Self-talk And Its Role in Managing Our Mental Health

Have you ever worried about something that upset you for a few days, only to realize that if you had changed how you thought about the problem, you could’ve felt better much sooner?

[the link between thinking and feeling]

Changing the Way You Think Will Change the Way You Feel

Things go wrong at times; people let us down, we make mistakes, and we can become disappointed. Whether we get upset about it and how upset we become depends mainly on how we think about those situations. Sometimes we can make ourselves feel pretty miserable even when the problem isn’t that bad simply by thinking in a negative, self-defeating way.

Now, what if we focused on being compassionate with ourselves when things go wrong? How could that change the way we feel? The more love and compassion we show to ourselves when those thoughts come up, the quicker we can move through those complicated feelings.

What is self-talk?

As we go about our daily lives, we constantly think about and interpret the situations we find ourselves in. We have an internal voice that determines how we perceive every situation. We call this inner voice our “self-talk,” and it includes our conscious thoughts, as well as our unconscious assumptions and beliefs.

Much of our self-talk is reasonable, for example:

  • “I’d better prepare for that exam.”
  • “I’m really looking forward to that game.”
  • “I have to make sure I leave early, so I can get to work on time.”

But sometimes, our self-talk is negative, unrealistic, or self-defeating. For example: 

  • “I’m going to fail for sure.”
  • “I’m worthless and don’t deserve to be  loved.”
  • ” I didn’t play well. I’m hopeless. I’ll never get better at this.”

Negative Self-Talk

Negative self-talk often causes us to feel hurt, angry, frustrated, depressed, or anxious. It can also make us behave in a self-defeating way. For instance, thoughts like “I’m going to fail for sure” might discourage you from working hard when you are preparing for your exams, and you might fail as a result.

Remember: the way you interpret events has a huge impact on how you feel and behave. Learning how to challenge your negative self-talk is an important skill to master for better mental health and less anxiety. Explore our article on Challenging Negative Self-Talk here.

THE ABCs OF SELF TALK

The relationship between your thoughts, feelings and behavior can best be explained by looking at the ABCs of your self-talk.

A is for activating situation. B is for beliefs. C is for consequences.

A - Activating Situation

The activating situation is a situation that causes you to feel bad. An activating situation could be a party where you don’t know many people, a stressful time in school when you have a lot of assignments, or a time when you made a silly comment that you might later regret.

When you identify the activating situation, it’s essential to stick to the facts. For example:

  • Instead of saying: “I tried on my jeans, and I looked so disgusting and ugly and fat.”
  • Try saying: “I tried on my jeans, and they were too small.”

Can you feel the difference when you read those examples? One is your perspective (or beliefs), and the other states only what happened. 

B - Beliefs

Our beliefs make up our self-talk, thoughts, and assumptions about a situation. Identifying self-talk can sometimes be tricky because it is so automatic that we might not even be aware of what’s going on in our minds.

When something happens, and we feel upset, we assume whatever happened has made us feel this way. But it’s our beliefs about the activating situation and not the situation itself making us feel the way we do. It’s our thoughts that largely determine the way we feel.

Let’s say a friend of yours blew you off after school. In your mind, you might think, “Wow. They must not even care about me. I’m probably not good enough for them. Maybe I did something wrong….” In turn, you spend a bunch of time and energy lost in anxiety and worry and potentially blow the situation up to something it’s not. In reality, your friend’s mom had a medical emergency and had to rush home unexpectedly.

In scenarios like these, it’s easy to assume what happened, and these assumptions can make us feel worse about ourselves. When we consider our limited perspective, we can get curious about what is going on. It’s a good rule of thumb to question the stories we tell ourselves.

C - Consequences

The consequences of our beliefs are how we react to them, including feelings and behaviors.

Our feelings are emotions. Some emotional consequences of our beliefs can be:

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Embarrassment
  • Peace
  • Joy
  • Excitement
  • Stress

Behaviors are the actions that stem from those feelings, such as:

  • Self-harming
  • Distracting ourselves
  • Asking for help
  • Starting an argument
  • Spending more time with someone
  • Avoiding people
  • Going for a run
  • Staying in bed
  • Raiding the fridge

When we think negatively about situations, this can make us feel bad and it can also cause us to behave in unhelpful ways. We might blame ourselves when things go wrong, compare ourselves to other people in a way that makes us feel inferior, exaggerate our weaknesses, focus on failures and predict that the worst will happen. None of these help us in the long run. 

Negative self-talk can also affect your self-esteem. When you feel down, it is more likely you’ll be hard on yourself, and you might criticize and judge yourself unfairly. The worse you feel, the more negative your self-talk is likely to become.

Put It Into Practice

Activating situation:

You get your exam schedule.

Beliefs:

  • “I’m not going to be able to do this.”
  • “I’ll fail and the whole thing will be a disaster. My parents will be so disappointed in me.”
  • “I won’t be able to pass the class, and then I won’t be able to get a good job. I’ll end up a loser.”

Consequences (feelings and behaviors):

  • You feel stressed, panicky, and have butterflies in your stomach.
  • You can’t bring yourself to sit down and study. You lose focus.
  • You sit down in front of the TV and eat a box of cookies.

One of the most important skills you can develop to deal with stressful situations is to identify your self-talk. It is the stories we tell ourselves that shape the beliefs we have.

  • How can we rewrite the story?
  • How can you shift your beliefs to have better outcomes (consequences)?

The best way to understand the connection between A, B and C is to see how it applies to your own situation.

Think of a time in the last two weeks when you have found yourself feeling bad. You might have been feeling upset, stressed, angry, sad, depressed, embarrassed or guilty. In your journal, write down your situation, the thoughts that come up about it, and how those thoughts make you feel or behave. Doing this exercise can be a useful tool to help you challenge the negative or unhelpful aspects of your thinking, and replace them with more reasonable and helpful thoughts.

Check out the articles on Challenging Negative Self-Talk and Common Thinking Errors for more info on how to challenge the negative or unhelpful aspects of your thinking.

 

Information for this article was provided by:
  • “Taking Charge! A Guide for Teenagers: Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Hassles and Upsetting Emotions” by Dr. Sarah Edelman and Louise Rémond, Foundation for Life Sciences (2005)
Acknowledgements: This article was partially developed by youth and staff for us. ReachOut.com

About Youth Era

Youth Era is a nonprofit that works with teens and young adults to become happy, successful, and contributing adults members of their communities. The organization creates solutions for communities across the country that look beyond short-term assistance for the few and toward sustainable support for the many. To learn more, visit www.youthera.org.

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