Self Talk

Open All   |   Close All

Learning Objectives

  • Learn to understand the nature and function of self-talk.
  • Learn to identify and critique your own self-talk styles.
  • Learn to use self-talk to boost your confidence.

Quotes

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” – Stuart Smalley

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can . . . .I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could!” – Thomas the choo choo train in The Little Engine that Could

“I’ve overcome this kind of thing before, and I can do it again this time.” – anonymous graduate student

Introduction

Self-talk is what you say to yourself silently—it is also known as inner dialogue, internal voice, or private speech. The concept of self-talk is similar to the concept of thinking habits (see How you think), but it refers more specifically to what you think about yourself. The quotes above are examples of positive self-talk statements that you should carry in your back pocket, so to speak, to get you through the ups and downs of graduate school.

Self-talk can be harmful. The metaphor of an angel and devil perched upon a person’s shoulders, arguing about what she should or shouldn’t be doing, represents two types of self-talk. The “devil” inside you is critical, judgmental, and wants to see you fail. The “angel” is kind and forgiving, but also pushes you to do what is best for you, even when difficult. This module is designed to help you to pay more attention to the “angel” inside your head to help become your own top booster throughout your career.

Self-talk Styles

People vary in their self-talk styles: take a moment to reflect on what you say to yourself in difficult situations. For instance, are you always “in your head,” censoring your thoughts and actions before you put anything to words? Do you rely less on self-talk more on others for guidance? Does what you say to yourself motivate you or make you feel worse about yourself, discouraging you further?

Four different continua of self-talk styles have been identified.1 These include the degree to which you are self-reinforcing, self-criticizing, self-managing, and sensitive to the assessments of others. Some styles of self-talk are more constructive than others.

Self-reinforcing behaviors include:
  • Congratulating and feeling proud of yourself. e.g. “I rocked that presentation!”
  • Giving yourself courage to do something.
  • Encouraging yourself and boosting your self-confidence. e.g. “Wow, I sure have come a long way since my first year here!”

Self-criticizing behaviors include:

  • Criticizing yourself. “I blew that interview! No one will ever hire me!”
  • Feeling ashamed of something you’ve said or done.
  • Telling yourself you should have or ought to have done something differently.

Self-managing qualities include:

  • Giving yourself guidance and direction. “Just finish writing these last few sections then watch an epidode of Dexter!”
  • Telling yourself you “should,” “ought to,” or “have to” do something.
  • Going over different options of things you can say or do in your head.

Being (overly) sensitive to the assessments of others include:

  • Going over what you have said to another person in your head.
  • Wondering what others think about you.
  • Rehearsing what you will say to others.

It’s not unusual to have overly negative or self-critical thoughts from time to time,2 but it’s easy to become stuck in a vicious cycle of negativity. On the extreme, negative self-talk habits can lead to a sense of hopelessness and even cause depression,3,4 Luckily bad self-talk habits can be broken.

Self-test

When you notice you are engaging in self-talk, what should you do?




Best Answer: C. You should assess your self-talk for potential bias, just as you would do with advice from someone else. Options A and D are not the answers we are looking for: it’s usually best not to accept or reject anything you say to yourself too quickly. Option B is too extreme. Everyone engages in self-talk. Your self-talk habits are not necessarily something that needs changing.

Self-talk Matters

The best answer to Self-Test #1 is “c.” You should assess your self-talk for potential bias, just as you would do with advice from someone else. Recognize when you feel unhappy with how things are, and use self-talk to motivate yourself to make a change (See How You Cope for more on the differences between emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping).

This is constructive self-talk: self-talk that builds you up and motivates you. Using constructive self-talk can help increase your motivation and chances for success by:

  • Reminding yourself what’s most important to you.5,6 (e.g. “I am not going to let this one undergraduate’s insulting comment get to me; his opinion is not one that matters to my career in the grand scheme of things.”)
  • Preserving your sense of integrity. 5,6
  • Helping you to let your guard down.7
  • Increasing your self-control abilities. 8,9
  • Maximizing your options of dealing with stress.10
  • Maintaining your confidence in the face of stigma. 11,12
  • Sifting out the parts of your experience that have to do with you, and the parts that do not(e.g. “Wow, this person seems to be getting really upset, maybe I said something wrong, or maybe they are just having a bad day.”)
  • Regulating your emotional reactions.13,14,15
  • Monitoring bad habits.16

Even small changes to your self-talk can make big differences. Consider the following research findings:

Tips:

  • Think “I will graduate” and “When I graduate” not “If I graduate.”
  • Say to yourself “Just don’t do it” when faced with demands on your time that would take you away from your priorities (also see Set Priorities).

"I Will" versus "Will I?"

In one study,17 participants were instructed to write down either the phrase “will I” or “I will” for what they were told was a study on handwriting. Participants were then asked to complete a survey and perform a problem-solving task. Those in the “I will” condition were more likely to report an intention to exercise and did better on the task. The author of this study proposes that making such declarative self-talk statements taps into intrinsic motivation, which is known to relate to superior performance. (See Career Goals and Motivation for more on the power of intrinsic motivation).

Just say no

Another study16 on self-talk and dieting found that participants who were instructed to think “don’t do it!” when faced with food temptations were more successful at avoiding these temptations than were participants who had been instructed to distract themselves from the temptation or remove it altogether.

Replacing Unhelpful Self-talk

TIP:

“Hey, that’s my friend you are talking about!” – Sex and the City’s Miranda admonishing Carrie for being overly self-critical. Tip: Be a friend to yourself. If your self-talk is overly critical, ask yourself whether or not you would say the same thing to someone you care about. Remember, you have the power to be just as hurtful or encouraging towards yourself as those around you.

You can’t help what type of thoughts pops into your mind, but you can reframe, or replace, negative self-talk. Replacing a negative thought takes gathering evidence against as well as in support of your thought.18 Ask yourself: What reason do I have to think this way? What are some other ways to think about this? Even if the thought is true, what is the worst thing that it might imply? Is it really so bad?

The first column below represents unhelpful things you might catch yourself thinking from time to time. The second column represents more accurate and helpful self-talk statements:2

Replace this self-talk: With this self-talk:
"I need to make everyone here like me." "I can't possibly make everyone like me, nor do I need to."
"I can't make any mistakes." "Everyone makes mistakes."
"Why is this happening to me?" "I can't control other's behaviors or everything that happens, but I can control my reactions to them."
"If this doesn't work out, I don't know what I will do!" "I can be flexible."
"If this doesn't go as I planned, it will become a disaster." "I can handle it even if things go wrong. What's really the worst thing that can happen?"
"I can't do this." "I can do this!"
"I can't do this, so I shouldn't try." "How I've been doing this is not working for me, but I can change."
"Why should I bother?" "It is important to try."

Increasing Resilience via Self-affirmation

Motivating, constructive self-talk is not just about thinking positively. While it is important not to be overly self-critical (as discussed above), it is also important to be open to hearing feedback that could turn out to be helpful.

Sometimes we become defensive when we hear information that threatens our identity or integrity; in those situations, we might try to protect ourselves through self-talk that dismisses the credibility of the messenger or downplays the implications of the message.5,6,18

Fortunately, you can maintain your open-mindedness amidst threats to your integrity by reminding yourself of what is important to you.5,6,19 For example, studies find that participants who were asked to write about their personal values became more open to receiving critical information about their health.20,21

Try this exercise: write down what’s most important to you in life, what your values are, and/or what’s most central to your identity. When you are in a situation you find threatening, remind yourself of who you are and what is important to you.

Reflections

It’s your turn to do the weekly presentation for your lab team. In front of everyone, your supervisor asks how you possibly could have thought this was the correct algorithm to apply to your data. You feel embarrassed and ashamed about the whole situation.

Which option below best represents how you can use self-talk to handle your embarrassment? Would you:

a) Remind yourself to talk with various friends, family members, and colleagues until you get enough confirmation from others that your advisor was being unduly harsh.

b) Ask yourself, “What was I thinking? I am such a huge idiot.

c) Say to yourself, “Well my advisor should have taught me this if he wanted me to know it.”

d) Say to yourself, “That’s embarrassing. But, I am here to learn. I can only become a great scientist by getting feedback and guidance.

e) Say to yourself, “I am just as capable as anyone else at becoming a great scientist; I’ve succeeded at almost everything I’ve put my mind to so far.

Answers “d” and “e” best represent how to handle an embarrassing situation through the use of positive, self-affirming, motivating self-talk. Option “a” illustrates relying on others to feel better about the situation. Option “b” is an example of overly critical and negative self-talk. Option “c” is an example of a self-talk statement that might make you feel less embarrassed about the situation but is not a motivating or useful way to think about the situation.

Self-test

It’s your turn to do the weekly presentation for your lab team. In front of everyone, your supervisor asks how you possibly could have thought this was the correct algorithm to apply to your data. You feel embarrassed and ashamed about the whole situation.

Which option below best represents how you can use self-talk to handle your embarrassment? Would you:




Best Answer: “d” best represents how to handle an embarrassing situation through the use of positive, self-affirming, motivating self-talk. Option “a” illustrates relying on others to feel better about the situation. Option “b” is an example of overly critical and negative self-talk. Option “c” is an example of a self-talk statement that might make you feel less embarrassed about the situation but is not a motivating or useful way to think about the situation.

CareerWISE Point

Staying focused and inspired as a woman in a science and engineering graduate program involves strong self-motivation skills. Improving your self-talk, especially by becoming more self-affirming, can help build up your resilience and guard against frustration and burnout during graduate school. Think of affirming self-talk as another skill you are building along the way.

CareerWISE Tip

Below are questions you can use to keep your self-talk in check:2

  1. Is my self-talk reasonable and accurate? Where is the evidence?
  2. Is my self-talk being a good friend to myself?
  3. Is my self-talk helping me solve problems and reach my goals?

References

  1. Brinthaupt, T. M., Hein , M. B., & Kramer, T. E. (2009). The self-talk scale: Development, factor analysis, and validation. Journal of Personality Assessment 91(1), 82-92. doi:10.1080/00223890802484498
  2. Manning, B. H., & Payne, B. D. (1996). Self-talk for teachers and students: Metacognitive strategies for personal and classroom use. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  3. Joormann, J., Dkane, M., & Gotlib, I. H. (2006). Adaptive and maladaptive components of rumination? Diagnostic speci?city and relation to depressive biases. Behavior Therapy, 37, 269–280. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2006.01.002
  4. Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). The role of rumination in depressive disorders and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109, 504–511, doi:10.1037/0021-843X.109.3.504.
  5. Steele, C. M., & Liu, T. J. (1983). Dissonance processes as self-affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(1), 5-19. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.45.1.5.
  6. Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 261–302). New York: Academic Press.
  7. Siegel, P. A., Scillitoe, J., & Parks-Yancy, R. (2005). Reducing the tendency to self-handicap: The effect of self-affirmation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41(6), 589-597. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2004.11.004.
  8. Schmeichel, B. J., & Vohs, K. (2009). Self-affirmation and self-control: Affirming core values counteracts ego depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(4), 770-782. doi:10.1037/a0014635.
  9. Mischel, W., Cantor, N., & Feldman, S. (1996). Principles of self-regulation: The nature of willpower and self-control. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 329–360). NewYork: Guilford.
  10. Creswell, J. D., Welch, W. T., Taylor, S. E., Sherman, D. K., Gruenewald, T. L., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16(11), 846-851. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01624.x.
  11. Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313(5791), 1307-1310. doi:10.1126/science.1128317.
  12. Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science, 324(5925), 400-403. doi:10.1126/science.1170769.
  13. Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1998). On the self-regulation of behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  14. Carver, C. S. (2006). Approach, avoidance, and the self-regulation of affect and action. Motivation and Emotion. Special Issue: Approach/Avoidance, 30(2), 105-110. doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9044-7.
  15. Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2008). Feedback processes in the simultaneous regulation of affect and action. In J. Y. Shah & W. Gardner (Eds.), Handbook of motivation science (pp. 308-324). New York: Guilford.
  16. Quinn, J. M., Pascoe, A., Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2010). Can’t control yourself? monitor those bad habits. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(4), 499-511. doi:10.1177/0146167209360665.
  17. Senay, I., Albarracin, D., & Noguchi, K. (2010). Motivating goal-directed behavior through introspective self-talk: The role of the interrogative form of simple future tense. Psychological Science, 21(5), doi:10.1177/0956797610364751.
  18. Seligman, M. E. P., Relvich, K., Jaycox, L, & Gillham, J. (1995). The optimistic child. Boston: Mifflin & Co.
  19. Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Lynch, M. (1993). Self-image resilience and dissonance: The role of affirmational resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(6), 885-896. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.64.6.885.
  20. van Koningsbruggen, G. M., Das, E., & Roskos-Ewoldsen, D. R. (2009). How self-affirmation reduces defensive processing of threatening health information: Evidence at the implicit level. Health Psychology, 28(5), 563-568. doi:10.1037/a0015610.
  21. Epton, T., & Harris, P. R. (2008). Self-affirmation promotes health behavior change. Health Psychology, 27(6), 746-752. doi:10.1037/0278-6133.27.6.746.

Undergrad Science vs. Real Life Science (Part 2)
The importance of learning from your effort, regardless of the outcome.

Making the Decision Later in Life
How to sustain taking time off and pursuing the PhD later in life.

Asserting Yourself in the Face of Authority
The importance of standing up for yourself.

Stubbornness and Tenacity
Highlights the obstacles faced when trying to have research reviewed by the advisor and emphasizes the steps necessary to make adequate progress in the program.

Contrasting Genders in the Sciences While Looking at Models of Learning
The importance of recognizing the progress that has been made by women in science fields.

Looking Back on Raising Kids While Working
Explains the role children play in career choices.

Trade Offs and Choices
The tradeoffs and choices of graduate life.

Keep Looking for Faculty Support
The importance of finding the right advisor to support your research goals.

Comments

We want to hear from you. Did this page remind you of any experiences you’ve had? Did you realize something new? Please take a moment to tell us about it—and we'll keep it confidential.

Your comments have been recorded.