Internal dialogue or self-talk

On any given day, you have thousands of thoughts going through your mind. Some of these thoughts are called internal dialogue or self-talk. They tend to be the things you say about yourself when you face challenges, obstacles, or problems throughout the day. Self-talk tends to happen in your head at normal speed. It is just the usual dialogue you have with yourself.


All of us engage in self-talk as part of our cognitive process. What happens when self-talk is negative and unhelpful? Years of negative or unhelpful self-talk will have an impact. If you continue to feed your mind negative self-talk, eventually you will end up developing an unhealthy belief about yourself or your abilities. This belief will in turn provoke more negative self-talk and your emotions and your success will be hugely influenced by it. Negative self-talk will result in a vicious cycle and a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. This means that as your negative self-talk is maintained, your unhealthy beliefs become stronger and your performance and emotions more negative. Essentially, you are likely to end up thinking something like this: ‘see, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it, that’s typical’.

You will recognise negative self-talk from the following expressions:

– that sounds difficult

– I don’t think that I can do it

– I’m sure I will mess it up

– I’m not that good

– I’ll probably fail

– I’ve always been this way

– I give up, it’s too much

– I can’t believe you’d want me on your team

– I don’t know much about anything

– I don’t think I’m going to do a good job

– I don’t think I’ll impress anyone

– It’s just little old me

If you fill your mind with such thoughts from the moment you wake up until you go to bed, whenever you think about yourself and your abilities, their negativity will impact on you in a fundamental way.

If you hold an unhealthy belief, the negative self-talk tends to be at its worst when you make a commitment to do something or when there is pressure. It is vital that you are mindful of this when you set goals and begin the process of changing unhealthy irrational beliefs.

How to change internal dialogue

Like everything else your self-talk is part of a process of change. First you start to think about something. Then you start to repeat it, and before long it becomes the way you think. It becomes normal and usual. This is the process of habit formulation. You already know that habits can be good, bad or neutral.

Applying this habitual process is exactly the same with self-talk. If you are thinking negatively and don’t stop to question the truth, sense or helpfulness of your thoughts and continue to repeat the same old non-sense, then it becomes a habit. Negative self-talk is nothing more than an old, bad habit and can be changed.

The first step in any change process is to identify the problem and then set a goal. In order to identify your negative self-talk, you will need to become aware of it by reflecting and noticing how you describe yourself and your abilities. What do you say about yourself when you are faced with challenges and obstacles? If your tendency is to say ‘I give up’ or ‘It’s too hard’, your self-talk is unhelpful to you, given that your desire is to achieve a particular goal.

After identifying your negative self-talk, think about a more helpful thing to say. For example, if you identify your negative self-talk as ‘I give up’, the more helpful thought would be ‘I’ll persist, I don’t give up easily’.

Typical examples:

Negative Self Talk Helpful Self Talk
That sounds difficult It sounds challenging
I don’t think that I can do it I will have a good go
I’m sure I will mess it up I want to do it well
I’m not that good I’m looking forward to learning
I’ll probably fail I want to succeed
I’ve always been this way I’m open to change
I give up, it’s too much I’m resilient, I don’t give up easily
I can’t believe he’d want me on his team I’m looking forward to it
I don’t know much about anything I’m eager to learn
I don’t think I’m going to do a good job I will do my very best
I don’t think I’ll impress anyone I’m nervous but will go for it
It’s just little old me It’s me

These examples are just some of many possible versions of helpful self-talk. Finding your own helpful expressions will make it much easier to integrate into your thinking.

From Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Your Route Out of Perfectionism, Self-sabotage and Other Everyday Habits by Avy Joseph. Capstone Publishing.

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