Improving Your Self-talk Will Make You Happier
We often equate self-care with physical care, taking enough exercise, rest and relaxation and eating well; we may also meditate or practice yoga to help us relax and reduce stress.
But one of the key areas I’ve been working to improve recently is my self-talk — the way I talk to myself. It’s easier said than done, but a good start is recognising that we all have habitual ways of thinking that affect the way we feel. It is often said that we talk to ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t choose to speak to anyone else.
When you start to take note of the thoughts that automatically jump into your mind, you begin to realise the impact they have on your perceptions and your moods.
In the UK, 50% of adults aged 55 years and over say they have experienced depression and almost the same number have suffered anxiety (YouGov 2017). While younger people are becoming more open about mental health problems, older people may have been taught to face life with a ‘stiff upper lip’ and see mental health issues as a sign of weakness.
Feelings can be due to our attitudes; we can easily enter a spiral in which our thoughts trigger feelings that trigger more negative thoughts. The language and tone we use in our self-talk can be key in this negative spiral effect.
This tendency to engage in unhelpful self-talk must be avoided because it can become habitual and ‘normal’. Research shows that it takes the brain more effort to switch out of habitual negative thoughts and see the positive.
The first step is to notice the poor self-talk and then gently and kindly correct it. One suggestion is to keep a thought record to help identify the thoughts and feelings that arise during the day. You can map the daily situations that trigger certain feelings and thoughts, then stop and note how you talk to yourself. Compare this to how you might talk to a friend in the same situation.
Here are five examples of poor self-talk that I struggle with and suggestions I have found helpful:
I am learning a new skill during lockdown — embroidery. Some stitches are tricky. When I don’t master a new stitch immediately or mess it up, my self-talk tends to be: “I’m hopeless at this, I’ll never get it right”. But rather than talk in terms of hopeless and never, I should tell myself: “OK, I didn’t quite understand that written instruction. I need to find a better way, maybe a video would be more helpful”.
2. Taking things personally
I am driving happily along the motorway, keeping my distance from the car ahead, when suddenly someone cuts in front. My immediate thought is: “Why did they do that? I must have annoyed them. What did I do wrong?”. But a better thought is: “they must be stressed out, driving like that. That’s not good for them”.
3. Mistaking feelings for facts (and taking undue responsibility)
It’s a good idea to take time every morning to check in with how you are feeling: what are your energy levels, do you have any physical pain or discomfort, are you particularly hungry or thirsty? Check how these feelings are impacting your thoughts and how your thoughts may be affecting your feelings.
If I wake up and feel a bit low physically, I might say to myself: “Don’t be lazy, you’ve got things to do, get on with it”.
But I wouldn’t say that to a good friend, so perhaps the better thought is: “I am not feeling 100% today, so what’s the best thing to help take care of myself?”.
4. Disrespecting yourself
If I take a wrong turn while driving a new route, my first thought is often: “You idiot! You’re always misjudging turnings on the Satnav!”. But it’s much kinder to think: “Oops, no big deal. Gonna have to find somewhere to turn around now. Never mind, easily done”.
5. Telling yourself everything is (or will be) a disaster
I like to plan ahead. I am quite an organised person but, of course, there are times when things don’t go to plan for one reason or another. It’s a healthy strategy to think ahead about what might go wrong in order to be prepared. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for me to jump to the conclusion that these things will almost certainly go wrong and result in a disaster.
It is easy to see how this type of thinking, often referred to as catastrophising, might cause anxiety. Nowadays, I try to stop and remind myself of occasions when I (or others) have faced similar or worse situations; we coped successfully then and it wasn’t the end of the world at all!
It is not possible to stay positive all the time. And it can be downright annoying to be told to look on the bright side when you’re feeling down. But being aware of the way you talk to yourself certainly gives you a chance to pause and then interrupt any unhelpful thoughts before they push you into that negative spiral. Improving your self-talk can make all the difference.