“Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.”

Kristen Neff, Self-Compassion

In the last article in this series, I focused on negative self-talk. Initially, that piece was meant to cover self-talk as a whole. However, as I wrote, it became clear that this topic couldn’t be given justice without separating it into two parts. I started with the negative side of the coin because, unfortunately, I think many of us are more familiar with it than the positive side. What I certainly do not want to suggest, though, is that it’s only the negativity of our self-talk that makes it so compelling. Our positive self-talk can be equally transformative and, quite frankly, a lot simpler.

Much like the inner critic, positive self-talk as a concept also garners a lot of attention in a variety of forms via many different perspectives and traditions: modern psychology, meditation, mantras, affirmations, etc. The most recent mainstream perspective that aims at shining a light on the significance of our internal world is positive psychology. In his highly entertaining 2011 TED Talk, Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, states, ”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 will make us happy or successful (which probably won’t work). In his work with businesses, Achor (2011) 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” (Achor, 2011).

If you’re anything like me, you’re 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 like self-talk. As I mentioned in the last article, many different factors play into our self-talk, many of which are the stuff of therapy. However, I do believe, again, that the jumping off point can be as simple as a small consistent habit, such as practicing gratitude. This concept, though, 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.

One of the biggest real-life examples of this for me came from an experience during my college years. One day, a friend of mine invited me to a weekly small group she had been attending for a while. She explained that they weren’t studying anything and the group didn’t have a specific agenda. They 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 can come from warm-and-fuzzy share time without some intellectual bounty involved. What I found, though, surprised me. Never at any other time in my life have I been more aware of daily divine intervention in my life than when I was attending this group. Do I believe now that God was moving more at that point in my life than 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 of us who need, perhaps, a more research-based example of this, keep reading. This topic also significantly shifted in my journey while working at a residential addiction treatment center soon after finishing my counseling degree. It was a small facility, and I was the rookie therapist, so 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 you missed that). At this point, one of my supervisors walked past and said: “Hey, you know that actually works, right?” After he took a second to take in my blank and probably more-than-slightly exacerbated facial expression, he proceeded to tell me about an article he had read about a common practice of Navy SEALs. I found after some fact-checking that Navy SEALs have used positive self-talk as a part of their training curriculum for years, which has resulted 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, claims that 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 applicants to speak to themselves positively, combined with other mental tools, BUD/S passing rates increased from a quarter to a third.”

So, let’s sum up some of the practical pieces of positive self-talk. As I mentioned above, there are elements of our internal world that create barriers to the simplicity of what I presented here about changing our self-talk. This is where a wise, trusted friend or counselor can help you navigate what gets in the way of harnessing the power of the positive potential of your mind. As discussed in the last article in this series, when trying to help a counseling client understand what our self-talk should look like I try a few different avenues by asking questions that challenge the internal beliefs that function as the cogs of the internal self-talk machine. If you force one gear (the negative) to stop turning and instead focus your efforts on movement of the positive gears, your mind machine will automatically begin moving in the direction of wellness. Even our simplest intentional daily actions change our brains. It really is that simple. Try it out and see for yourself.


Achor, S. (2011, May). TEDx Bloomington. The happy secret to better work. Video retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work

Barker, E. (2017). Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. New York: HarperCollins.

Neff, K. (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: HarperCollins.

In part one of this series, I started us out with some basics about thoughts by focusing on the power of words. For this second part, I want to shine a light on negative self-talk. As a therapist, there are a few different themes that I come back to often due to their relevance to a wide variety of presenting issues and goals clients bring to my office. Self-talk is one of my top five most-visited topics in therapy. I’ve 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.

When I use the term self-talk, I’m referencing the 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, whether or not we realize it. Much has been written on the topic using a variety of terminology. One of my favorite terms used is “inner critic.” I appreciate this wording due to its intent to externalize our negative self-talk to help keep us from making the mistake of over-identifying with it. Regardless of the label used to describe our negative self-talk, key themes emerge in our understanding of its origins, impact, and proposed remedies.

There are many different views concerning the origins of the nature of our internal dialogue. Peggy O’Mara, an author and editor whose work centers around children and motherhood, simply states, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Other authors and researchers, like Geneen Roth, also claim that our self-talk mirrors the way we were spoken to and dealt with as children. Roth (2011) explains that as children we learn 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,” but those that sound more like “You’re only worthy of love and acceptance when you accomplish something” don’t do us any favors as children or later as adults.

When I delve into this topic with a counseling client, I usually tell the following story of an experience that forever shifted my view of the importance and impact of negative self-talk and 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 an addiction treatment center where one evening I was invited to observe an eating disorders group. During my first visit to that group, the group therapy agenda was set to include the reading of a letter assigned to one of the members the previous week. After discovering the extreme nature of her self-talk and it’s connection to her disordered eating, her therapist asked her to write a letter to herself from her inner critic as she experiences it inside her head on a daily basis. During this group therapy session, she was asked to pick the person in the group whose voice sounded most like her inner critic (the one male in the group who she chose appeared to be a good friend). The friend was a champ, following through on what he was asked- to read the letter to her knee-to-knee in the tone in which it was clearly written. The scene was heartbreaking. Not only in watching the emotional reaction of the woman who was being read to or hearing the awful things written in that letter but also the friend who was tearfully reading those words of which he didn’t believe a single word. Though years have passed since witnessing this scene, I still can’t tell this 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 us and for our relationships. I think, on some level, most of us can relate to this with a look in the mirror. I encourage you to take a second and imagine yourself in this young woman’s shoes. If others could see and hear your inner critic, how would that change the way you talk to yourself?

Let’s take it a step further then. 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 will 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’ll likely slowly move toward believing it, regardless of whether or not it’s true. Like a slow and steady gas leak, it will bring its toxicity into the way you think, slowly poisoning your view of yourself and the world around you likely without you even realizing it’s happening. In many respects, your self-talk is no different than this hypothetical third-person. Whether the messages are true or not, if you listen to it for long enough, you’ll 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 (2017) illustrated this beautifully in her 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.”

Don Miguel Ruiz (2008) in his book The Four Agreements 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. In regards to a solution to this pattern, Ruiz (2008) 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 we agreed to all of them. The agreement is so strong that even if we understand the concept of it as not being 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 un-send 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’s the solution? As with many truths, it’s simple but not necessarily easy. Roth (2011) in her excellent book Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything 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 sites “living as if” as the solution for silencing our inner critic- living as if we don’t believe a word of it. When helping a client move toward healthier self-talk, I take a similar approach: (1) name the lies that our inner critic is known to speak to us (we can usually boil it 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), and (3) then treat them as a lie regardless of how we 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. We will, also, take this a step further in the next part of this series. Stay tuned.
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.

Roth, G. (2011). Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything. New York: Scribner.

Ruiz, D. (2008). The Four Agreements. Thorndike, Me.: Center Point Pub.