Picture of Dr Tanya McDonnaugh

Dr Tanya McDonnaugh

Clinical Psychologist and founder of Talk.Manage.Change

Compassionate Self-talk: improve your mental health with inner speech

Self-talk or inner speech is what we say to ourself in our mind. You might be reading this thinking “I don’t speak to myself”, or “why would I want to do that!”. Self-talk can be difficult to spot but in actual fact, and whether we realise it or not, we all engage in self-talk. The idea of self-talk can trigger negative associations, perhaps even the idea that talking to ourselves is a sign of mental instability. However did you know that most psychological therapies use training in self-talk as a way to to reduce emotional distress and promote well-being?

Self-talk might happen when we praise ourself for an achievement or encourage ourself during a difficult task; or it might happen when we berate ourself for feeling bad, or criticise ourself for making a mistake. Self-talk tends to replicate what we have heard others express towards us. So if we have had more positive experiences in relationships from an early age we will tend be more encouraging, positive, kind, and understanding in the way we speak to ourselves. If we haven’t had this, or if we have experienced people being harsh, bullying, critical, or punitive towards us then our self-talk might follow very different lines.

Psychological research has shown that using compassionate mind training to improve compassionate self-talk can help you to manage stress, reduce your anxiety and improve your mood. It is a good idea to get into the habit of noticing your self-talk, paying attention to the content of what you are saying, along with the tone of your inner speech. Research has also found that most of us find it easier to show kindness and compassion to others that we care about, but that it can be more difficult to turn that compassion and kindness inwards in times of need.

We want to be our own cheerleader rather than that bullying coach who increases our anxiety and only sometimes gets the results we want. So don’t be afraid to use your self-talk and remember this can be a powerful tool to improve your well-being, nurture it and it will serve you well.

Below are a few tips for more compassionate self-talk, which can improve your mental health:

  • Notice the content and tone of your self-talk. Is there something you tend to say when you are struggling, is your tone harsh and cold, or warm and nurturing?
  • Identify triggers for particularly harsh or critical self-talk
  • Practice using a warm and nurturing tone
  • Validate your emotional experience by acknowledging and labelling what you are feeling in the moment
  • If you notice harsh or critical self-talk bring to mind someone you care deeply about. Imagine what you might say to this person if they were in your position, then repeat this to yourself in the same way.

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