An Ordinary Super Power: Developing Helpful Self-Talk

By Rachel Rutkie, a Washington state-based psychologist.

Self-talk is at the heart of our relationship with the self. It is the dialog in our heads that we can often hear. It is the stories we tell ourselves as we strive to make sense of the world. It affects our mood, our interpretation of situations, and our sense of self.

Grounding our self-talk in reality, instead of in our insecurities, can build self-trust and confidence. Replacing self-dismissal with self-validation is healthy. Aligning our self-talk with our goals and values can be incredibly powerful. With practice, we have control over the stories we tell ourselves.

Often, self-talk is divided into negative and positive self-talk. Negative self-talk is often an iteration of black-and-white thinking, is unrealistic, and tends to escalate one’s anxiety, anger, or distress. Positive self-talk is often an iteration of both-and thinking, is more realistic, and tends to deescalate one’s distress. There is a clear winner here to which category of self-talk is most helpful and most accurate. 

The first step to engaging with our self-talk is to build self-awareness. The most efficient route to building self-awareness is to combine various modes of self-exploration. For example, receiving compassionate/nonjudgmental feedback from a licensed clinician, journaling often, practicing mindfulness, and logging how your mood appears to be affected by your self-talk are a few approaches that can be mixed and matched to increase self-awareness.

Once some awareness is established, tune into your self-dialogue and ask: 

Is this grounded in reality, my insecurities, or both? How do I know? 

Is the narrative I created helpful? Why or why not? 

What alternative narrative may be more realistic and/or more helpful for me to believe?


I am not suggesting that we self-soothe by telling ourselves lies or exaggerating our sense of safety or inflating our self-esteem. This would likely be inauthentic, and unhelpful, and may even promote flavors of narcissism (which is inherently rooted in shame and a faulty sense of self). 


What I am suggesting is that we acknowledge that reality is seldom black-and-white and adjust accordingly. We can rewire our self-talk to include the complexity of both-and. And, when things are ambiguous, we can choose to err on the side of optimism, generosity, and grace. Embracing permission for making mistakes, generating hope, and moving toward repair/forgiveness can lift much of the self-inflicted pressures to appear perfect.


Let’s walk through a common example of negative self-talk and explore how we can shift the narrative to be more accurate and less painful. 


After attending a party, many people feel anxious the next day. We may tell ourselves: “Wow, I talked way too much!” Or “I looked so stupid when I asked questions during the game we played!” Or “I can’t believe I said/did that!” 


We can spend our day cringing and escalating as we imagine the judgmental thoughts that our friends and acquaintances “must” be thinking. Or, we can challenge the narrative we created and choose a different story to believe.


Using this example, let’s return to the questions recommended above:


Is this grounded in reality, my insecurities, or both? How do I know? 

I am unsure if this narrative is grounded in reality, but I do know that it is grounded in my insecurities because I am often nervous that I am boring. I also know I am uncomfortable when an activity is unfamiliar and I worry that I will look foolish when learning something new. My friends said they were glad that I came over, so perhaps my story is not grounded in reality.


Is this narrative I have created helpful? Why or why not? 

No. I feel unsettled and anxious. It is my day off and I can barely relax. I feel urges to self-isolate and I notice a lot of self-criticisms. 


What alternative narrative may be more realistic and/or more helpful for me to believe?

I am feeling self-conscious after the party last night, which makes sense because I worry frequently about being rejected. Part of me doesn’t trust that my friends still like me, even though some of them have befriended me for years. I know that assumption is not fair to myself or to my friends. I felt embarrassed during the game we played. Over the course of the evening, a few different people told me it was good talking with me and that they look forward to seeing me more often. Though I worry they are just being polite, I want to offer them and myself generosity and assume they were telling the truth and that I was acting appropriately. If I was inappropriate or harmful, I trust myself to work hard to practice accountability and make it right the best I can.


To further ground into reality and to practice humility, I like to generate a thought similar to the last sentence in the paragraph above. At the end of the day, we are all going to make mistakes and offend someone at some point. Pretending we will somehow be flawless is an illusion. Instead, we can choose to acknowledge our humanness and work hard to repair with others, as needed. 


It is easy to see the differences between negative self-talk and positive self-talk. We can take our editing of self-talk even further and tune into the ways we talk to ourselves throughout our day, as we plan for the future, as we evaluate ourselves, and so on. 


We have options here. Even if self-deprecation seems to come naturally, the choice to reevaluate your self-talk is available. 


What words would you rather live by? What lens do you want to look through? We need not live by the tenants of our own insecurities. You can make a different choice.

More than 50% of Americans struggle with mental health.

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