By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
This post originally published on August 18th, 2021 here at That Darn Amygdala. It has been updated with the most up-to-date research. Enjoy!
In the midst of this month being Stress Awareness Month, I want to talk about something important: how you talk to yourself. How you talk to yourself (yes, it is okay to talk to yourself) can significantly shift how you think about a situation.
In this post, we are going to tackle one of the hardest things in the world: self-talk. We are going to go over what self-talk is, why it is important, and how you can change how you talk to yourself (and not appear crazy).
What is Positive Self-Talk?
Sometimes called positive affirmations, positive self-talk is the art of building ourselves up by saying messages that help us gain motivation. Positive self-talk (or as I like to call them, realistic affirmations), can be tricky as they are the other side of the coin of what we are really good at: negative self-talk. Both are learned behaviors based on past messages (hmmm…sounds like some core beliefs to me), both are things that require practice to master.
Positive self-talk gets such a bad rap. In reality, it is another great skill that helps with emotional regulation. Now before you go “I’m not getting all mushy-mushy here,” let me explain. When we engage in positive self-talk versus our normal self-loathing, self-defeating, negative self-talk, we are actually engaging our prefrontal cortex into identifying facts about who we are, not the emotions that lead us down the road of negative self talk.
History of Self-Talk
In 1988 (I know, I’m going way back here), Claude Steele took it upon himself to study if there is any truth behind saying positive affirmations. With his study, Steele set out to look at what happened to people if their self-esteem and image was attacked. What he found was awesome. Almost all the people in participation attempted to align what they were hearing with what they were thinking. Remember when we talked about the core beliefs in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Part Deux? Those bad boys show up everywhere! Steele found out that people who used positive affirmations regularly not only had a higher self-worth but had less negative core beliefs.
Self-Talk and the Brain
This is all great, but how does positive self-talk work in the brain? Think about it, self-talk is the ultimate communication in how we feel about ourselves. That darn amygdala is blurting stuff out without filtering it, checking the facts with the prefrontal cortex, or even reflecting on what the hippocampus is telling it. By identifying the core beliefs and learning how to challenge the cognitive distortions (thank you Cognitive Behavioral Therapy!), we can learn to change our self-talk.
Coping Skills Alert!
As you continue to practice thought challenges and identifying your core beliefs (remember, practice makes progress!) we can do something to help us reap the benefits of positive self-talk. The 5:1 ratio, better known as the magic ratio, has been found to be a huge benefit to challenging negative self-talk. Why? Well, it has been found scientifically that for every negative thing you say about yourself, you must share 5 positive things to reverse the damage that one negative thing does to your brain. Don’t believe me? Check out what John Gottman has to say about it (he is the first one to share how this ratio can help bring any relationship closer together).
Before you go “but there aren’t that many positive things to say about me!” I want you to know that I hear you. It is so hard when we have perfected the art of negative self-talk that we can’t even find where to start on finding a nice thing to say, let alone accept what we are saying. As mentioned above already, practice makes progress! By taking time and practicing this 5:1 magic ratio at least once a day, you will start to notice the more realistic things about yourself. You will also see that by doing this, you are challenging cognitive distortions, rewriting your core beliefs, all while allowing the feel-good neurotransmitters release (primarily, oxytocin). Once you get the hang of doing it once a day, start doing it when you notice you’re thinking negative about yourself. That is the real-time challenge right there.
Making Realistic Self-Talk a Habit
How do you start with positive self-talk? For starters (and in the case of my own brain) I have started calling positive affirmations (same as that pesky positive self-talk) realistic affirmations. Why? Well, if I say they are realistic, my darn amygdala is more likely to believe them and not put of the fight of “you want me to be positive? With all this shit going on? Are you kidding me?”
The next step I tell my clients is to write down the realistic affirmations! As we write them down, our hypothalamus has an easier time turning them into a memory. When they become a memory, our hippocampus is able to assign an emotion to them. Lastly, we have them written down so as we struggle with coming up with them, we can refer to the ones on the paper to help job our memory.
Dare I say it? Journaling is a great way to help with realistic affirmations. It provides the direct stimulus from our hands to our eyes that is so good at cementing our memories in place. Journaling can be somewhat daunting however and often leaves newcomers feeling frustrated at the challenge of learning a new skill. Never fear though, we are here to help. First, I recommend reading the post, Mental Health Journaling: Why It Works. This post will give you some of the how and why. Next, check out the card deck, Realistic Affirmations, for guided help with your realistic affirmations and take them to the next level!
Before we call this post good, I need to do a little spiel on toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is where we focus only on the good emotions while rejecting all the ones we don’t want to feel. That is not emotional regulation. That is emotional avoidance. Toxic positivity leads people down the path of shame, embarrassment, avoiding the real problems, and creates a whole new level of self-esteem issues. You have to keep in mind what we say (or don’t say) to ourselves shapes those core beliefs we have about emotions. It takes time to shape, and re-shape those core beliefs and rewire our brain. Please do not think that by ignoring those hard and painful feelings it will make things better. Remember, emotional regulation is about experiencing and acknowledging our emotions. It is about giving those emotions the attention they need. It is about communicating to yourself what your needs are.
I want to thank you for taking time to learn more about what positive self-talk (or realistic affirmations, whichever you prefer) and how you can use it to rewire your brain. Each time you practice these skills, you are helping that darn amygdala understand it isn’t always in danger. Keep up the hard work! It does pay off.
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- Cherry, Kendry (2021). What Is Toxic Positivity? Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-toxic-positivity-5093958
- Morris, S.Y. (2016). What Are the Benefits of Self-Talk? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/self-talk
- Runsak, Kari (2020). The Magic Ratio: The Key to Relationship Satisfaction. Retrieved from The Magic Ratio: The Key to Relationship Satisfaction (gottman.com)
- Sullivan, Kim (2016). Positive Self Talk is Easier to Cultivate Than You Think. Retrieved from https://accessibledbt.com/positive-self-talk/