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The power of self-talk: quietening the inner critic

The power of self-talk: quietening the inner critic

Our inner critic may be doing much more harm than we think. Experts say being kinder to oneself can improve one’s life
Woman looking at herself and talking to herself
Representational image | Shutterstock

Some days, many of us channel our worst inner critic. That nagging voice can often make us believe things that may not hold water. The worst part is that this harsh inner critic can strike even the most sorted individuals. So, how do we turn that voice down? How do we make sure that all this negative self-talk does not affect our mental health and relationships? Experts tell us about the benefit and importance of being kind to ourselves through positive self-talk.  

Understanding positive self-talk 

Let us start with the basics — what is positive self-talk? As Shruti Prem, Rehabilitation and Counselling Psychologist, Kintsugi for Mind, puts it, “positive self-talk is when a person repeats certain positive and practical statements to themselves that can help them stay motivated and optimistic.” 

Talking about how this positive inner dialogue can help, Srimonti Guha, a psychologist, psychology teacher and Assistant Supervisor at GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah, says, “Positive inner dialogues improve the overall wellbeing of individuals. It provides a more optimistic outlook towards life and goes beyond mental health to also improve one’s physical health.” Upon waking up in the morning we can begin the day by  just closing our eyes and saying ‘I am capable’ ‘I am strong’ and ‘I am awesome.’ In a few days, we can see a change in the way we start and end our days, she adds.  

A practice not easy to build 

However, as simple as it may seem, talking to oneself with kinder and more reassuring words is not that easy to practice. “If I were to ask you to tell me five negatives about yourself, chances are that within seconds, you would give me five clear responses. However, if I were to ask you five positives about yourself, you probably would take a minute to think and respond,” says Prem.  

This is because negative thoughts about oneself or about the world come easily to us. Our brain is wired to think negatively most of the time. “With positive self-talk, we make a conscious effort to alter our negative thoughts into more positive ones. In a way, we are rewiring our patterns of thinking,” she adds.  

In fact, talking positively to oneself has been studied and found to be an effective way to deal with stressful situations and in problem-solving.  

One of the key theories behind positive self-talk is the ‘self-affirmation theory’ by Claude Steele that was popularised in the 1980s, and remains well-studied in psychological research. 

Research by a team led by Carnegie Mellon University’s David Creswell found that people can boost their ability to solve problems under pressure by using self-affirmation. Published in PLOS ONE, the study found that the process of identifying and focusing on one’s most important values can protect against the damaging effects of stress on problem-solving performance. 

Prem says that this inner dialogue can also help in reducing the effects of anxiety, depression, body-image issues, low self-esteem, poor self-confidence, to name a few.   

The road to kinder words 

Ketaki Bali, an art therapy practitioner, has found that shifting and replacing negative thoughts to positive ones through the way we speak to ourselves can boost our overall wellbeing. She says that this internal dialogue can branch into three segments with which we can reframe how we view things:  

  1. Positive affirmations: Affirmations foster self-empowerment and prevent self-sabotage
  2. Maintaining a thought log: This helps us identify and recognise triggers to negative self-talk. It is a good idea to pen responses to certain behaviours/situations
  3. Self-care plan: This helps us let go of self-doubt and focus on acceptance and being mindful

Bali also has some pointers for people looking to make a shift to positive thinking:  

  • Identify the areas of change 
  • Eliminate limiting beliefs 
  • Accept that one cannot stop these unpleasant thoughts, and that it is okay  
  • Change how we speak with and about ourselves — do not say anything to ourselves that we would not to someone else  
  • If one senses a negative thought cropping up, it is best to slow down, stop, and meditate for a while 

Prem notes that while positive self-talk is important, it is not a one-stop solution to mental health concerns. Rather, she says, positive self-talk is one of the many ways thoughts can be reframed in therapy. 

The effects of negative self-talk: 

Talking negatively to ourselves can have adverse effects on our mental wellbeing. Here are some ways in which it can affect us and those around us: 

1. Limited thinking: The more we tell ourselves that we cannot do something, the more we believe it  

2. Perfectionism: We start to believe that even our best is not ‘perfect’, and that perfectionism is something we must achieve to be happy and successful  

3. Depressive thoughts and feelings: Negative self-talk can lead to feelings of depression. If left unchecked, this could be quite damaging and will need professional care 

4. Relationship struggles: Constant negative feedback can affect relationships. It may make us feel needy and insecure, and even a small amount of criticism can cause arguments and misunderstandings. The other person may also feel a lack of communication due to the false beliefs we have about ourselves  

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