How do you talk to yourself?

Why the words you tell yourself matter and what you can do about it

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“We know words affect other people but we forget that the words we use within ourselves affect our emotional states as well,” says life coach and author Tony Robbins. “So when people say ‘What word should I use or not use?’, here’s what I’ll tell you: Use any word that moves you forward. You can use colourful language to yourself if it moves you forward, or you can use gentle language or playful language.

What you have to learn is: What are the words that make you pull back? What are the words that make you give up, get frustrated or overwhelmed?

Because the words that you attach to your experience become your experience. So you’ve got to become conscious about it. If you talk about being pissed off all the time, you’re going to be pissed off all the time, as opposed to saying, ‘You know, this is inconvenient, it’s not my preference, but let’s deal with this in a different way.’”

Research shows that we spend about a quarter of our waking lives engaged in internal (and external) self-talk. In What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, behavioural researcher Shad Helmstetter writes about the cause-and-effect chain reaction that results from ‘mental programming’, that is, changing our patterns of thought. Our perception or interpretation of the experience matters more than the experience itself. Programming creates beliefs, beliefs create attitudes, attitudes create feelings, feelings influence actions, and actions create results.

How do we improve our self-talk?

1. Examine your thought patterns.

What kind of words do you say to yourself? How do they make you feel? Frustrated, overwhelmed, motivated, calm? Once you know which words work for you, you can start using them more.

2. Try reversing what you usually say.

If you usually say “I hate it when I make a mistake”, try saying “I learn so much whenever I make a mistake”. Notice how you feel and respond after.

3. Rationalise things.

Feeling overwhelmed? Use the 3 Ps: permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation. Tell yourself that:
a) All things are temporary.
b) It only affects one part of your life—you have other things going for you.
c) It isn’t entirely because of you. Focus on what you can do rather than “Why me?”

4. Talk to yourself like you would a friend.

When our good friends are going through a difficult moment, we know what to say to motivate them. Why shouldn’t we do the same for ourselves? Here’s how.

5. Speak to yourself in third person.

Research has shown that using non-first person pronouns (e.g. your name) rather than first person pronouns (“I”, “me”) helps us gain psychological distance from our experiences, which improves emotion regulation and self-control.

The next time you need motivation, try saying, “You can do this, [your name]. You’ve lived through other difficult experiences, you’ll live through this.”

6. Say “I don’t” rather than “I can’t”.

What’s the difference between “I can’t procrastinate” and “I don’t procrastinate”? Psychologically, “I don’t” is experienced as a choice, making it feel empowering. “I can’t” emphasises your lack of power in the situation.

7. Give your inner critic a name.

Call it Gollum or whatever you like. The next time you catch your inner critic giving you an earful, try telling yourself, “There goes [name] again.” This reminds you that your critical voice is a perspective, not a truth. A healthy distance is created between you and that voice, allowing you to observe your thought patterns with objectivity.

8. Counteract with gratitude.

Whenever you have a negative thought, think of two things you’re grateful for. Each time you find a flaw about yourself, find two strengths. What you focus on expands.

What are the words that move you forward? Share them with us at

If self-doubt is plaguing your mind, here’s philosopher Alan Watts’ advice on how to get rid of it.

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