How You Can Use Self-Talk to Step Forward

Written by Reid Wilson, PhD


Translating complex ideas into simple messages-to-self

Photo by Isaac Wendland on Unsplash

We tend to talk to ourselves throughout the day. In fact, 96% of adults report some kind of inner dialogue. Setting the alarm clock, packing the gym bag, designing new marketing materials, caretaking a toddler—most of our calls-to-action are directed by a message that is at least one level higher in abstraction.

“Seize the day.”

“No pain, no gain!”

“Our numbers are slumping. I need to take some action.”

“Better childproof this room!”

We have preprogrammed built-in messages for almost all of our activities, whether routine or significant. If you’re heading to an important job interview, you’ve probably formed a mental list of instructions: “Don’t be late. Shake hands. Maintain eye contact. Be articulate.” These commands help you move toward your desired goal.

Positive self-talk has long been studied in sports performance. Athletes motivate themselves before the game (“I can do this”) and instruct themselves during the action—both to maintain their focus (“see the target”) and execute proper technique (“follow through”). Research shows that motivational and instructional self-talk can enhance performance and improve outcome.

My brother Phill was a track star in high school. He continued his achievements at Duke, running track and cross-country throughout his college career. One of his relay races set a conference record that stood for 12 years, which (in case you don’t know) is an extraordinary feat.

I was at the University of North Carolina, two years behind him and just eight miles down the road. As I began to take up running for exercise, Phill taught me the tactics for efficiently running up a hill—tactics he picked up from Al Bueller, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport. There were four main principles of action: Get the body forward by dropping your head and raising your arms. Apply energy to the task. Push forward and up. Generate faster turnover of your legs.

There’s quite a bit of physics and physiology behind these steps. But, of course, when you’re in the middle of a race, you don’t have time to think through broad scientific principles. So Phill translated those principles into simple, moment-by-moment instructions that directed his actions:

  • Raise the arms
  • Swing the arms
  • Look 5 to 6 feet ahead
  • Shorten the stride
  • Pick up the tempo

When you think about it, in just about every common task, we can give ourselves a simple message that is a cue for a more complex process. “Proof the paper before you turn it in” can generate a sophisticated set of grammatical corrections. “Be polite here” is probably appropriate as you sit down to your first dinner with your future in-laws or if you’re asking for a refund past the 30-day guarantee.

After his first couple of months as a freshman cross-country runner, my brother Phill no longer needed to subvocalize his messages. They became part of his muscle memory. He just needed one big message to help him apply his strategy, and he picked “run hills hard.” As he saw a steep incline coming during a workout or race, all he had to subvocalize was “run hills hard,” and he then routinely engaged in his actions.

Once you’ve given yourself specific instructions a number of times, you’ll develop some shorthand message that will represent the action you need to take. Imagine standing in front of a task that seems daunting to you. You hesitate. It seems like a pretty risky action. So you say to yourself, “Whatever it takes, I’m going to finish this.” That message doesn’t instruct you on the task; it encourages you to push through resistance and continue on. You might even say to yourself, “I want my life back.” That message doesn’t tell you what to do. There’s no explicit instruction. You use it as a reminder, as a cue, and you allow it to motivate you to step forward into the struggle.

Gradually, one subvocalization at a time, you start to conquer those hills. One motivational message at a time, you begin to win your life back.

Text adapted from Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016.

About the Author

Dr. Reid Wilson

REID WILSON, Ph.D. has spent his entire 30-year career in the field of self-help for
anxiety disorders and OCD. He is Director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center and is an international expert in the treatment of anxiety disorders, with books translated into nine languages. In 2014 he was honored with the highest award given by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and he was presented the 2019 Service Award by the International OCD Foundation. 

To learn more about Dr. Wilson, click here.

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