How to improve your life by better managing your self-talk

Published on November 11, 2011


Over the past 15 years, as part of a program of self exploration and development, I developed the habit of journaling on a daily basis. As part of that practice I started to record my ideas, memories etc on a voice recorder. Not only did this practice provide an abundance of ideas for my journaling, but I gradually became more and more aware of the mental “self-talk” that I engaged in and how it profoundly affected my life, including my social interactions. The purpose of this post is to provide a brief introduction to self-talk and how you can improve your life by becoming aware of your self-talk and how to make it more adaptive and positive.



What is self-talk?

A simple way of defining self-talk is that it is talking silently to oneself. However others have proposed a much broader definition of self-talk e.g. “Anytime you think about something, you are in a sense talking to yourself” (Bunker et 1993, p. 226). According to this definition, self-talk broadens to include all thoughts.

A recent review of psychological research concluded that human behaviour was influenced by both conscious and unconscious mental processes (Baumeister et al 2011). It seems reasonable then to divide self-talk into two types, one reflective self-talk which is conscious and the other automatic and unconscious. An example of conscious self-talk would be “If I turn right at the first junction and then left after the following junction, I will reach my destination.”

An example of unconscious (and maladaptive) mental talk would be “I just cannot stop smoking (drinking, gambling, etc). It could be unconscious not because we repress it but because it occurs so quickly that we miss noticing it. However it does have an effect on subsequent behaviour.


Is self-talk important? What purpose does it serve?

There is convincing research evidence that self-talk plays an important role in a variety of human mental functions:

• Self-talk plays a critical role in helping us formulate and attain our goals e.g. conscious self-talk (Baumeister, Masicampo & Vohs, 2011; unconscious self-talk (Bargh, 2005). One can use self-talk to help guide us through difficult tasks. One often observes this in children doing a complex task such as tying up shoe laces. And even adults on accession find themselves talking out loud to themselves when encountering a particularly difficult task. Of course these are all tasks involving goal attainment.

• Probably the most abundant source of evidence for the role of self-talk in controlling behaviour comes from sports psychology where focussing on the self-talk of athletes and modifying it has proven effective in improving athletic performance (see extensive review by Hardy (2006)).

• Another perhaps equally abundant source of evidence comes from Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the idea that erroneous, distorted thoughts can be maladaptive and contribute to the development and maintenance of painful mood states such as clinical depression or anxiety disorder. CBT utilizes the keeping of a log of one’s negative self-statements (self-talk) and replacing them with more positive and adaptive ones. There is a wealth of research supporting the effectiveness of such cognitive restructuring in improving mood states and reducing maladaptive behavior including maladaptive social behaviour.


Increase your awareness of your self-talk

Two ways of making your self-talk more adaptive are by becoming more aware of your self-talk, particularly maladaptive statements, and by understanding the “repetition truth effect” as discussed below. More ways for managing your self-talk will be discussed in future posts.

In my daily journaling I discovered that it requires considerable practice to “catch” my self-talk due to their ephemeral nature. They are like clouds blowing past mountain top. But it is possible to do so with practice. Keeping an audio recorder handy has proven to assist in this “cloud catching”. I have also discovered that it is the most subtle and swiftly passing self-talk statements which have proven to be most revealing and useful in understanding my feelings, my thoughts, and my behaviour. They also have been the source of creative ideas and in fact the more I practice “catching” them the more creative I become. However I also have become more aware of the negative self-talk that comes up in my internal mental chatter. Just by becoming aware I can work at replacing them with more positive statements as is recommended in the CBT approach.


Beware of the repetition truth effect

“62,400 repetitions make one truth!”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World as reported in Unkelbach et al (2011).

The “repetition truth effect” refers to the fact that the more we are exposed to a statement the more likely we are to come to believe that it is true. This was first demonstrated experimentally over 30 years ago (Hasher et al 1977) but as indicated by the quotation from Brave New World, which was written in 1932 has been recognized for much longer. Many subsequent studies have supported this effect of repeated exposure on belief.

Recently Dechene et al (2010) have reviewed both basicbusiness advertising psychological research and research on consumer behaviour and found the evidence compelling as to the validity of the repetition truth effect. Indeed billions of dollars are spent in advertising based on this simple principle that merely repeatedly telling someone that your product is superior to all others will sooner or later lead them to believe it to be true and finally to purchase your product instead of your competitors.

Sports psychologists have clearly shown that an athlete’s performance can be diminished if he or she has the habit of repeating negative statements about the self. The conclusion is clear. If you keep repeating something to yourself you will gradually come to believe it and act on it.

So beware particularly of whatever you say repeatedly to yourself and if it is negative change it to something positive. For example, replace the self-talk “I am completely overwhelmed by the stress of my job” with “I can manage my work stress if I break my work responsibilities down into attainable smaller goals”. And, of course, repeat the latter positive statement over and over again until it becomes a habitual and automatic positive self-statement.



Increasing awareness of your negative self-talk and replacing it with more adaptive(positive) self-talk can become a useful habit with many potential applications including:

• Improving your ability to control and change your behaviour e.g. motivate yourself to carry out goal-directed behaviour e.g. lose weight.

• Improving your ability to regulate your moods and emotional reactions

• Increasing your understanding of yourself. For example, by monitoring your self-talk you can become aware if you have any worries, preoccupations, unfulfilled goals etc.

• Changing your beliefs about yourself and your capacities

• Increasing your self-esteem and creating a positive self-identity.

• Increasing your creativity.

• Improving your interpersonal interactions i.e. social behaviour can be influenced profoundly by one’s self-talk.

Self-talk plays an extremely important role in human lives and we can improve our lives by learning how to better manage our self-talk. In fact, the extensive development of the capacity for self-talk in humans and our ability to consciously control our self-talk may well be what chiefly distinguishes us from other animals and made possible the development of modern civilization with its tremendous technological advances.



Bargh J.A. (2005) Bypassing the will: Toward demystifying the nonconscious control of social behaviour. In R.R. Hassin, J.S. Uleman & J.A. Bargh (Eds.), The New Unconscious. pp 37-58. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Baumeister, R.F., Masicampo, E.J. & Vohs, K.D. (2011). Do conscious thoughts control behaviour? Annual Review of Psychology. 62, 331-361.

Bunker, L., Williams, J.M., & Zinsser (1993). Cognitive techniques for improving performance and building confidence: In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth top peak performance 2nd ed., Mountain View CA: Mayfield.

Dechene, A., Stahl, C., Hansen, J., & Wanke M. (2010). The truth about the truth: A meta-analytic review of the truth effect. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 238-257.

Hasher, L., Goldstein, D., & Toppino, T. (1977). Frequency and
the conference of referential validity. Journal of Verbal Learning
and Verbal Behavior, 16, 107-112.

Hardy, J. (2006). Speaking clearly: A critical review of the self-talk literature. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7, 81-97.

Category(s):Life Purpose / Meaning / Inner-Guidance, Positive Psychology, Self-Care / Self Compassion, Sports Psychology

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore

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