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Reverse Negative Self-Talk
by Cynthia Sue Larson
September 4, 2000


I've often not realized how damaging the little things I say to myself and others can be. It may seem innocuous, humble or modest to say something like:

but when I hear my child repeating my very same words of self-abasement to someone else, I suddenly recognize the tremendous power hidden in those six little words.

My daughter asked me to help her tie a balloon string around her stuffed animal toys at a recent birthday party, and I cheerfully agreed to help. As I wrapped the balloon string around her stuffed toys, I was surprised to hear myself saying,

The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them -- like slippery will-o-the-wisps who blew through the garden unbidden and unannounced. Once they'd burst out of my mouth, I could think of no way to retrieve them. My eyes caught my daughter's eyes, as I looked for any clue as to whether these words had slipped away unnoticed, or had landed on her and taken root. My daughter's eyes shone with the simple joy that I was helping her, and I hoped and prayed that my words hadn't become part of her personal inner talk.

When I went to the bathroom a few minutes later, I overheard two children talking outdoors through the open window in the bathroom. I heard my daughter talking to a little girl, repeating verbatim exactly the same words I'd just spoken aloud and instantly regretted!

In that moment, I could see how the things we think and don't say often get their start in early childhood, when we listen with reverence and full attention to every word our parents and care-givers say. These little words sink in very deeply, indeed.

What the Research Shows

Author Adam Khan shares a story in his book Self Help Stuff That Works of how Randall Masciana, M.S., found out what kind of mental strategy most improved a person's performance when throwing darts. Masciana asked his dart-players to try everything from mental imagery (visualizing hitting the target) to Zen meditation (clearing the mind of extraneous thoughts). Masciana discovered that positive self-talk was the best technique for improving the dart thrower's ability to hit the target. This kind of positive self-talk is very simple -- it consists of talking to oneself in a confident, reassuring, positive, friendly way. Surprisingly, positive self-talk works better than anything else!

In her American Journal of Nursing article, "Making Self-Talk Positive", McGonicle defines "harmful" negativity as being "awfulistic" - where everything is viewed as being catastrophic, "absolutistic" - using "must," "always," "never", or "should-have" statements in one's self-talk. It's generally healthier to refrain from all-or-nothing thinking, discounting the positive, emotional reasoning, and personalization and blame.

In her book Your Body Believes Every Word You Say, Barbara Levine recommends that we examine our seed thoughts for signs of mindless cliches and other negative elements, so we can replace these thoughts with something more constructive. Regardless whether our thoughts are positive or negative, Levine suggests that we reflect upon how we are feeling when these kinds of self-talk statements arise. We can then discover which thoughts help us feel better, so we can pay more attention to those thoughts more often.

Positive self-talk has been associated with reduced stress, which has been shown in numerous health studies to affect our health. Both thoughts and self-talk are based on beliefs that we form early in life. As I've now witnessed first-hand, beliefs shape our self-talk, which in turn affects our self-esteem... and our quality of life.

How to Transform Negative Self-Talk

The technique that works for me is to write two columns of phrases down... one on the left with the negative self-talk that I've noticed and would like to neutralize, and a column on the right for it's antidote or reverse self-talk statement.

For example, if I wish to rectify my negative self-talk regarding my feeling of inadequacy tying knots, I would write down the reverse of my negative self-talk statement as something like this:

At this point I am concerned more with my inner feeling about tying knots than with my actual ability at knot-tying. I know that by improving my confidence on the inside first, I will be able to more easily learn what it takes to be good at tying knots.

Perhaps more importantly, I'll be setting a good example for every impressionable person around me, and feeling much better about myself.

For Further Information:

Grainger, R.D. (1991). "The Use--and Abuse--of Negative Thinking." American Journal of Nursing, 91(8), 13-14.

Khan, Adam, Self-Help Stuff That Works (1999), a collection of 120 short chapters on taking your attitude and your effectiveness to new heights. Write to Adam at

Levine, Barbara H. Your Body Believes Every Word You Say: The Language of the Body/Mind Connection (1990). Boulder Creek, CA: Aslan.

McGonicle, D. (1988). "Making Self-Talk Positive". American Journal of Nursing, 88, 725-726.

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