Tips for Making Self-Talk Work for You

Are there ever times when your self-talk is particularly negative? Maybe you’ve been “shoulding” more than usual (“I should go to the gym,” “I should spend more time with my kids,” and so on), or maybe you have a bad case of “stinkin’ thinkin’” and your inner critic has been particularly harsh lately (“I’m such a loser,” “I always mess up,” etc). In any case, your self-talk is important to how you feel about yourself, others, and the world.

Affirmations are positive statements you repeatedly tell yourself to challenge negative and self-sabotaging thoughts. Some examples of affirmations include: “I am worthy of love and a good life,” “I deserve to be successful,” and “I am happy and peaceful in my life.” In effect, you’re programming your own brain to believe something different than what you currently think about yourself. Much like exercising regularly to improve your physical health, affirmations are like exercise for improving your mental health. Repetitive use of affirmations can help boost your self-confidence and motivation, as well as reduce stress.

For some, using affirmations can help to shift negative thinking patterns toward a more positive mindset in which they think, feel, and act differently. For others, however, affirmations can make how they feel about themselves worse.

Much like exercising regularly to improve your physical health, affirmations improve your mental health.

Research has found that positive affirmations are more effective if you have high self-esteem, and that they can actually make you feel worse if you have low self-esteem. In effect, using positive affirmations when you feel bad about yourself backfires because it creates a conflict between the negative feelings you are experiencing and the positive mindset you want. Negative thought patterns can become so strong that they wipe out the impact of the positive statement – they can feel like outrageous lies you tell yourself. This can be frustrating because when you need them the most, affirmations don’t work.

If positive affirmations don’t work for you, consider using some alternatives:
  • Try using neutral statements that convey you are “okay” and “good enough.” This will keep your brain from experiencing the conflict of a message that doesn’t reflect how you currently feel. For example, instead of saying an affirmation like, “I am beautiful and love myself,” try, “I am working on accepting myself as I am.”
  • Try self-affirmations. Think about your core values – what are the things that are authentically you, and that no one can really change? Why do these things matter to you? When was a time that you expressed your core values? Self-affirmations work because they connect us with who we really are and remind us that it’s okay to not be perfect.
  • If you’re working on a goal, try imagining that you’ve already achieved it and then step back and identify with as much detail as possible how exactly you got to that point. What actions did you take? What problems arose? How did you deal with those problems? Who helped you? Where were you?
  • Try asking yourself questions instead of making statements. Bring your awareness to your self-statements, whether positive or negative, and turn them into questions like, “Am I?” or “What if?” Questions help us reflect on our resources and can activate our curiosity. For example, when you tell yourself, “I’m terrible at making speeches,” ask, “Am I terrible at making speeches?” “What speeches have I made that went better than others?” “How can I expand on that?”

If you’re feeling good about yourself more often than not and you want to make a change in your life, affirmations may help. Positive affirmations can help provide the courage and motivation you need to face the challenges that often arise when making a change.

Tips for using positive affirmations:
  • Repeat affirmations to yourself regularly, several times a day, and also whenever you have negative thoughts or behaviours that you want to overcome. For example, you can say the affirmation out loud in front of a mirror or write it out several times in a notebook.
  • Use mental images of the scenario you are trying to affirm. These images can create an emotional response that boosts motivation. Imagine the change you want to make as though it were real and visualize going through the motions of what you want to do and how it would feel.
  • Recognize that affirmations on their own will not produce the changes you want. Goals, plans, schedules, etc., need to accompany affirmations to create the positive changes you want.
  • Review your affirmations monthly to evaluate how effective the affirmation has been in helping change your behaviour. If you can’t think of a real result you’ve achieved from the affirmation, it’s likely time to tweak your goals and strategies for meeting the goal.

Your self-talk can lead you toward or away from where you want to go. To make your self-talk work to get you going in the direction you want, you need a variety of strategies. Positive affirmations are one strategy, but you should also consider using alternatives if they’re not working for you.


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Danielle Forth (MSc, RPsych) has over 15 years of clinical experience working in front line mental health, consulting and teaching roles. She is a Registered Psychologist and holds a Master’s degree in Marital and Family Therapy.

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