By Patience Domowski, LCSW
Did you know that talking positively to yourself can change how you feel and behave? It’s amazing how much our minds and thoughts can affect our feelings and behaviors. This is the basis theory for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, known commonly as ‘CBT’. CBT teaches that changing your thoughts (often through a strategy or coping skill called ‘Self Talk’) changes your feelings, which then changes your behavior.
For example: You see someone you know at the store or a restaurant and they don’t talk to you at all. If you think “That girl didn't talk to me because she doesn't like me”, you might feel sad, annoyed, jealous, etc. Your behavior may be to snub her, not talk to her, or be rude. However if you change your thoughts to “That girl didn't talk to me today; maybe she’s having a rough day, or she didn't see me. Or she was busy/some other reason,” then your feelings change to more neutral/content feeling, not caring about it, or even feeling bad for the girl. Then maybe your behavior might be to go talk to her yourself or just let it go. The situation didn't change- the girl still didn't talk to you, however by changing thoughts from negative (‘she doesn't like me’) to positive (‘maybe she is having a bad day or didn't see me’, or some reason not related to feeling badly about me) then your feelings become more positive and your behavior improves as well.
‘Positive self-talk’ is also used to help you feel better about yourself when you have negative thoughts about yourself. So if your thoughts are ‘I’m a terrible person’, ‘No one likes me’, ‘I’m so stupid’, which makes you feel sad, disappointed, like a failure and leads to behaviors of withdrawal, avoidance, etc you can work on changing those thoughts to ‘Well, I did the best I could’, ‘Not everyone likes me, but my friends do’, ‘I’m still learning and everyone makes mistakes’, then your feelings become more positive such as feeling hopeful, happier, etc and your behavior likely would be to try harder, not continue to think harshly on yourself, maybe be more active or social.
Just going into a situation thinking positively about the possible outcomes will help you notice more positive aspects of situations and likely you will have a better experience than going in with a negative viewpoint. For example maybe you’re dreading a family party because you don’t know a lot of extended relatives that are attending, or there are often family arguments. You head into the party dreading these awkward moments that may arise. Instead you can change the thought to ‘I’m going to enjoy myself, regardless of others’, and instead maybe focus on the food, plan to talk to the one or two people you like/get along with, or anything else that may not be too bad about the event. Then after the party you may realize that it wasn’t so bad because you were focused on the good parts, and even if you didn't know some people, or someone started a fight, at least you were focused on the people you did know, and you stayed out of the drama.
Although thoughts won’t affect what happens- you can’t magically think away something bad happening, but if you focus on the positives/good things, you will feel better than if you are focusing on or looking for the bad things.
The situation may remain the same, but the outlook is different. For example let’s say you and your friend have a day off school or work due to the weather. One person is happy because they don’t have to go to school/work, and can hang out at home doing something they’d rather do for fun. The other person is upset because they either don’t get paid for not working, or they have to make up a school day later, and they are thinking they will be bored while home and really wanted to see their friends that day. The situation is still the same- school/work is closed due to weather, however the positive person will enjoy their day, despite the consequences of lost wages or having to make up the day later, while the negative person will be miserable thinking of what they would’ve rather had happen that day.
Common positive self-talk phrases include self-esteem affirmations such as ‘I’m a good person’, ‘Others like me’, ‘I am smart’, ‘I am loveable’, as well as motivating statements such as: ‘I can do it’, ‘I can think positively about this’, ‘It will get better’, ‘I just have to try’, etc.
If positive statements do not automatically come to your mind spend a few minutes trying to think of something positive about a situation or thought that you have, and if you get stuck, think what would you tell your friend if they were struggling with the same thought. It might be hard to think positively for yourself, but it may be easier to think of something helpful to tell a friend. If you are still stuck, ask a friend or family member for some help coming up with some positive thoughts and phrases. Write them down so you don’t forget them. If you usually think negatively, it will be very hard to remember the positives, and even harder to believe them! So have them written down so you can go to them and use them when needed.
As you work on thinking more positively, just like physical exercise, it will become easier over time. At first it will be super hard, but then your brain will help you think of them faster. The more you try it the easier it eventually becomes. The more you focus on the positives, the better you will feel. So when you catch yourself thinking negatively about something, try to change that thought right away or focus on another positive aspect of the situation, in order to think and behave better.
People with anxiety and depression mostly need to work on postive self-talk, but all of us have times of feeling down or negative and can use this coping strategy so start stretching the positive 'muscles' of your brain now so you can be ready for when you are having a negative day.
An old quote from Henry Ford (inventor of the Ford automobile) says “If you think you can, or you think you can’t: you’re right!”