Throughout three years of weekly therapy, my breakthrough moments have been more of a slow-and-steady trickle than the dam-bursting, watershed variety. This alone was something that took time to come to terms with; that growth doesn't tend to manifest in aha moments. But one anomaly to this rule occurred a couple years back, when my psychologist asked me a very simple question that still reverberates in my mind: "Do you talk to your friends the way you talk to yourself?"
It was during a time in my life when I was still steeped in the muddied waters of old wounds and insecurities, and the answer was, of course, a resounding no. I told her I'd be horrified if I heard anyone speak in such a toxic manner to my loved ones and heartbroken if I heard them speak to themselves in the same way. And there, in a room where things always seem so exhaustingly complicated, I found my lightning bolt of clarity.
As impressionable as this exchange was, it still took time, practice, and immense growth to learn how to un-train the negative voice I had spent an entire lifetime cultivating. Even now, at a time in my life that so closely resembles inner peace, I am still not totally immune to the occasional shame spiral. But I also know now that in these moments, there are certain strategies that allow me to turn my back on these old narratives before they tighten their grip on my psyche.
With this in mind, I deferred to our resident psychologist Heather Silvestri for her pointers on engaging in more positive self-talk and heading off a negative spiral before it begins. Find her advice below.
First, a refresher course on the term "self-talk"
"Self-talk is the ongoing conversation we have with ourselves about who we are and how we are in the world," says Silvestri. "It is the running commentary we engage in about our lives or imagined experience. Critically, self-talk can be primarily upbeat and motivating, or it can be negative and hindering."
Start by observing the tone of your thoughts
"Your self-talk is a litmus test for how you view yourself, and it has a huge impact on your motivation to take care of yourself," says Silvestri. "Most of us engage in self-talk so often and readily that it becomes an autopilot way of moving through the world."
This is why step one is simply slowing down, taking a breath, and noticing how you speak to yourself in any given moment. It's easier said than done, but try to withhold judgment to get a truly accurate read. Remember: This is just your starting point. In my experience, it's easiest to notice these narratives in more emotional moments: Do you tend to validate your feelings with empathy, do you criticize yourself for being upset at all, or something in between?
"So-called automatic self-thoughts can tiptoe across your brain without you ever noticing them," says Silvestri. "This is a dangerous state of affairs because what you say to yourself about yourself has a huge impact on how you feel and on how you behave. The good news here is that the more you become aware of the tone and content of your own self-talk, the easier it is to change it, and with that, you can improve your mood and engage in more affirmative activity."
Write down any common themes that tend to come up
Silvestri recommends identifying keywords or phrases that frequent your stream of consciousness, positive or negative. "I prompt my clients for the five adjectives or adverbs that they use most frequently in their self-talk," she says. "This distills the tone of your self-story, and from there we can work to narrate a more positive and often more rational way to talk to yourself."
Abide by the "friend or child" rule
Just as my therapist recommended re-contextualizing my thoughts as those of a friend, Silvestri advises pretending you're talking to the child version of yourself. "It's natural to temper your language when engaging a child, and you are more likely to have more patience," she says.
Would you, for example, tell a 5-year-old that her sadness is unjustified and she should just get over it? In the same vein, imagine if you tended to your current self with gentle comfort rather than hardened apathy. Our psychological wounds run deep, so sometimes we really are addressing that little girl instead of the mature, put-together adult.
Remember that in the end, you're learning a new language
Read: Practice and patient are key. Silvestri recommends kicking things off by identifying five positive adjectives, adverbs, or phrases and returning to them even during moments when you feel the exact opposite.
"You can practice by journaling, talking in therapy, sharing with your friends about the 'new you' you’re trying to cultivate, or meditating on this new set of self- ideas," she says. "The more you speak it, the more fluent you are. If thinking rationally and positively about yourself becomes the new normal, then when you inevitably lapse into autopilot mode, you don’t have to worry about handicapping yourself or selling yourself short. Your fresh, positive self-language will carry you through."