when things like this have happened with other people in the past, so she will likely be understanding with me, too.”
Positive self-talk goes way beyond simply saying nice things to yourself; it’s a complete shift in how you respond to the thoughts your brain creates. Over time, you’ll likely notice that distressing thoughts begin to decrease in frequency. Switching to positive self-talk is self-kindness in action.
1 Morin, A., Duhnych, C., & Racy, F. (2018). Self-reported inner speech use in university students. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 32(3), 376–382. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3404
3 Oliver, E. J., Markland, D., & Hardy, J. (2010). Interpretation of self-talk and post-lecture affective states of Higher Education Students: A self-determination theory perspective. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(2), 307–323. https://doi.org/10.1348/000709909x477215
4 Steven Hayes. (n.d.). Psychological Inflexibility: An ACT View of Suffering and Failure to Thrive. Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. Retrieved from https://contextualscience.org/about_act.