The Dangers of Negative Thinking and How to Master Positive Self-Talk

Self-talk is our internal dialogue. Some call it the voice in our head. In their book, “Understanding Psychological Preparation for Sport: Theory and Practice of Elite Performers,” Lew Hardy, Graham Jones, and Daniel Gould define self-talk as a form of self-regulation that uses affirmations—deliberate automatic statements to help control thoughts, instruct, and motivate. Positive self-talk increases self-esteem. Scientific studies have shown self-talk positively effects performance, reduces stress, enhances persistence, and improves learning.

What is Negative Self-Talk?

Every person has some form of self-talk, and it can be positive or negative. Unfortunately, most of our self-talk is negative—what is called our inner critic. In his article in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, S.J. White says, “The human mind seems to focus on the negative, and we tend to berate ourselves in ways we would never tolerate from a boss, spouse, or anyone else.” Have you ever heard your inner voice say:

  • I can’t do this
  • I am going to fail
  • What a loser
  • Idiot

Negative self-talk is dangerous. Negative thoughts can affect our behavior and performance, so it is important that we focus instead on the positive. One way to silence our inner critic and to empower our self is through affirmations, like repeating, “I am improving every day” or “I did my best.”

What is Positive Self-Talk?

Positive self-talk can be motivational or instructional. Motivational self-talk involves statements that facilitate performance by increasing effort and boosting self-confidence and mood. Instructional self-talk involves affirmations intended to enhance performance. During the 2002 Wimbledon ladies’ singles tennis final between the Williams sisters, Serena Williams (who won) used hand-written notes as affirmations between games. As reported in The Guardian, Williams said these “flash cards” were “reminders to think about cues such as ‘hit in front’ or ‘stay low’ during the match.”

Athletes are taught to use self-talk to motivate themselves and improve their performance. Have you heard self-talk from athletes? Maybe “let’s go,” “stay calm,” or “focus on the ball.” Some do it aloud, but it doesn’t have to be aloud. Researchers found that self-talk is one of the strongest predictors of successful Olympic performance among U.S. athletes. Athletes and students who listen to their inner critic lose or fail more. Those who use positive self-talk consistently improve their performance significantly more than counterparts who use negative self-talk. We want to focus on eliminating negative self-talk and practice using positive self-talk.

Here are some steps for developing a positive self-talk habit:

  1. Know thyself. Find your strengths. Analyze your thoughts. What psyches you out? What motivates you? What are your strengths?
  2. Choose a mantra: To get started, choose one of two simple affirmations, such as “I am college material,” “I can do this,” or another simple, positive phrase you can repeat over and over.
  3. Practice: Once you have developed the habit of repeating this phrase to the point where it is automatic, start expanding the dialogue so that you have familiar and comfortable statements for a variety of situations. For example, “I’ve done this before and it’s doable.”
  4. Create a positive mental image or visualization: The phrases and words you choose should be those that you can immediately call up and create a visual picture of yourself doing exactly what you say. The image along with the words is a powerful combination that creates a positive message tied to a belief. Picture yourself studying as you repeat “I am a good student.”
  5. Silence your inner critic. Don’t defeat yourself or argue for your limitations. Students can be particularly hard on themselves, analyzing every moment, being too sensitive to “mistakes” they might have made, etc. Remember, when you live inside your head, your head is the only information you’re getting– and it can be wrong. Just because you feel something, doesn’t make it true. When the inner critic talks, replace the damaging self-talk with a positive statement.
  1. Focus on your successes. What have you done well? What are three strengths you can focus on? The more you know about your strengths, the less you’ll be tempted to focus on your challenges.
  2. Keep repeating your affirmations. I had one taped to my steering wheel for a long time to practice.

Self-talk can help you as a student reduce stress and improve your study habits. Why not tape an affirmation like “I am a successful college student” or “I can ace this class” to your computer monitor?