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What do you tell yourself when someone gives you a compliment? Or when you make a mistake?
Call it your inner monologue or your self-talk. Either way, you are talking to yourself all the time in your head – and the way you do it can make a big difference in your growth and mental health, said Melinda Fouts, a psychologist and certified executive coach based in Colorado.
“The inner voice is a multipurpose tool, like a Swiss Army knife of life,” said Ethan Kross, a psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan. The problem is it doesn’t come with a user manual, and that monologue with yourself can become harsh, self-critical and unhelpful, he added.
Healthy self-talk is crucial to our growth by helping us focus our attention, rehearse for difficult situations, understand our lives better and shape our identity, said Kross, author of “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.”
While working with a mental health professional is helpful for improving your inner monologue, it isn’t always accessible. Fortunately, there are ways to reprogram your self-talk on your own.
“If you have the awareness that you have this very debilitating, toxic negative self-talk and you have the intention to change it and you’re diligent and disciplined to tackle it, it will change,” said Fouts, author of “Cognitive Enlightenment: A Disciplining of Your Mind.”
Where does it come from?
Like most aspects of psychology, the root of how people talk to themselves comes in part from genetics and in part from individual experiences, Kross said.
Even the most loving caregivers can pass on negative self-talk to children, Fouts said. She finds that some of the unhelpful “tapes” that play over and over in clients’ heads are rooted in a deeper belief about themselves.
“When I work with people, we discover the root,” Fouts said. “That’s usually, ‘I’m not good enough, not worthy enough.’ ”
That feeling could come up when someone gives you a compliment. Instead of gratefully accepting, you brush it off as that person being nice or thinking that you could have done better. Those thoughts often come from a place of thinking you are not worthy of the compliment, she said.
The goal is to change that negative self-talk to reinforce the idea that you are good, worthy and capable, Fouts said. But it doesn’t mean you’ll always be cheering yourself on and overlooking mistakes.
“Helpful inner monologue isn’t always positive in the sense that sometimes, in working through the bad stuff, we learn from our mistakes,” Kross said. “That sometimes involves revisiting painful experiences, extracting some important insight that helps us move on and improve.”
Change your interactions with yourself
Fouts recommended starting by developing what she calls a launch sentence, which counteracts the negative root belief. It may look like “I am more than good enough” or “I am more than worthy,” she said.
The goal is to catch your negative thoughts playing, stop them, tell yourself that sentence and then expand on it. But it can be hard to remember to do – especially when you are stressed, tired or hungry, she said.
She advises her clients to write their sentence on notes and stick them all around – on mirrors, dashboards, in the kitchen – to remind them to put it into practice.
One technique that has been used in many cultures is to create a ritual to help regulate your internal world, Kross said. For example, before a speech, he takes deep breaths and punches his fist into his hand.
The goal is to maintain a sense of control in the face of worry or rumination on a past event and connect your actions to a greater meaning, he said.
Creating some mental distance can also help, he added.
Make that space by doing a little mental time travel. It’s so easy to focus on a particular problem or worry. To counteract that, Kross recommended imagining how you will feel about the problem in an hour, week, month or year.
Most people can attest it is easier to give advice and be less judgmental of others, so turn your inner monologue into a dialogue. Using your own name or the pronoun “you” signals to your brain you are talking to someone other than yourself, which can change how you respond, Kross said.
Change your environment
Do you find yourself cleaning or organizing when negative thoughts are spinning in your mind? You are not alone, Kross said.
Doing so can be helpful in establishing that feeling of control that humans love and in a creating a physical space to keep negative thoughts from overwhelming you.
Getting outside can also help foster a more positive inner voice, he added.
Being in nature can bring our attention from the thoughts racing through our mind to the world around us, Kross said. If possible, he recommended finding something that sparks a feeling of awe.
That emotion makes us feels smaller than the vast and spectacular world, and therefore our negative thoughts feel smaller as well, Kross said.
Change your support system
Once you have addressed your interactions with yourself and how your environment is set up, it may be time to evaluate the role your support network plays in your self-talk.
“Other people can be a really useful tool for helping us manage our internal conversation, but they can also be a liability,” Kross said. “You want to be deliberate with who you talk to.”
Venting problems can feel good and can help us feel closer to the people in our lives, but it doesn’t necessarily help build a better inner monologue, he said.
“The best kind of conversation with other people involves talking to people who do two things: They take the time to listen and hear you out, then they start working with you to help you think it through and find a solution to your problems,” Kross said.
Such talks might mean asking questions to dig deeper and move the problem forward, he said. Ideally, the people you turn to are reinforcing that you are supported, understood and capable of tackling whatever is ahead of you.