We know that how we talk to each other matters and can greatly affect our relationships. But what about our own thoughts and how that can impact our relationship with ourselves?
We all carry on some form of inner dialogue – whether it’s as simple as motivating ourselves to accomplish a task or more involved like analysing how we performed on an assignment at work. Self-talk is that internal voice that we are hearing, and what that voice has to say can have a greater influence than we may realize.
According to Dr Claudia Cobon, a Senior Clinical Psychologist at Solstice, the way we talk to ourselves “can impact our mental health, in that it impacts how we feel, our motivation, our ability to do activities and engage with others.”
Often times that inner critic can be judgemental. As humans we have a propensity to lean towards the negative in our thoughts. Whether that is “remembering negative information, talking to ourselves in a harsher way that we would talk to others, ruminating on our failures, and sometimes anticipating the worst,” says Dr Cobon.
“Being aware of this internal voice is really important,” she explains.
Not only is more positive self-talk just a nicer way to treat ourselves, it can also carry a myriad of benefits that can effect everything from our self-esteem to our relationships.
“Being able to talk to ourselves in a positive way has been shown to increase overall wellbeing, improve mood, make us feel more connected and more resilient,” cites Dr Cobon. “There is research to show creating a kinder, more compassionate internal voice can increase our general wellbeing, improve our satisfaction with relationships, improve mood and self-worth, manage anxiety symptoms and lower anxiety levels, improve our body image, increase motivation, performance and productivity. It can also help us learn better and be more resilient through adversity.”
When there’s so much negativity swirling around us, it can be hard to keep our thoughts optimistic, but there are ways to limit our negative talk.
“I like to encourage my clients to think about talking to themselves in a more compassionate, rather than just a necessarily positive way,” says Dr Cobon.
Think of how you would speak to another person in a similar situation, such as a loved one, she says.
“Write down these compassionate thoughts, so that they can become more accessible for you in times of need.”
Dr Cobon also suggests using strategies from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, where we “learn to identify thoughts that are making us feel sad or anxious and challenge those thoughts to get a more helpful, realistic perspective on the situation.”
One of the biggest advantages of engaging in more positive and compassionate self-talk is the way it can teach us to manage our emotions when times get tough and help us get through difficult situations.
“Being self-critical activates stress hormones, which in turn impairs our performance, makes us want to avoid situations or people, or escape into unhealthy behaviours,” warns Dr Cobon. “Self-criticism is particularly harmful when we fail, make mistakes, or are faced with challenges, because it then becomes a self-defeating cycle making us feel much worse about ourselves.”
While we may still find ourselves in difficult situations, having self-compassion and focusing on positive self-talk “activates our soothing system” and “makes us feel calmer and stronger in the face of a stressor,” she encourages.
When we are able to confidently approach a stressful situation we can better come up with solutions including better self-care, asking for help or support, or coming up with ideas to resolve the issues we are facing.
“We also become more resilient following failure, as we are able to recognise that making mistakes and failing is a normal part of the human experience, making it more likely we will learn and grow,” she says.
However, if over time negative thoughts continue to creep in and no amount of trying to be more compassionate with ourselves keeps them at bay, there are resources to help. It can be overwhelming when we are trying to cope with a build-up of stressors or when a serious event takes place.
“This overloading of stress can reduce our ability to be aware of our self-talk, and even if we are aware, it may be very hard to manage these thoughts,” cautions Dr Cobon. “In these situations we may start to have very negative thoughts about the situation we are in, ourselves, or find it hard to feel hopeful about the future.”
Things to look out for include losing pleasure in activities we once enjoyed, isolating ourselves from family and friends, any change in eating or sleeping habits, or a lack of motivation and increase in unhealthy behaviours (i.e. consuming more alcohol or drugs). Any thoughts about not wanting to be here or hurting ourselves are also an indicator that we should seek help from a mental health professional, Dr Cobon advises.