How to Harness the Power of Positive Self-Talk

Negative self-talk is a pervasive issue many people face, often without even realizing it. Our inner dialogue can often be critical, discouraging, and even harsh, undermining our motivation, self-confidence, and our ability to make a positive effect on the lives of others.

As an executive coach, I’ve worked with numerous leaders to improve their self-talk. Most of my clients don’t realize the magnitude of damage their natural self-talk is having on them. It isn’t uncommon to find negative self-talk leading to a decrease in overall well-being and a significant contributor to anxiety. It is almost always the biggest inhibitor of high performance.

Here’s the good news — we can change our internal narrative. By harnessing the power of positive self-talk, we can foster a healthier and more powerful mindset.

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The Problem with Negative Self-Talk

Negative self-talk is that little voice inside your head that tells you you’re not good enough, smart enough, or capable enough. It’s the internal critic that questions your abilities and undermines your motivation. This type of self-talk can stem from various sources, including past experiences, societal expectations, and even well-meaning feedback from others that we’ve internalized over time.

The impact of negative self-talk is profound. Research has shown that it can significantly affect our mental health, leading to increased stress, anxiety, and depression (Beck, 1995). It can also erode our confidence, making us less likely to take on new challenges or pursue our goals (Baumeister et al., 2003). When we’re constantly bombarded with negative messages, it becomes harder to believe in our capabilities and maintain motivation.

The Science of Self-Talk

Understanding the science behind self-talk can help us appreciate why it has such a powerful impact on our behavior and performance. Self-talk is essentially our internal dialogue, the way we talk to ourselves. According to cognitive-behavioral theory, our thoughts influence our emotions and behaviors (Beck, 1995). Therefore, by changing our self-talk, we have the ability to change our thinking and actions.

Neuroscientific research has shown that the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing emotions, is more sensitive to negative stimuli. Studies suggest that negative experiences are more readily stored in memory compared to positive ones (Baumeister et al., 2001). This heightened sensitivity can lead to a persistent internal dialogue that focuses on our perceived shortcomings and failures, rather than our achievements and potential.

Studies have shown that positive self-talk can enhance performance, improve coping skills, and increase overall well-being (Tod, Hardy, & Oliver, 2011). For example, research in sports psychology has demonstrated that athletes who engage in positive self-talk perform better and have greater resilience in the face of challenges (Hatzigeorgiadis et al., 2011). This principle extends beyond sports to various areas of life, including academics, work, and personal relationships. I’ve discussed the power of words in my article on Power Words and the research of Allison Wood Brooks who revealed how changing our inner dialogue wording from from “I am anxious” to “I am excited” significantly increases performance in various activities. 

Practical Strategies for Positive Self-Talk

You can adopt two practical strategies to harness the power of positive self-talk.

Reframe Negative Thoughts. One of the most effective ways to counteract negative self-talk is to reframe those thoughts. A reframing technique called cognitive restructuring involves identifying negative thought patterns and challenging their validity. For example, if you catch yourself thinking, “I’ll never be able to do this,” you can reframe it to, “This is challenging, but I can learn and improve with practice.”

Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that cognitive reappraisal engages the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with executive functions and emotional regulation, helping to mitigate the effects of negative self-talk (Ochsner et al., 2004).

A study by Papageorgiou and Wells (2000) found that cognitive restructuring techniques were effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Examples of cognitive restructuring include:

Original Thought



“I’m terrible at giving presentations.”

Is it true that I’m a terrible presenter, or is this an overgeneralization?


Have I presented successfully in the past?

“I have successfully delivered presentations before. I can learn from this experience and improve.”


‘This is an opportunity to build my presentation skills.”

“Everyone must think I’m incompetent.”

What evidence supports or refutes this belief?

“One presentation doesn’t define my entire career. I can seek feedback from my team and work on areas of improvement.”


Use Affirmations. Affirmations are positive statements that we repeat to ourselves to reinforce a positive mindset. They can help counteract negative self-talk and build self-confidence.

Affirmations get a bad wrap due to pop culture comedy parodies like the fictional psychologist, Stewart Smalley on the show Saturday Night Live. His strategy of looking in the mirror and stating, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-on-it people like me!” has unfortunately become the concept people think of as affirmations. 

The truth is that affirmations are used by some of the most successful athletes, musicians, artists, and business leaders to guide their thinking and prime their daily mindset.

Research by Cascio et al. (2016) suggests that self-affirmation activates brain regions associated with self-processing and valuation, promoting positive self-concept and behavior. Incorporating daily affirmations into your routine can help shift your self-talk towards a more positive and empowering direction.

The key to effective affirmations is to make them specific, realistic, and in the present tense. For instance, instead of saying, “I will be successful,” you can say, “I am capable and prepared for success.”

Here are a few examples of daily affirmations you can use.

“I am capable of achieving my goals and dreams.”

“Every challenge I face is an opportunity to grow and improve.”

“I am worthy of success and happiness.”

“I have the skills and knowledge to excel in my career.”

“I am constantly learning and evolving.”

“I handle stress and challenges with grace and positivity.”

“I am confident in my decisions and actions.”

Putting It All Together

Harnessing the power of positive self-talk requires practice and commitment. It’s about becoming aware of your internal dialogue and making a conscious effort to shift from negative to positive thinking. Here are some steps to get started:

  1. Awareness: Begin by paying attention to your self-talk. Notice when negative thoughts arise and what triggers them.
  2. Challenge: Question the validity of your negative thoughts. Are they based on facts, or are they irrational fears and assumptions?
  3. Reframe: Replace negative thoughts with positive, realistic alternatives. Focus on your strengths and capabilities.
  4. Affirm: Use positive affirmations daily to reinforce a positive mindset. Write them down and repeat them regularly.
  5. Self-Compassion: Finally, Treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Acknowledge your efforts and progress, even when things don’t go perfectly.

By incorporating these strategies into your daily routine, you can transform your self-talk and, in turn, your overall mindset.

Remember, change doesn’t happen overnight, but with consistent effort, you can create a more positive, empowering internal dialogue that enhances your motivation, confidence, and well-being.



Beck, A. T. (1995). *Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond*. Guilford Press.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370.

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? *Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4*(1), 1-44.

Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. (2011). Effects of self-talk: A systematic review. *Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33*(5), 666-687.

Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Galanis, E., & Theodorakis, Y. (2011). Self-talk and sports performance: A meta-analysis. *Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6*(4), 348-356.

Papageorgiou, K. A., & Wells, A. (2000). Treatment of recurrent major depression with attention training. *Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 7*(4), 407-413.

Cascio, C. N., O’Donnell, M. B., Tinney, F. J., Lieberman, M. D., Taylor, S. E., Strecher, V. J., & Falk, E. B. (2016). Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. *Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11*(4), 621-629.

Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. *Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69*(1), 28-44.

Ochsner, K. N., Bunge, S. A., Gross, J. J., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2002). Rethinking feelings: An fMRI study of the cognitive regulation of emotion. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(8), 1215-1229.