Ever wondered if you’re the only person in the world that has an inner dialogue running through their head most of the time?

You’re definitely not alone! Most of us do have an inner stream of consciousness that, while not necessarily constant, may sometimes feel that way.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that this personal commentary frames our lives and filters our reactions to the world. But did you know that these inner messages — known as self-talk — can affect your mood, your perspective, and your self-confidence? 

What’s more, neuroplasticity research shows that self-talk even has physiological effects, and can be used to literally rewire your brain.

Because we believe what we tell ourselves, practicing positive self-talk can make us feel better. Unfortunately, we often form negative messaging patterns that have the opposite effect; starting at a young age, negative messages from family members, teachers, siblings, and peers tend to stick.

Over the years, we internalize those negative words and the emotions that come along with them. Over time, this can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, sadness, and depression. 

Here’s the good news: You can improve self-talk and flip those negative thoughts. Here are 4 steps to overwrite and counteract negative messages, and start using self-talk to improve your life.

1. Listen Critically to Your Inner Voice

It may seem ironic, but the first step in turning critical self-talk around is by being… critical! In this case, we’re talking about critical listening. 

Certain situations exacerbate negative inner messaging. The next time you’re in a stressful spot or high-pressure position, listen carefully to your inner voice — while keeping your critical thinking hat on. 

Your goal is to pay attention to two things: what you’re saying to yourself and how you’re saying it. Are you speaking to yourself with disdain? In a discouraging way? 

Try to identify certain words that create an obligation on your emotional state. These include terms such as “have to,” “must,” “need to,” and “should.” Using these words can create an emotional reaction, leading to frustration, shame, guilt, or stress. 

When you notice yourself speaking negatively or placing an obligation on your emotions, stop and take a step back. Pause the inner conversation and think about ways to change it.  

2. Practice Social Distancing (From Yourself)

Now that you’re paying attention to your inner voice, take it one step further. Creating a bit of distance from yourself can help you put your negative self-talk into perspective. 

When using self-talk, do you use terms like “I” and “me”? Many people do. But phrasing your self-talk in the first person may cause feelings of shame, regret, and anxiety. 

Try replacing first person pronouns with your own name, or with second or third person pronouns like you, he, she, or they. Creating just a bit of distance between the things you’re saying to yourself can help you disconnect from it. This lessens the emotional impact and helps you regulate your feelings. 

You may also want to think about what it would feel like to speak to someone else the way you speak to yourself. Would you use the same words? The same tone? If you wouldn’t talk to another human being in this way, is it OK to talk to yourself like this? (No, it’s not OK.)

3. Write it Down

Grab a pen and put your negative self-talk on paper. The act of writing down the things you say to yourself can help remove some of their power and reduce their influence. 

When recording your thoughts, be as specific as possible. Include details about the words you use, the situations that trigger these thoughts, and how it makes you feel. 

Next, try to pinpoint when and where this self-talk came from. Who first gave you a particular message? Was it a parent, telling you that you never do anything right? Was it a teacher, making you feel like you weren’t smart enough or capable enough? Perhaps your negative thoughts stem from a critical spouse, sibling, co-worker, or a boss. 

Note where your negative thoughts come from, and write down anyone else who contributed to them. 

4. Replace Your Negative Self-Talk

Now that you’ve identified your negative words, where they started, and who helped build them, here comes the fun part: Replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk. 

Start by going down your list. One by one, counter each negative bit of self-talk with something from your life that’s positive and true. Slow down and resist the urge to rush through this exercise: It may take some time to find your truth.

For example, when you make a mistake, your immediate reaction may be to think, “I never do anything right” or “I ruin everything.” Replace that self-talk with a positive message, such as “I learn and grow from my mistakes.”

Going forward, counter each negative thought with the positive truth. While it may feel strange at first, your goal is to turn the positive words into a new habit. Over time your brain will form new patterns, overwriting the old ones. 

Improving your self-talk can go a long way toward boosting your mood, reducing stress, building your self-confidence, and living a happier life. Working through these four steps will help you get on the path of focusing on the positive, rather than letting old, destructive patterns rule the day.