OK, So Positive Self-Talk Is a Little Cringey, But Science Says It Works

Fitness

Happy, confident young woman standing outside

From an early age, we’re taught the golden rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” The irony here? Many of us don’t even treat ourselves the way we’d like to be treated. A 2023 poll found that the average person has about 11 negative thoughts concerning their bodies and self-worth per day, suggesting that we all need a little course in the power of positive self-talk.

“Self-talk can take on different descriptors. Some that are commonly used are positive, negative, healthy, unhealthy, constructive, or critical,” says Willow McGinty, LMHC, a therapist with Thriveworks in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Having positive, or what I refer to in therapy sessions as ‘healthy self-talk,’ means that the tone in which you speak to and about yourself is affirmative, supportive, kind, and reasonable.”

OK, OK: so becoming your own personal cheerleader may sound like a cheesy Pinterest quote. But, trust us — and the experts — this practice has legit health and wellness benefits.

The Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Positive Thinking

Maintaining good vibes in your mind helps both in the moment and in the long run, says McGinty. “Positive self-talk makes simple things more enjoyable and makes harder tasks more manageable,” she says.

Take Mondays: many people experience the Sunday Scaries and dread the start of the work week. “If the self-talk sounds like, ‘Tomorrow is going to suck and I hate Mondays,’ well, it will probably rise to meet that expectation,” says McGinty. “That is called confirmation bias. We tend to describe our experiences in ways that confirm our beliefs rather than challenge them, making our world easier to understand.”

Shining up our self-talk gives us the opportunity to reframe what’s ahead of us. “If the self-talk sounds like this: ‘I have an opportunity to relax tonight, and tomorrow is a fresh start for my work week and new opportunities to shine,’ we are more likely to try to rise to meet that expectation and confirm that belief,” says McGinty. “There is a real ‘fake it ’til you make it’ energy happening whenever we’re trying to be more positive, and that’s OK.”

While this power to remix your inner monologue can have a colossal impact moment-by-moment, it can also give you a healthier mindset in the long run. Positive self-thought may result in less worry. Considering that chronic worry and stress can lead to health problems (including high blood pressure, heart disease, and more), this mental shift may even give you a better chance at many days ahead.

Bonus: those who stay on the sunny side of things also tend to be more resilient, confident, and satisfied with their lives.

Research shows that this self-assuredness translates into physical feats as well. A 2022 study conducted on 258 female gymnasts found that strong performances could be predicted by positive self-talk, while negative self-talk was associated with poor performance outcomes. Still more research has found that athletes who keep an optimistic mindset during competition report having more fun post-competition. So — who knows? Hyping yourself up before, during, and after your next workout may push you to run your fastest mile yet, lift some heavy weight, or nail a tough dance move.

How to Practice Positive Self-Talk

Positive self-talk is a muscle, and as with strengthening any other muscle, gains are made over time. McGinty points out that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) theorizes that every negative self-thought actually originates from a core belief. “That core belief is typically instilled in childhood or adolescence and could sound like ‘I’m not enough’ or ‘nothing I do is enough,'” she says.

Challenging that core belief — on your own or with the help of a therapist — is an essential part of your positive self-talk journey. “This is tricky work to do alone for most of us, particularly if that belief is deeply held. Counselors and therapists trained in CBT would be glad to help you overcome this pattern of negative self-talk, so please don’t be afraid to reach out for some help,” says McGinty. She recommends trying a CBT-based journal if therapy isn’t an option for you right now.

To challenge an outright rude thought on your own, take out a journal or a piece of paper and respond to the following prompts:

  1. Identify the negative, unhelpful, critical, or unhealthy thoughts.
  2. Label it as such.
  3. Provide evidence to the contrary.
  4. Write the opposing viewpoint (or think it out).
  5. Edit the thought to be healthier, more constructive, or more helpful.

If you don’t feel like you have time to run through this exercise 11 times a day, McGinty says there are other small yet impactful ways to reshape your mindset. “In the beginning, it helps to simply write down thoughts about yourself throughout a few days without trying to change them. Bring awareness to the language you use to describe yourself. After a few days, underline critical, unhelpful, negative, or unhealthy language and look for kinder alternatives,” says McGinty.

She also suggests creating a list of affirmations to unleash when your mind becomes your own worst enemy. “Everything I need is within me,” “My mind is at ease and relaxed,” and “I deserve and receive all of my desires” are just a few options to get you started.

A Note on Toxic Positivity

If you hear yourself uttering phrases like, “Everything happens for a reason” or “So-and-so definitely has it worse than me/you,” there’s a good chance slipped into toxically positive behaviors. Positive thinking becomes toxic when it no longer leaves room for the shades of gray in everyday life. “There is no positive self-talking our way out of systemic injustice, abuse, harmful home-life situations, war, climate change — you name it. Some things are just awful and deserve to be seen as such,” says McGinty.

The goal of positive self-talk is not to gaslight yourself and those around you into bypassing humanity’s (very, really, extremely) real struggles. The goal of positive self-talk is to keep self-criticism from standing in your way as you activate, pay your bills, and live a life of fulfillment.

“I often reference this quote by the poet Hafez: ‘The words we speak become the house we live in,'” says McGinty. Let’s make it a pretty house with solar panels on the roof, a manageable mortgage, and plenty of “Live Laugh Love” pillows.

Image Source: Getty / Mengwen Cao

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