We all talk to ourselves. The difference is the awareness we have of that voice and what it’s saying.
I’ve never thought of myself as an affirmation person. Speaking to myself in the mirror and saying positive things? Writing encouraging notes to leave on my desk or fridge? That wasn’t who I was. The very thought made me cringe.
I thought there were some people who talked to themselves and some people who didn’t, and I was firmly in the latter category. I’d been diagnosed with depression in my 30s, but whether I talked to myself or not had nothing to do with that.
My husband, on the other hand, is the type of person who talks to himself all day long. He peps himself up for the day while brushing his teeth and murmurs words of assurance while he’s cooking.
I found his self-talk cute and sometimes confusing — was there someone else in the room with him? I thought of his ongoing conversations as a personality quirk, but not connected to his upbeat perspective on the world.
All of that changed in my 40s when I faced a series of writing setbacks. I had been managing my depression with meditation, but I’d stopped my practice and was feeling the effects.
To reset my creativity and my mental health, I turned to Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way.” In her guide to discovering the artist within, she offers a wide range of tools to access your creative self. Affirmations are one of those tools.
Cameron understands that many people, like me, assume that affirmations aren’t for them. At first, using affirmations can feel dumb, hokey, and embarrassing. It’s weird to talk to yourself.
Except, as Cameron points out, we’re already talking to ourselves all the time, regardless of whether that voice speaks out loud or not. The important thing is, what is that voice saying?
If you live with depression, that voice is probably berating and insulting you in a nonstop stream that’s as omnipresent as my husband’s murmuring. We get so used to that voice that we can’t hear it anymore. It becomes the background noise of our lives.
It was at that moment I realized there might be a connection between self-talk, affirmations, and depression.
Talking out loud to yourself has real benefits for your mental health. Studies show using self-talk as you engage in a task can improve cognitive performance, as well as allow you to complete tasks more quickly. Self-talk can also help us be more deliberate, alert, and prepared, according to other research.
More than that, self-talk, especially when it’s out loud, makes visible the hidden conversation that’s always happening inside for those who live with depression. Depression can be hatred and anger turned inward, a debilitating form of self-talk.
As a person with depression, you may look in the mirror and, rather than tell yourself how awesome you are, call yourself a slob, ugly, or incompetent. That internal voice is the soundtrack of depression, a soundtrack that becomes so mundane it’s hard to hear.
We’re already talking to ourselves all the time, regardless of whether that voice speaks out loud or not. The important thing is, what is that voice saying?
One tool for managing depression is to become aware of that voice and then change it. This is the advantage of intentional self-talk and affirmations.
Because, of course, there aren’t two types of people in the world: those who talk to themselves and those who don’t. We all talk to ourselves. The difference is the awareness we have of that voice and what it’s saying.
Affirmations are a good way to become intentional about what you say to yourself. They take the self-talk that we are always engaged in and make it work for us. They are one tool in managing the inner conflict that is depression.
So, how can you get started on your own affirmation practice? Here are four concrete steps that have worked for me.
Because the voice of the inner critic becomes a taken-for-granted part of your internal landscape, it helps to turn up the volume and become aware of what you’re saying to yourself.
Especially when you’re experiencing stress, take a few deep breaths, get quiet, and listen to your inner monologue. Speak the words out loud.
How does it sound? Is what your inner critic telling you make sense? Is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful?
Another trick to make the voice more audible is to give it a name. My inner critic is Audrey, because that name sounded right to me.
You might call your inner critic the Grinch, the demon, or angry baby. Naming your inner critic creates the distance you need to hear it and change it.
Once you can say the words out loud, imagine you’re speaking them to a friend or loved one.
Is your internal monologue something you’d ever say to someone you love? If your friend or partner made a mistake as a parent, would you tell them they’re worthless and no one’s ever really loved them? Probably not.
When you’re managing depression, it’s hard to direct love and compassion inward, so make that voice your own best friend, instead of your worst enemy.
Once you can hear the voice, it’s time to give it something concrete to say. This is where writing your own affirmations comes in.
Affirmations are a good way to become intentional about what you say to yourself. They take the self-talk that we are always engaged in and make it work for us.
What do you want to feel more? What do you want to believe about yourself? What kinds of things would you say to your friend or loved one?
You might try writing down some of the things your inner critic says and turning them around. If your internal voice tells you that you’re a failure, tell yourself you’re a success.
The most effective affirmations are declarative statements. Instead of saying, “I want to do a better job showing myself compassion,” say, “I am excellent at showing myself compassion.”
Even with these tips, using affirmations and positive self-talk can be awkward at first. As unhelpful as your inner voice might be, it’s also comfortable and familiar.
Be patient with yourself. Start slow. Write one affirmation and make it your phone’s wallpaper, or put it on a Post-it on your bathroom mirror. Small changes make a big difference over time.
Keep at it. Eventually, that loving voice will become the new background noise of your life.
Medically reviewed on April 29, 2022
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