Positive Self-Talk: What Does it Mean, and How Do I Learn How To Do It or Make Sure That I Am Doing It Right?

By: Carla S. Oliver, MSW, CCLS

Self-talk is the talk that we do in our own heads about ourselves and the things that happen in our world. In other words, it’s like our own “running commentary” on our lives. Many times, this self-talk happens so automatically and unconsciously that we aren’t even aware of it. However, what we say to ourselves can have an enormous impact on the way that we feel, and on what we can achieve. Positive self-talk can act like an internal coach – by boosting our confidence, by helping us to believe in ourselves, and by encouraging and motivating us to achieve our goals.

The Power of Positive Affirmations

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor many years, sports psychologists have recognized the importance of positive self-talk in helping athletes achieve their fullest potential. Everyone who plays a competitive sport or who competes at a serious level faces tough times and obstacles to success: pain (physical and mental), less than perfect conditions, challenging opponents, fatigue, and exhaustion. The only way an athlete can be successful when facing these difficult situations is to have powerful self-belief and great determination. Positive self-talk is one tool that athletes use to achieve their very best in competition.

The concept is far from new. Those of you who are old enough may recall Stuart Smalley, a Saturday Night Live (SNL) character from the early 1990s. Stuart was a goofy character who became well known for his “Daily Affirmations” bit each week.  He had lots of catch phrases, but the most well known that we heard as he stood in front of his mirror in each episode was, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.”

Despite the fact that Stuart was a character in a silly SNL skit, he was truly onto something. Positive affirmations affect our attitude. Our attitude, which can be greatly assisted by reminding ourselves of the positives, truly determines the direction in which our lives go. I have seen this over and over again throughout my personal life, and even more throughout my professional life. In my 20-plus years as a child life specialist, I have seen that the outcomes for people who have a positive outlook are largely successful, while those who have a more negative outlook seem to struggle from one problem to the next.

In the book The Power of TED (The Empowerment Dynamic) by David Emerald, the validity of this concept is demonstrated. In a “fable,” we are introduced to a man who finds himself wallowing in self-pity for all that is wrong in his life (death of a parent; infertility, leading to divorce, etc.,). Every aspect of his life is hurting him, causing him to feel alone and full of self-pity. Then he meets Ted, a man who helps him learn how to become a “creator” (defined in the book to be the complete opposite of victim.) The simplified premise is that it easier for us to become “victims” to all that is wrong in our lives rather than to create solutions that will empower us to realize positive outcomes.

Moving From Victim to Survivor

The use of the word “victim” in the book was striking to me. It is a word that many years ago I would have used to describe anyone who had sustained a burn injury or any trauma. However, when I started my career in burns more than 15 years ago, I immediately discovered that the children and families I encountered were far from victims,—they were survivors. This simple, yet important, distinction is what I would like you to use as you continue to read this article. We are not victims. We are survivors.

Beyond Surviving: Tools for Thriving

As you access Phoenix Society resources, you will notice that the concept of “self-talk” is discussed in many of them. That includes the social skills training program, Beyond Surviving: Tools for Thriving, one of the Phoenix Society’s new Online Learning courses. Developed by Barbara Kammerer Quayle, it teaches the use of two important tools: STEPS, for achieving social comfort and confidence, and Rehearse Your Responses (RYR), for responding to awkward questions, uncomfortable social situation, or bullying. Both STEPS and RYR require a pause to think before speaking. RYR requires you to remind yourself, “I can handle this easily and confidently.” STEPS begins with positive self-talk, such as “I love and accept myself the way I am and the way I am not,” and results in a realization that when faced with a challenge, “I can do it!”

But, what if we can’t think of anything positive?  What if we have beaten ourselves up so much that our self-talk is more like an internal bully? Instead of lifting us up, it undermines and criticizes us. This is when we must make ourselves work at changing our self-talk.

For many adults and adolescents, this is easier said than done. If we have spent our lives focused on all that is wrong with us, all the things we aren’t good at, how do we retrain ourselves to change?

In children, this might come easier. As we know, some children show resiliency after experiencing difficult situations. However, in my years of working with kids I have found that this really has more to do with someone’s temperament and personality rather than age.

I remember reading an article in 2011 about Sarah Bazey, a burn survivor who made the decision that she would not let her scars define her life. The authors described an extremely poignant moment in her life (a short time after her discharge from the burn center and right after a tough day of therapy) when she completely broke down: “She allowed herself 30 minutes to pity all that wasn’t in her life. Thirty minutes of pure bitterness, sadness, hurt, anger, and tears. And then…hope again. After all, what had always been a part of her life in the first place was a positive attitude. ‘I can do this’ was a refrain all too familiar to her. It was time to echo that conviction again.” Sarah’s positive self-talk played a key role in her recovery.

Continue reading here

Carla S. Oliver, MSW, CCLS, is the manager of the therapeutic recreation/child life department at Children’s Hospital Colorado. She has practiced in the field of child life for more than 20 years, with the majority of her career dedicated to working with pediatric burn survivors and their families. Carla is a member of the mental health team for the World Burn Congress, where she has also co-presented the parent workshop for 4 years. She will be presenting the workshop at WBC 2013. Carla is also president-elect of the Child Life Council effective May 2013.

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