It's Easier to Regulate Your Emotions With This Type of Self-Talk

“Positive self-talk can be used to encourage or reinforce our daily or long-term behavioral, cognitive, and emotional goals."

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By Sarah Sloat
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One of my favorite YouTube videos is “Jessica’s ‘Daily Affirmation.’” In this 2009 classic, Jessica, then 4, declares what she likes into the mirror, a list that includes but is not limited to: her cousins, her hair, her pajamas, and the affirmation that “I can do anything good.” It’s a masterclass in positive thinking and the hints at the idea that, sometimes, the best person who can help us is ourselves.

But, as adults, getting up on the bathroom counter is a bit difficult and daily affirmations may not really be your thing. There is, however, another practice you can engage in called positive self-talk. Self-talk as a category of communication is wide-ranging, but you’ve likely engaged in some type of it before. One formal definition of it is a “dialogue [through which] the individual interprets feelings and perceptions, regulates and changes evaluations and convictions, and gives him/herself instructions and reinforcement.” It’s also talking to yourself, either in your head or out loud.

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Broadly, self-talk is broken into two systems. Judy Van Raalte, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Springfield College, explained to me that “effortful” self-talk is dubbed System 2 — this is the sort of self-talk that you mean to do. Meanwhile, spontaneous self-talk — like shouting “yeah!” when something goes right — reflects gut feelings and emotions, and is known as System 1 self-talk.

“Practicing intentionally, effortfully-used System 2 positive self-talk is a lot like practicing a sport skill,” Van Raalte says. “Over time, it can be automatic and effortless to use.”

Thomas Brinthaupt, Ph.D., a professor at Middle Tennessee State University who researches the psychology of the self, told me that from a self-regulatory perspective, self-talk can be part of the process of goal-setting, monitoring situations — whether those are currently happening, are from the past, or will take place in the future — and determining whether or not we have met our goals.

mirror, reflection, stare
Positive self-talk activates a particular part of the brain.

“Positive self-talk can be used to encourage or reinforce our daily or long-term behavioral, cognitive, and emotional goals,” Brinthaupt says. “We can also criticize ourselves with our negative self-talk; replay or rehearse what we’re saying to other people, and engage in general self-managing self-talk.”

For example, self-talk that touches on emotional regulation could sound something like, “It’s okay, it’s not the end of the world,” while cognitive regulation would sound something more like, “Is there a different way that I should think about this problem?”

Studies indicate that self-talk’s ability to affect these regulatory needs is largely why it can be used as a positive tool. In 2010, scientists from the University of Toronto found found that one’s “inner voice” can help people exercise self-control and prevent individuals from making impulsive decisions. Meanwhile, in 2017, a different team of researchers took this concept a step further with a study published in Scientific Reports” based on the premise that “third-person* [emphasis mine] self-talk leads people to think about the self similar to how they think about others, which provides them with the psychological distance needed to facilitate self-control.”

In other words, referring to yourself by your first name or “you” is perhaps a more beneficial way to conduct self-talk than relying on pronouns like “I” or “me.” In turn, in that study, the researchers found that when they scanned the brains of people using different forms of self-talk while watching either neutral or disturbing images, those that used third-person self-talk while watching disturbing images were the best at decreasing their emotional distress. The idea is that referring to oneself in the third-person creates a bit of a psychological distance from an experience, which in turn helps a person regulate their emotions.

But again, not all self-talk is created equal. In one of Brinthaupt’s studies, he and colleagues found that self-critical and social-assessing self-talk contributed to individual’s feelings of anxiety, while “self-reinforcing self-talk” helped mitigate that anxiety. Meanwhile, Van Raalte notes that, while “self-talk has been widely endorsed as a performance enhancement tool in the sport psychology literature,” some-self talk helps athletes remain focused and motivated, while other self-talk can lead to individuals choking under pressure.

“Employing positive self-talk can be helpful for some people in some circumstances,” says Van Raalte, “and also positive self-talk is not a fit for everyone.”

If it’s not proving to be a good fit, Dr. Diana Brecher, the scholar-in-residence for positive psychology at Ryerson University, notes that there are other skills people can use to increase life satisfaction and well-being. These include engaging in mindfulness meditation, gratitude, optimism, and self-compassion. Brecher also recommends an exercise known as “Three Good Things,” created by psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., which involves paying attention to the good things that happen to you and contemplating how these things came to pass and what they mean for your future.

What unites all of these practices is that they involve being an active participant in your own mental health — something that we all need to hear, whether or not you are the one telling yourself so.

Now Look at This Oddly Satisfying Thing

Sourced from the ever-plentiful r/oddlysatisfying, this video brings strong and satiating back-to-school vibes. The world is broken up into two groups of people: those who dread the end of summer vacation, and those who salivate over buying new gel pens for class. I’ll leave you to guess which group I’m in but, spoilers, I went to Staples yesterday and I don’t regret a thing!!

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.