The power behind “I can do this” – Part One

No, you’re not crazy. You’re not the only one who talks to themselves, who has a constant internal monologue running throughout the day. Everyone has that little voice inside their heads, whether you notice it often, or not. Mindfulness can help us become more aware of that inner speech, with less judgment and with a little bit more space between the narration of our experience and our actual experiences. So, next time you practice mindfulness, try to notice: what sort of language do you use in your self-talk? Is it positive or negative? Is it a motivational pep-talk before going on a run? Or maybe a discouraging self-statement after having made a mistake? No matter what it is, it’s extremely important to realize the effect that our own language and self-talk can have on our mental well-being. 

Firstly, what is self-talk? Self-talk is the internal monologue that is constantly running through someone’s mind. It can be their inner voice talking them through a physics problem, or the narrator encouraging and motivating them to perform their best in a swimming competition. The voice can be internal (thinking to oneself) or external (speaking to oneself, out loud). There are multiple theories as to where inner speech comes from and how it develops, but two of them have been more influential on our current understanding. The first theory was elaborated by Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist in the 1920’s. He believed that inner speech was developed by internalization of private speech (talking to oneself out loud), which is present in young children. In that case, someone’s internal monologue would develop during childhood and is strongly influenced by the way their parents talked to them, as the parents’ language is internalized by the child. The second theory was developed by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch, both psychologists in the 1970’s. This theory regards the role of inner speech as part of working memory, or the retention of information short-term. For example, inner speech is used when repeating directions in one’s mind to not forget them and get lost. In any case, how someone talks to themselves can greatly impact how they feel and perform; hence, self-talk has become a very popular topic and tool, used in life coaching, business, sports, as well as in psychotherapy. 

Before diving into the benefits of self-talk, it is important to address the effects of negative self-talk. This kind of self-talk is sometimes referred to as the “inner critic” and can be strongly influenced by the feedback we receive as children , particularly  from parents. Without wanting it to, negative self-talk can affect our performance and our mood. For example, there are many studies linking negative self-statements to low self-esteem and depression. One study by Alsaleh et al. (2016) examined the relationships between positive or negative thinking and depression or anxiety. They found that both depression and anxiety were correlated with negative thinking, and inversely correlated with positive thinking. Furthermore, a project by Fae Diana Ford (2015) explored if negative self-talk predicted peer loneliness and self-esteem in high school aged children. She found that peer loneliness correlated with negative self-talk; in particular, negative self-talk about social threat was associated with increased feelings of loneliness. Negative self-talk also predicted low self-esteem, specifically through thoughts of personal failure. In contrast, positive self-talk was a significant predictor of high self-esteem.

Positive self-talk can have many benefits, and has a tremendous impact on our thoughts, feelings, and well-being. A study by Draganich and Erdal (2014) examined the placebo effect of being told whether you had “above average” sleep quality or “below average” sleep quality. Results showed better performance in different tests or tasks for those being told they had slept better, without having any actual difference in sleep quality. If that is truly the case, if you wake up in the morning telling yourself that you slept very poorly, it could affect your performance for the rest of the day. However, if you tell yourself that you slept as much or as well as you could have, you might have a better performance, and you might feel better during the day! Another study by Philpot and Bamburg (1996) evaluated the effect of rehearsal of positive self-statements and restructured negative self-statements to increase self-esteem and decrease depression. They instructed a group of 60 undergraduates with low self-esteem to read 15 self-statements (derived from the subjects’ own most frequently occurring negative thoughts and least frequently occurring positive thoughts) to themselves three times a day for two weeks. They found that the students had significantly increased scores on self-esteem and decreased scores in depression. So, transforming negative self-talk into positive self-talk can have a significant impact on self-esteem and well-being. 

Here are some examples of restructured negative self-statements into positive self-statements that you can try for yourself:

Negative Self-StatementsPositive Self-Statements
I failed and embarrassed myself.I am proud of myself for having the courage to try.
I’ve never done this before and I’ll be bad at it.This is a wonderful opportunity for me to learn from others and grow.
I made a mistake.Mistakes can help me learn and grow. What can I learn from this?

Now, let’s try to put all of this into practice: this week, at the end of each mindfulness practice, repeat (or read) one positive self-statement to yourself, as an intention for the day. It can be simple and generic, like “I can do this!”, or something more personal, like a positive transformation of a negative self-statement you often use. Try to notice how it affects your feelings, thoughts and emotions throughout the day! 

Stay tuned for the second part of this blog post on self-talk, coming up next week! 

This article was written by Lea Sultanem, a third year medical student at McGill University and a member of the McGill Med Mindfulness team.

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