Giving yourself a good talking-to

Oliver Burkeman tells us how making tiny changes to the way we speak to ourselves can create powerful results


Giving yourself a good talking-to

What’s the big idea?

Most of us have a critical voice in our heads, sniping at us throughout the day. Unsurprisingly, psychologists call it ‘negative self-talk’. You’ll often encounter the advice to replace this inner critic with an inner cheerleader. That’s sensible enough – but it’s a tall order. Fortunately, studies* show that far smaller changes to your inner talk can make a huge difference to your thoughts and emotions. Even altering a single word can transform your mood.

How to make it happen

Say ‘I don’t’, not ‘I can’t’

If you’re trying to break a bad habit – junk food, that third glass of wine, or checking your email in bed – stop saying, ‘I can’t check email after 8pm’, for example, and start saying, ‘I don’t check email after 8pm’. As the social psychologist, Heidi Halvorson, puts it: ‘I don’t is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower.’

Replace ‘I hope’ with ‘I wonder’

This trick, courtesy of author, Susan Jeffers, is a clever way to get comfortable with uncertainty. List something you hope for, such as, ‘I hope I get a promotion’, then rephrase it starting with, ‘I wonder if…’ Hope feels optimistic, but it’s closed-minded; it defines only one outcome as acceptable. By contrast, ‘I wonder’ is open-ended, and keeps you receptive to the possibility that unwelcome events might lead to better things.

Treat your inner critic like a toddler

Once you see how much you criticise yourself, it’s tempting to fight back against negative self-talk. But that sets up a battle in your head. Better to treat your inner critic like a small child: be kind, accept its tantrums, but don’t take them too seriously.

Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock