Why the words we use matter

Published 28/05/2020

What is self-talk?

Put simply, self-talk encompasses both the things we say to ourselves and how we say them. It can affect our emotions, mood, and actions.

For some of us, our self-talk might include an internal monologue, providing ongoing commentary of our life. Our self-talk could be quite negative, criticising everything we do. Alternatively, we might speak to ourselves in a positive, encouraging voice, it may be our own little cheerleader.

Where does our self-talk come from?

Our self-talk comes from all of our experiences and the people we’ve met throughout our lives so far. They include things people have said to us and the way(s) they’ve said it, films we’ve seen, books we’ve read, things we’ve seen in the news, or stuff we’ve read online. The things we hear most often and those that have affected us the most are likely to be the things that stick in our minds most strongly.

Why does it matter?

The voice we are likely to hear the most often in life is the one in our head because it’s with us all the time.

Self-talk can affect the opinion we have of ourselves, our emotions and how we feel about ourselves. It can also unhelpfully inform our actions. For example, if we repeatedly tell ourselves that we are rubbish at everything, then we probably won’t believe that we can do hard things. This often means that we give up on difficult things more quickly than if we believe that we are capable, resilient, and an excellent problem-solver.

Negative self-talk can hinder our ability to learn, limit our growth, stunt our achievement, and drag us down. Positive self-talk on the other hand tends to empower us, encourage us to try new things, and build our confidence.

Negative self-talk

As humans, we naturally zone in on the negatives, it is just what we do. This includes things like the mistakes we make, things we don’t like about the way we look, or ‘constructive criticism’ we’ve received from others. Research has shown that we need something in the region of four to seven positive comments to balance out one negative one.

But, even though it comes naturally to us; negative self-talk isn’t very helpful. If we had a little troll sat on our shoulder all the time, whispering in our ear, telling us that we’re useless, rubbish, incapable, and a burden – how long would we listen to it before we flicked it away? Yet many of us speak to ourselves like that all the time. And it drags us down.

Identify self-talk

Though we can’t necessarily stop automatic thoughts that pop into our head (remember the naughty ants?), we can learn to identify how we speak to ourselves and how we respond to our thoughts.

The first step is to notice our self-talk. How are we speaking to ourselves? What words are we saying, and what is our tone of voice like? Is it encouraging or are we constantly criticising ourselves?

We might never have stopped to notice or listen to our self-talk before. For many of us it just witters on, and we don’t actively take notice of what we’re saying or how we’re saying it.

Question your self-talk

Are the things we’re saying to ourselves true? Do we have any factual evidence to back them up? For example, if we think that we’ll never be able to learn to sail or to windsurf, what evidence do we have for that? Have we ever tried to learn it before? How long did we try for? Did we try a few different methods of learning or did we keep trying the same way that has never worked for us?

Are the things we say to ourselves kind? Would you say them to your family? Could we phrase our self-talk differently? If we said our thoughts out loud, what might others think? Would they agree? Would they think that we were being kind to ourselves?

Questioning our self-talk can be difficult, particularly to begin with. Many of us are used to going along with the things we’re saying to ourselves without really thinking about them. Trying to question or fight it can be exhausting. It’s worth remembering that we don’t have to question absolutely everything we say to ourselves. Slowly beginning to question things one statement at a time can help us to start opening up to the idea that our thoughts aren’t necessarily facts, and the way we speak to ourselves is something that we can have control over.

Give it a go and stay well x
Kim Fry
(UKSA Welfare Officer)