Some Thoughts on Thoughts: Positive Self-Talk

“Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.”
Kristen Neff, Self-Compassion

In the last article in this series, I focused on negative self-talk. Initially, that piece was meant to cover self-talk as a whole. However, as I wrote, it became clear that this topic couldn’t be given justice without separating it into two parts. I started with the negative side of the coin because, unfortunately, I think many of us are more familiar with it than the positive side. What I certainly do not want to suggest, though, is that it’s only the negativity of our self-talk that makes it so compelling. Our positive self-talk can be equally transformative and, quite frankly, a lot simpler.

Much like the inner critic, positive self-talk as a concept also garners a lot of attention in a variety of forms via many different perspectives and traditions: modern psychology, meditation, mantras, affirmations, etc. The most recent mainstream perspective that aims at shining a light on the significance of our internal world is positive psychology. In his highly entertaining 2011 TED Talk, Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, states, ”We're finding it's not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.” He posits that, as the adage says, we should work smarter not harder. We’re better off spending our energy remaining positive in the present moment than striving for the next thing that will make us happy or successful (which probably won’t work). In his work with businesses, Achor (2011) reports, “What we found is that only 25 percent of job successes are predicted by IQ, 75 percent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.” Near the end of his talk, he gets more practical:

“We've found there are ways that you can train your brain to be able to become more positive. In just a two-minute span of time done for 21 days in a row, we can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually work more optimistically and more successfully. We've done these things in research now in every company that I've worked with, getting them to write down three new things that they're grateful for for 21 days in a row, three new things each day. And at the end of that, their brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first” (Achor, 2011).

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “Nope. Sorry, I just can’t believe it could be that easy. Something that affects so much of us so deeply can’t shift significantly with an intervention so simple.” I hear you, and I, by no means, want to oversimplify a profound topic like self-talk. As I mentioned in the last article, many different factors play into our self-talk, many of which are the stuff of therapy. However, I do believe, again, that the jumping off point can be as simple as a small consistent habit, such as practicing gratitude. This concept, though, applies across the board well beyond the scope of gratitude specifically. As Achor mentioned, a daily practice of noticing and acknowledging something shifts how we operate on a subconscious plane. We can change our thinking on a fundamental level in whatever category by sheer force of focus. That focus is changing our internal world over time in a way that can bring more lasting change than any amount of in-the-moment conscious white-knuckling.

One of the biggest real-life examples of this for me came from an experience during my college years. One day, a friend of mine invited me to a weekly small group she had been attending for a while. She explained that they weren’t studying anything and the group didn’t have a specific agenda. They simply spent their time together talking about the ways they had seen God show up in their lives over the past week. Looking back, I’m sure I went to this group to prove that nothing good can come from warm-and-fuzzy share time without some intellectual bounty involved. What I found, though, surprised me. Never at any other time in my life have I been more aware of daily divine intervention in my life than when I was attending this group. Do I believe now that God was moving more at that point in my life than others? No, not at all. What was different was merely the fact that I was looking for it and paying attention. So I found it.

For those of us who need, perhaps, a more research-based example of this, keep reading. This topic also significantly shifted in my journey while working at a residential addiction treatment center soon after finishing my counseling degree. It was a small facility, and I was the rookie therapist, so one afternoon I  found myself scrubbing some graffiti off one of the bathroom walls next to my office. Apparently, I was using my outside voice while saying “I love my job” over and over to myself (sarcastically, in case you missed that). At this point, one of my supervisors walked past and said: “Hey, you know that actually works, right?” After he took a second to take in my blank and probably more-than-slightly exacerbated facial expression, he proceeded to tell me about an article he had read about a common practice of Navy SEALs. I found after some fact-checking that Navy SEALs have used positive self-talk as a part of their training curriculum for years, which has resulted in significantly higher passing rates in their training program. Eric Barker, in his book Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, claims that we should pay close attention to what Navy research has shown us about the impact of self-talk:

“A Navy study revealed a number of things that people with grit do—often unknowingly—that keep them going when things get hard. One of them comes up in the psychological research again and again: ‘positive self-talk.’ Yes, Navy SEALs need to be badass, but one of the keys to that is thinking like ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ In your head, you say between three hundred and a thousand words every minute to yourself. Those words can be positive or negative. It turns out that when these words are positive, they have a huge effect on your mental toughness, your ability to keep going. Subsequent studies of military personnel back this up. When the Navy started teaching BUD/S applicants to speak to themselves positively, combined with other mental tools, BUD/S passing rates increased from a quarter to a third.”

So, let’s sum up some of the practical pieces of positive self-talk. As I mentioned above, there are elements of our internal world that create barriers to the simplicity of what I presented here about changing our self-talk. This is where a wise, trusted friend or counselor can help you navigate what gets in the way of harnessing the power of the positive potential of your mind. As discussed in the last article in this series, when trying to help a counseling client understand what our self-talk should look like I try a few different avenues by asking questions that challenge the internal beliefs that function as the cogs of the internal self-talk machine. If you force one gear (the negative) to stop turning and instead focus your efforts on movement of the positive gears, your mind machine will automatically begin moving in the direction of wellness. Even our simplest intentional daily actions change our brains. It really is that simple. Try it out and see for yourself.

 

Achor, S. (2011, May). TEDx Bloomington. The happy secret to better work. Video retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work

Barker, E. (2017). Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. New York: HarperCollins.

Neff, K. (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: HarperCollins.