Positive Self-Talk: Definition, Benefits, & How to Use It

Most of us have an inner monologue that helps us understand ourselves, other people, and events going on around us. This inner monologue, also known as self-talk, can be positive, neutral, or negative.

But not all types of self-talk have the same effect. In most situations, positive self-talk is more beneficial than negative self-talk. In this article, we’re going to look at the benefits of positive self-talk and how to practice it.

Sections

  1. What is positive self-talk?
  2. Benefits
  3. How to use it
  4. When to consider professional help

What is positive self-talk?

Positive self-talk involves speaking to yourself in a caring, helpful way. Here are a few examples of positive self-talk:

  • “I did a great job of tidying my house today. I can get so much done when I try!”
  • “I look good in this suit.”
  • “I was really brave at the party tonight. I met a couple of new people and had some interesting conversations. I’ve made huge improvements in my social skills recently.”
  • “I’ve set some exciting goals for myself. I’m looking forward to working on them.”

This kind of self-talk makes you feel better about yourself. It’s encouraging, optimistic, and compassionate.

What are the benefits of positive self-talk?

Positive self-talk can improve your everyday life. It can improve your confidence and motivation in difficult situations, help you deal with self-doubt, boost your performance, and may protect your mental health. Here are some benefits of practicing positive self-talk:

1. Positive self-talk may protect against depression

There is a close relationship between negative self-talk and depression.[1][2] Depressed people often have a bleak outlook on the world and themselves. This attitude may be reflected in their self-talk.

For example, if a person with depression believes they are unlikeable, they might tell themselves things like “No one likes me” or “I’ll never make friends.”

Because it encourages a pessimistic outlook, negative self-talk can also make depression worse. If you feel low, replacing negative with positive self-talk may help you to feel better.[3]

2. Positive self-talk can reduce public speaking anxiety

According to research from Missouri State University in 2019, positive self-talk can reduce public speaking anxiety.[4]

In the study, a group of students was asked to repeat the following statement before a speech:

“My speech is ready. Everybody in the class understands what this is like. I’m ready to give my speech. My classmates support my efforts. This is going to be the best performance that I can do. I’m ready to do my speech!”

The researchers found that this simple exercise reduced public speaking anxiety by 11%. So if you have to give a speech or presentation and feel anxious about it, try adapting the above statements and repeating them to yourself before you begin.

3. Positive self-talk can boost athletic performance

Psychologists have carried out many studies on the effects of positive self-talk on athletic performance.[5]

For example, one 2015 study titled Improvement of 10-km time-trial cycling with motivational self-talk compared with neutral self-talk showed that motivational self-talk can improve performance in cycling time trials.[6]

The participants were taught how to identify negative self-talk and replace it with motivational statements instead. For instance, one participant wrote, “I’ve worked too hard,” then swapped it for, “I can manage my energy until the end” instead.

Compared to a control group, the participants who used this kind of positive self-talk when they were cycling performed significantly better in the timed trials.

4. Positive self-talk can help you move past setbacks

Positive, kind self-talk might be helpful when you face a setback. Research by psychologist Kristin Neff has revealed that students who treat themselves with compassion and understanding after academic failure are more likely to stay motivated to keep studying than students who treat themselves harshly.[7]

Let’s see how this could work in practice. Suppose you failed an exam. If you are prone to using negative self-talk, you might tell yourself, “I’m so dumb! I should have been able to pass that exam!” As a result, you might feel dejected, low, and unmotivated.

On the other hand, positive self-talk can inspire you to pick yourself up and try again. For example, you might tell yourself, “OK, so I didn’t pass the exam. That’s disappointing, but I can retake it, and I’ll study harder this time around. I might ask a tutor or friend to help me out. I’ll be proud when I pass.” This kind of positive self-talk can help you find the mental strength to try again instead of worrying and beating yourself up.

5. Positive self-talk can improve academic results

Research with college students suggests that positive self-talk could improve your grades. A 2016 study titled Self-talk and academic performance in undergraduate students followed 177 first-year college students over a six-week period as they prepared for a set of exams. The participants were asked to fill in questionnaires that measured how often they used negative and positive self-talk.

The results showed that students who passed an exam in a difficult academic subject used more positive self-talk and less negative self-talk than those who failed.

It’s impossible to know whether positive self-talk improves exam results or whether more able students tend to use more positive self-talk. However, the findings suggest that positive self-talk might have a beneficial effect.[8]

How to use positive self-talk

Here are some techniques and activities you can use to make positive self-talk part of your everyday life. Positive self-talk may not feel natural at first, especially if you tend to be a pessimistic person. But try to persevere. With time, you can train yourself to speak more kindly to yourself.

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1. Use second-person pronouns

Although it may seem counterintuitive, research shows that using second-person pronouns, such as your name and “You,” can be more powerful than first-person pronouns (“I”) when using self-talk.

For example, “You can do it, [Your name]!” might be more effective than “I can do it!”[9] Psychologists believe that making this switch may work by creating emotional distance between yourself and a difficult or upsetting situation.[9]

2. Turn negative statements into positive statements

When you beat yourself up, try to challenge your unhelpful thoughts by replacing them with a more balanced, optimistic statement.

Here are some tips for counteracting negative statements with positive alternatives:

  • Focus on the future, and remind yourself that you have the ability to improve your situation. For example, “I hate my life, it’s terrible” could become “I can make positive changes in my life.”
  • Praise yourself for your efforts. Don’t focus only on results. For example, “I bombed. Everyone could tell I was nervous” could become “I did my best, even though I was nervous.”
  • Look for opportunities to grow. For example, “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing, I’m bound to mess it up” could become “This is a chance to learn a useful new skill.”

You might also like this article on how to be more positive even when life events are not going the way you’d like.

3. Turn negative statements into helpful questions

When you criticize yourself, try to turn it to your advantage by asking yourself some positive, solution-focused questions.

Here are some examples showing how you can turn self-criticism into helpful prompts:

  • “I can’t get all this work done. I’m so disorganized!” could become “How can I organize this work so that I can get as much done as possible?”
  • “I’m so awkward. I don’t know what I’m going to talk about with my classmates” could become “How can I practice my conversation skills so that I feel more comfortable around my classmates?”
  • “I hate going out in public. I don’t like my body, and everyone else is better-looking than me” could become “What are some things I can do to make myself feel more comfortable with my appearance?” or “What simple, practical steps can I take to lose weight?”

4. Prepare for negative self-talk traps

You may have noticed that specific situations and people trigger your negative self-talk. It can be easier to deal with these triggers if you prepare for them in advance.

For example, let’s say you tend to slip into negative self-talk when you’re trying on clothes in front of a changing store mirror.

If you know in advance that you’ll start beating yourself up, you can practice counteracting this self-talk with more helpful, supportive comments, such as “I may not love my appearance, but I like some of my features” or “I’m still looking for a shirt I like. I don’t think this one looks great, but there are plenty of others I can try.”

5. Pretend you’re talking to a friend

Some people find it easy to encourage their friends with positive self-talk but find it difficult to speak kindly to themselves. If you are having trouble thinking of something positive to tell yourself, it might help to pretend that you are talking to a friend instead. Ask yourself, “What would I tell a good friend if they were in my position?”

6. Make sure your positive self-talk is realistic

If your positive self-talk feels forced or unnaturally optimistic, you probably won’t believe your own words. Try to strike a balance between positivity and realism when you talk to yourself.

For example, let’s say you have to study for some important exams. You feel stressed and overwhelmed. You’ve been saying negative, unhelpful things to yourself like, “I’ll never understand this material” and “I don’t have any motivation to study! I’m so lazy.”

If you try to use very positive self-talk such as, “I understand all the ideas in my textbooks” and “I have loads of motivation and enjoy studying!” you’ll probably feel as though you’re lying to yourself. Two more realistic alternatives might be, “I’m going to make an effort to understand the material” and “I’m trying my best to stay motivated.”

If you’re having a hard time finding realistic positive things about yourself, you might consider working also on your self-acceptance.

7. Do not rely on positive affirmations

You may have heard that repeating positive affirmations or phrases, such as “I like myself,” “I am happy,” or “I accept myself” can improve your mood. But research into the effects of affirmations has yielded mixed results.

One study found that positive affirmations, such as “I’m a lovable person,” can improve self-esteem and mood, but only if you have good self-esteem anyway. If you have low self-esteem, affirmations may make you feel worse.[10]

However, other researchers haven’t replicated these findings.[11] One 2020 study, published in the journal Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, reported that affirmations were neither harmful nor especially effective.

In summary, positive affirmations probably won’t cause you any problems, but they are unlikely to make a big difference.

When to consider professional help

If you’ve tried to use positive self-talk but find it hard to make changes, it may be a good idea to see a therapist. Frequent self-criticism and a harsh inner critic can be signs of a mental health problem, such as depression, that requires treatment. A therapist can help you to challenge negative, unhelpful thoughts and replace them with self-compassionate self-talk.

We recommend BetterHelp for online therapy, since they offer unlimited messaging and a weekly session, and are cheaper than going to a therapist's office.

Their plans start at $64 per week. If you use this link, you get 20% off your first month at BetterHelp + a $50 coupon valid for any SocialSelf course: Click here to learn more about BetterHelp.

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Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages SocialSelf’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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