Your mental health: why is self-talk so important?

What we say to ourselves can put us in a positive or negative frame of mind. Photo by Caroline Veronez on Unsplash

SELF-TALK IS EVERYWHERE

Whether or not we realise it, we are always talking to ourselves.  We learned words when young, and we have become word factories, constantly forming phrases which channel our experience in the moment.  If you don’t believe me, listen to yourself for a day, and see how many times you naturally make exclamations.

SELF-TALK CAN BE NASTY

When something goes wrong, you may swear.  When someone gets in your way, you may mutter something nasty about them.  When you do something wrong, you may even mutter something nasty about yourself.

SELF-TALK IS ADOPTED FROM PARENTS AND CARERS

If you analyse your mutterings, you may realise that several of them come from your parents or early carers.  You may find yourself muttering a phrase which your mother used to say when things went wrong.  Much of our self-talk is inherited.  We listen to our early carers, and internalise their talk.

SELF-TALK CAN BE EXTREMELY SELF-CRITICAL

The relevance of self-talk is that it determines our self-empathy and our self-care.  Those whose self-talk is full of self-criticism, will lack self-empathy.  They will feel like they are permanently at risk of arrest by invisible policemen.  This in turn affects their self-esteem, because they don’t feel they have a right to just be themselves.  They spend all their time worrying about what they are doing wrong, and spend too little time nurturing and caring for themselves.

NEGATIVE SELF-TALK AFFECTS MENTAL HEALTH

I see this all the time in the counselling clients who come to me.   Their self-talk is often quite cruel, and I often find myself thinking ‘Goodness, this person is effectively depriving themselves of their own human rights!’  They are much more aware of what they might be doing wrong, than they are appreciative of what they are doing right.

COUNSELLING CAN HELP IMPROVE SELF-TALK

The path of counselling, in these cases, is often to help the client to soften their approach to themselves.  They start off unhappy, chased around their mind by inner police officers trying to arrest them.  Later, once they develop self-empathy and better self-talk, they become happier, encouraged by a much healthier inner parent.  They become able to nurture and care for themselves.

WAYS TO IMPROVE SELF-TALK

How does this happen?  The path is very subtle, but here are a few pointers as to how we can find a path to better self-empathy, and more helpful self-talk:

  1. INTERPRETING DISCOMFORT – People who are anxious or depressed interpret their feelings of discomfort as impending doom, as something they can do nothing about.  People who are recovering feel the same discomfort, but accept it as temporary, and understand that they are free to take action to reduce the pain.
  2. HELPING OURSELVES – People who are anxious or depressed find it hard to help themselves.  They feel unequal to the challenge of building a happy life.  People who are recovering identify clear paths to self-help, and allow themselves to take action.
  3. ENCOURAGEMENT – People who are anxious or depressed often moan.  Moaning is celebrating negativity without applying an opposing force.  This is completely understandable, but a waste of time.  People who are recovering shift their balance from moaning to encouragement.

EXAMPLES OF NEGATIVE SELF-TALK

  • I’m just so tired.  (This is interpreting discomfort without linking it to any solution.)
  • I’m short of money.  (This is stating difficulty without recognising personal power or agency.)
  • This country is going to the dogs.  (This is moaning without including any encouragement or hope.)

EXAMPLES OF POSITIVE SELF-TALK

  • I need to rest.  (This is constructing discomfort in terms of what can be done positively as self-help.)
  • I need to rework my budget.  (This is constructing difficulty in terms of what can be done to improve the situation.)
  • I need to join [organisation which improves the human environment].  (This is identifying a hopeful social action.)

SUMMARY

We all grow up with negative habits of self-talk inherited from parents and early carers.  We can be extremely self-critical.

The good news is that it’s within our power to change our self-talk.  We can develop new patterns of self-talk which remind us that pain is temporary, that we have agency in our lives, and that there is hope.