Psychologists reveal how simply cutting out negative self-talk and speaking to ourselves more kindly can ‘rewire’ our brains to transform self-doubt into self-confidence, stress into serenity, and perfectionism into peace.
You’re excited to help organize a community garden with your church group, but when a friend questions a few of your ideas, you immediately start beating yourself up: I’m so stupid; I shouldn’t have spoken up. My ideas just aren’t good. If you’re like most of us, you end up preferentially focusing on the blathering of your inner critic rather than reminding yourself of all you consistently get right.
“We have about 30,000 individual thoughts per day, 77 percent of which consist of negative self-talk,” reveals Shad Helmstetter, Ph.D., author of the seminal book What to Say When You Talk to Your Self (Buy from Amazon, $14). “Our brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s ‘true’ and ‘false’ — it simply acts on the strongest neural programs, so if you tell yourself that you can’t do something, that’s what your brain believes.”
The great news is that just repeating a few key words is proven to boost bliss over the long-term. “Research shows that consistently telling ourselves we can overcome challenges is important because it takes three to four weeks for our brain to lay down new pathways,” says Helmstetter. “People who engage in the most positive self-talk, in fact, grow more neural networks in the area of the brain in charge of solving problems.”
Keep reading for the positive words proven to dial up hope, increase joy and instill genuine self-love so you can become your own most enthusiastic cheerleader.
Facing a challenge? Try growth talk.
You love volunteering at the animal shelter, but when you’re asked to lead a fundraiser, you tell yourself, I’m not up to this. “The first step is to just start paying attention to what you’re saying,” urges Helmstetter. “Once you’re aware of it, you can begin to change negatives into positives.”
To flip a defeatist script, tap into “growth talk.” If you were simply to say the direct opposite of what you’re repeating — turning “I can’t” into “I can” — your brain would think you’re lying because it’s been trained to believe otherwise. That’s why it’s important to layer self-talk. Tell yourself: “I’m good at taking on challenges; I ask for help when I need it; I learn from my mistakes.” Says Helmstetter, “The deeper your talk goes, the more neural pathways you access, so your brain starts to believe what you’re saying.” In fact, reminding yourself that you’re constantly learning is key because it triggers a growth mindset — the conviction that obstacles are not roadblocks, but stepping stones on the way to success.
Always self-shaming? Ditch ‘should.’
After overeating to soothe your stress, you beat yourself up: I’m so weak; I should eat healthier. “We tend to believe that inner criticism motivates us,” says psychotherapist Karen Koenig, author of Words to Eat By. “But it always backfires.”
Silence guilt by asking yourself what you desire. “Shame-based words like ‘must,’ and ‘should,’ put pressure on us,” says Koenig. “We then rebel against this stress, leading us to do the very thing we’re trying not to.” Instead, use words that speak to why you yearn to do something, like “want” and “prefer.” “Tell yourself, ‘I want to stay in touch with my body when I’m eating,’ or ‘I choose to feel peace with food.’” When we overeat, it’s because we don’t feel entitled to desire other things, so ask yourself what you’re craving beyond food, like relaxing or taking a walk. “Willpower doesn’t exist, so use word power, compassionate language that talks you into living the life you want.”
Feeling overlooked? Say a ‘soul script.’
When a coworker talks over you, your self-esteem sinks and you wonder if anyone sees you what you have to offer. Alison Cook, Ph.D., author of Boundaries for Your Soul (Buy from Amazon, $17), explains, “This self-talk only perpetuates feelings of invisibility, causing us to stop trying to be seen or heard.”
Boost your sense of self by connecting with the language of your soul. Just repeat: “I’m exactly as I’m meant to be, and no one can take my place.” Says Cook, “That last part is perhaps most important. It really resonates with women because we just know it’s true: No one can take your place.” After you’ve found this kernel of truth that you can’t deny, build on it. “For example, you might say, ‘It’s hard for me to make my voice heard, but I’m going to commit to learning how to use it, regardless of how others respond.’” Whether you decide to speak up at least once during your next Zoom call or simply text a friend to talk about your day, resolving to use your voice will get others’ attention — and help you listen to yourself.
Suffered a setback? ‘Expand’ your chat.
Reeling from an emotionally exhausting breakup with a friend, you feel a tug-of-war between your head and heart: While you know it was the right decision, you still feel like you failed and repeatedly tell yourself that you could have done more to salvage your relationship.
After a disappointment, remind yourself that there isn’t just one path to happiness. “When you find yourself saying, ‘I feel hopeless,’ or ‘I’m a failure,’ broaden your perspective by pinpointing hope in small ways, whether it’s cuddling with your dog or gazing at the flowers in your garden,” urges Helmstetter. “Then tell yourself, ‘I have the opportunity to live the life I want.’” Once you focus on your own experience, take your talk ‘higher’ by envisioning others going through similar challenges and say to yourself, “I can overcome this just as they have.” Known as “elevated” self-talk, this upward spiral lets you see yourself as part of a larger “conversation,” in connection with others. Says Helmstetter, “This brings your small world of self-talk into the bigger universe, helping you feel gratitude for what you have and sharpening your resolve to live your best life on your own terms.”
This story originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.