The words we use with ourselves—both aloud and in our mind—begin to define the reality that we live.
When we describe ourselves as lazy, undisciplined, or prone to procrastination, we begin to reflect those patterns in our everyday life. On the other hand, when we change the words we use to describe ourselves (both internally and externally) focusing on positive attributes, we begin to display those positive behaviors more frequently.
In athletics, we see this all the time. Athletes are encouraged to visualize making the shot, sinking the putt, or winning the game. Interestingly, we also see it in small mechanical reminders… “keep your head down,” “elbow in,” and “follow through.” This positive self-talk becomes more than the self-description we begin to live towards, it also serves as healthy instruction on the kind of lives we want to live.
Often times, declaring to ourselves that we can accomplish a task or follow through with a desired change is the first step in achieving it.
How then, do we go about changing our self-talk? Many of the negative thoughts that shape our thinking have been around us for decades, ingrained in to us at a young age, so subtle we barely recognize them.
Simply knowing that these negative thoughts are harmful is not enough. We need to intentionally replace them with positive self-talk. Here are eight practical strategies you can use to change your self-description:
1. Start in the morning. At the beginning of each day, make it a practice to speak positive, encouraging words into your life. Find room for it in your morning routine. If you are looking for some ideas, Farnoosh Brock has a list of 100 positive affirmations.
2. Remind yourself of who you desire to become. Too often, we notice our weaknesses and the things we’d like to change about ourselves. This awareness begins to characterize the description we paint of ourselves in a negative light. But rather than focusing on them as attributes we lack, begin declaring them as characteristics we are becoming. This can be accomplished with a simple word change. Rather than thinking, “I’m just not __________,” begin saying, “I am becoming more __________.”
3. Ruthlessly replace negative thoughts with positive words. No two physical objects can occupy the same space at the same time. Begin applying this same principle to your thoughts. When you recognize negative self-talk happening, exchange it for a more positive self-description immediately—like changing a dirty shirt for a clean one.
4. Recall accomplishments in your life. When you get stuck in a negative cycle, meditate on the accomplishments in your life—the big accomplishments and the small ones. Determine the positive attributes that must have been present for those to occur. And begin focusing more on those positive traits than any negative descriptions.
5. Call out the behavior you want to see. There are times when our self-talk can be more than motivational, it can also be instructional. Similar to how an athlete might remind himself or herself to “keep your head down and follow through,” we can speak into our life’s specific behaviors. For example, if you wish to procrastinate less, try intentionally calling out positive behaviors that would counteract it, “Sit down and just get started for just five minutes.”
6. Ask yourself if you’d treat a friend in the same way. The old adage rings true, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” We apply this principle to our external relationships, try applying it to your internal relationship as well. Take captive your thoughts and ask yourself, “Would I speak this way to my friend?” If the answer is no, replace your disparaging self-talk with something more uplifting.
7. Change “I” to “You.” Sometimes, when talking to yourself, the way you do it makes a difference. Researchers have found people who spoke to themselves as another person would—using their own name or the pronoun “you”—performed better under stress than people who used the word “I.” People whose self-talk used their names or “you” even reported less shame and ruminated less than the ones who used “I.”
8. When failures happen, identify the lessons you are learning. Difficult seasons are part of life. When failures do happen, make your self-description more positive by reframing it as lessons you are learning. Rather than saying “I’m no good,” think “I’m learning perseverance and discipline and how to work even harder than I did before.” This changes the conversation we are having from self-defeating, to self-improving.
Our words matter. The description we offer about ourselves often becomes the finish line we move toward. Let’s make sure the finish line we are painting is in the exact place we want it to be.