How many times have you faced a daunting task and thought “I can’t do this.”? These thoughts are what psychologists refer to as negative self-talk—the thoughts that you are going to fail a task before you even begin it. A recent study found that 96% of adults use self-talk in everyday life, which means only a tiny sliver of people don’t engage in any sort of self-talk, regardless of if it is negative or positive. Of these people that actually use self-talk, only 72% find self-talk useful. An important question here is how many of these adults are actually being helped to reach their full potential by the self-talk they use?
To answer this, we must first find out what self-talk actually is. In psychology, it is defined as a cognitive process, which means it happens as a result of our thinking. Theorists think of it as a result of learning to control our behaviour as children. When we are very young, we must direct our actions by talking about we are doing and how we are doing it. This develops out of having adults tell us what to do as kids and slowly learning how to direct our own actions as we get older. Knowing where these thoughts come from is the first step in counter-acting the potentially unhelpful ones.
When we learn how to internalize our self-talk to be a mental process, we also internalize how we think of ourselves. So if we are constantly thinking negative thoughts about ourselves, then we will start to believe that these negative things are personality traits rather than just thoughts that we are having. These negative thoughts can take many forms like telling yourself “I can’t do this” or “I’m going to fail so why bothering trying”. These thoughts are extremely unhelpful to our emotional and mental well-being, as well as our ability to achieve our goals in life.
Because self-talk is such a personal experience for us as humans, it does impact our emotions quite strongly. This is important because emotion is not always consistent with reality and logic. While this is not exactly a problem as our feelings about a situation are valid, when it comes to achieving goals and making progress forwards, negative emotions can fill our minds with self-doubt and make us believe we cannot achieve our goals. This is because we view our negative emotions as the truth about ourselves when this is usually not the case.
A study done earlier this year focused on how self-talk can impact us in our daily lives and in an academic setting. The researchers found that negative self-talk was more common when tasks are especially difficult, such as school subjects that we struggle with because it helps to control our anxiety and stress over the difficulty ahead. As well, negative self-talk is associated with worse grades and outcomes on a task. This can be problematic as we tend to use more self-talk in general when tackling complex tasks and this self talk is negative more often than not because we know the task is going to be difficult to achieve and we start to believe we won't be able to accomplish it. This belief that we are going to fail because the task is complex is reinforced by the fact that we commonly do worse on tasks when we feel negatively about the task. This reinforces a cycle of self-doubt that may be hard to overcome.
Despite this, self-talk is not all doom and gloom as the researchers also discovered that people used positive self-talk more often than negative self-talk. When our self-talk is positively oriented, our mental functioning improves and our impulsive behaviour becomes more controlled. As well, when we frame our tasks through positive self-talk such as “I’m going to do well” or “I’ve worked hard and I can do this”, we gain more motivation to achieve our goals and tend to do better on tasks. This is encouraging news as it means that we are able to turn self-talk into a strength rather than a weakness.
For examples on what negative self-talk looks like and strategies to utilize the strengths of positive self-talk go to: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950?pg=2
Sánchez, F., Carvajal, F., & Saggiomo, C. (2016). Self-talk and academic performance in undergraduate students. Anales De Psicología, 32(1), 139-147.