We all talk to ourselves. About the world, about others, and importantly—about ourselves.
This inner dialogue, or self-talk, can be hard to pin down, but often has a strong impact on the way we think, feel, and behave.
If you suspect that you’re too self-critical at times and could benefit from a more positive inner dialogue, this article is for you.
We’ll define positive self-talk, explore its potential benefits, and show you how to start cultivating a more helpful, self-compassionate inner narrative when you need it most.
What is Self-Talk?
Self-talk is simply a psychological term for our self-directed internal statements or dialogue (Alderson-Day & Fernyhough, 2015). Rather like an ongoing inner story, it’s shaped by our conscious minds (the tip of the iceberg), and our subconscious—the hidden, underlying cognitive processes beneath.
Our self-talk is somewhat dynamic, meaning we may talk to ourselves more or less frequently at certain times in our lives, and the research suggests that self-talk is multidimensional (Hardy, 2006).
Put simply, this means self-talk can take different forms. It can be:
Positive or negative (experts believe this “valence” probably falls along a spectrum)
More obvious or more subtle (“overtness”)
Self-determined or unintentional, and as you might well know, it can be
Motivational (helpful or “facilitative”) or discouraging (unproductive or “debilitating”) in nature.
Psychological researchers have been incredibly curious about self-talk over time, and there’s widespread agreement that it can have very real influences on how we see ourselves and others.
But despite the general assumption that positive self-talk has constructive impacts, is there scientific evidence to back it up?
Proven Benefits of Positive Self-Talk
While some experts believe the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ self-talk are overly simplistic, there is substantial research suggesting that positive self-talk can have beneficial effects on our moods, performance, and even our health.
In experiments comparing the two, and/or no self-talk, for instance, participants who practiced positive self-talk:
Performed better at strength and endurance assignments (Theodorakis et al., 2000)
Persisted longer at challenging tasks, leading to better outcomes (Chiu & Alexander, 2000), and
Performed significantly better on dart-throwing tasks (this impact was even clearer when they used positively framed imagery, too) (van Raalte et al., 1995; Cumming et al., 2006).
Challenging Your Inner Critic
One very good example of self-talk that most of us can relate to, unfortunately, is our “Inner Critic.”
Our Inner Critic is the internal, often subconscious voice that can sometimes berate and blame us when we are already suffering or challenged in some way.
While it sometimes offers constructive criticism, our Inner Critic can frequently be overly harsh, bringing us down unnecessarily. Positive self-talk can help us soften or diminish the Inner Critic and take a kinder attitude toward ourselves.
To do this, you’ll want to:
Learn to Spot Your Inner Critic: The next time you fail at something or feel discouraged, tune in to your inner dialogue. What kinds of overly self-critical things might you be saying? Can you identify the voice of your excessively harsh Inner Critic?
Distance From It: Whenever you hear your Inner Critic, try to take his or her advice with a grain of salt. One helpful trick to separate is to label your Inner Critic—why not give them a name like “Cranky Neighbor” or “Spoilsport”? You might even learn to humor Spoilsport before telling them to get lost!
Challenge Your Inner Critic: Try countering their statements with logic—are there facts to back up these statements? Where is this “you should” or “you must” really coming from? Tell them you choose not to listen, and you’re opting to practice self-love instead.
Replace Your Inner Critic’s Statements: When you can isolate your Inner Critic’s negative statements, come up with a positive self-talk statement to replace it. Some good examples include:“I’m trying my best, and that’s what counts,” or “I’m good enough for me.”
A few of the following can also be helpful ways to replace your Inner Critic with positive self-talk:
Keep a journal or diary of your Inner Critic. Note down examples as you go about your day, and try spotting key patterns that you can reframe. You might also try listening to Spoilsport or Cranky Neighbor’s tone of voice, and comparing it to how you’d address a close friend or loved one. Doesn’t sound so rational anymore, does it?
Pick a name for your positive inner voice too—why not “Inner Cheerleader” or (if it’s not too cheesy!) “Inner Winner”? This might make it easier to connect with your positive inner voice, so you can learn how to prioritize it over your Inner Critic.
Come up with positive self-talk statements to practice with. Creating a table can be helpful here, with separate columns for your “Inner Critic” and “Inner Cheerleader” voices. Think of a positive self-talk statement to counter each negative phrase you catch.
With time, you will very likely find it easier to replace your Inner Critic with positive self-talk statements. The more you practice, the better you’ll become at doing this automatically.
Examples of Positive Self-Talk
Want to come up with your own positive statements? Kinder, more forgiving self-directed speech doesn’t feel natural to most people at first, and it may feel counterintuitive (Neff, 2003).
One useful tip for coming up with positive self-talk statements is to practice more self-compassion (or self-love) the next time you make a mistake or chastise yourself. As leading researcher Dr. Kirsten Neff puts it (Neff, 2021):
“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings.”
Try treating yourself as you’d treat a friend or loved one. Would you be as harsh to them? What would you say instead? What tone of voice would you use?
You can keep your positive self-talk statements in a little notebook, or make them salient by wearing your most meaningful phrases on your wristband.
You can find more inspiration for your own self-talk statements here and have a go at creating your own.
The trick to creating a more positive inner dialogue, as always, is practice. Remind yourself to focus on your strengths and good attributes, and you’ll soon have some powerful self-compassionate habits on your side.
Alderson-Day, B., & Fernyhough, C. (2015). Inner speech: development, cognitive functions, phenomenology, and neurobiology.Psychological Bulletin,141(5), 931.
Chiu, S., & Alexander, P.A. (2000). The motivational function of preschoolers’ private speech.Discourse Processes, 30, 133.
Cumming, J., Nordin, S. M., Horton, R., & Reynolds, S. (2006). Examining the direction of imagery and self-talk on dart-throwing performance and self efficacy.The Sport Psychologist,20(3), 257.
Hardy, J. (2006). Speaking clearly: A critical review of the self-talk literature.Psychology of Sport and Exercise,7(1), 81.
Neff, K. D. (2003). Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion.Self and Identity, 2, 223.
Neff, K. (2021).Definition of Self-Compassion. Retrieved from https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/
Theodorakis, Y., Weinberg, R., Natsis, P., Douma, I., & Kazakas, P. (2000). The effects of motivational versus instructional self-talk on improving motor performance.The Sport Psychologist,14(3), 253.
Van Raalte, J. L., Brewer, B. W., Lewis, B. P., & Linder, D. E. (1995). Cork! The effects of positive and negative self-talk on dart throwing performance.Journal of Sport Behavior,18(1), 50.