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Self-talk: A positive intervention under construction

By on April 7, 2007 – 12:08 pm  6 Comments

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Talking to herself

Talking to herself

Making self-talk constructive is a great place to put positive psychology to work. We talk to ourselves all the time. We argue. We judge. We praise. We catastrophize. We label. We cast ourselves as victims or actors. Some sorts of self-talk are more helpful than others. What we practice with ourselves we can then use when we talk to others.

My husband and I recently attended an all-day seminar at UNC called the Assault of Laughter: Satire Across the Ages. One professor showed clips from the TV show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, of Larry David talking to himself in the mirror (Search here for “bathroom mirror” to see script). The camera shifted back and forth between the Larry in the mirror towering up and yelling accusations and the real Larry cowering and promising to do better. It was very funny, but it was also sad because it seemed so static – nothing seemed likely to change. But it doesn’t have to be so.

When things go wrong: Studies of learned optimism and resilience indicate that reframing is a critical skill for handling adversity. Are you really the cause of the problem? Do you tend to think you always screw up in everything you do? Do you feel like a victim? Time to reframe. If you screwed up, find a way to scope the event to a narrower perspective; don’t let it reinforce your ‘always’ and ‘everywhere’ judgments of yourself. The real-time resilience tag-lines from The Resilience Factor by Reivich and Shatte are a big help with reframing. Print them on a card and keep them wherever you are most likely to need them – Larry David needed them taped to the bathroom mirror.

“A more accurate way of seeing this is …” (Look for alternatives.)

“That’s not true because…” (Look at the evidence.)

“A more likely outcome is … and I can do … to deal with it.” (Consider the implications.)

If you feel victimized, can you put yourself back in control of your response? I’ve seen amazing things come out of challenging people to shift from venting to reframing. Example 1: One group has a task that everyone finds both a chore and a source of anxiety because it is simultaneously boring, hard to get right, and highly visible when it goes wrong. So the group turned from complaining to figuring out how they can innovate to make the chore easier to get right and more interesting, even fun to do. Example 2: As a long-time diabetic, I take lots of medicine. I used to look at the pile of pills and think, “I’m a medical mess.” Now as I pick up each pill, I think, “Here’s the courageous me facing up to fact that …” or “Here’s the careful me watching out for my…” When I finish, I often start humming, “I’m thoroughly [medicated] Millie now!”” which makes me laugh.

When things go right: One of my “Wow!” moments with positive psychology occurred when I discovered “process praise” versus “person praise.” Here are brief definitions along with what they promote in the person hearing the praise according to research by Kamins and Dweck.

Person Praise: “You are smart (good), (kind) (the best at …)” ≡ Global assessment based on specific behavior → promotes helplessness behaviors, fear of losing the label

Process Praise: “You worked hard (studied wisely) (helped that person) (did an exceptional job at)…” ≡ emphasis on effort and strategy → promotes mastery behaviors, resilience, self-efficacy

Kamins and Dweck found that

Children who got person praise – a label such as “You are so smart!” – tended to be less resilient in the face of future difficulties, enjoy them less, be less persistent, and lower performing. They tend to pick easier tasks when given a choice. I think of it as being afraid that the label will fall off if they don’t always succeed.

Children who got process praise – a description of the achievement – tended to be more resilient in the face of difficulty, more persistent, get more enjoyment and pick harder tasks.

This is something I wish I’d learned before having children. But examples abound. Example one: One man applied this idea with a toddler: “Oh, then when I’m toilet training my son, it is better to say “Good job!’ than ‘Good boy!’” Exactly! Because if he has an accident, does he become a bad boy? Example two: I once asked a client to praise herself out loud for several minutes. Among other things, she praised herself for getting junk food out of the house and learning to like several new healthy foods. Oh, by the way, she lost 10 pounds in the last few weeks. Now that’s praise that won’t come undone if she gets on the scale tomorrow and her weight has shifted up a few pounds.

Finally, try capitalizing on the good things that happen. Gable et al say that people remember accomplishments longer and get more benefit from them if they share them with others in detail. Why not start by capitalizing with yourself?

Positive intervention to build habits of constructive self-talk

In a journal, keep track of judgmental self talk for 3 days.

For critical or victimized self-talk, try reframing more constructively. For negative events, translate pervasive and permanent statements into event-specific statements. Use the real-time resilience taglines. Frame your way out of being a victim by figuring out what actions and choices are open to you.

For self-praise, analyze whether it is person-praise (label) versus process-praise (addressed to specific situation). If it is person-praise, translate it to process-praise.

For good events, capitalize to yourself. Describe what you did to make the good event happen, how you experienced it, and how others responded.

Go back and read your translations occasionally.

Repeat as needed.

This is a draft of a positive intervention in the making. It is going to take experimentation to figure out how long, how often, how frequently to carry it out. I don’t know whether picking one bit of self-talk per day is better than trying to be exhaustive. Are there forms that are effective for people who don’t keep journals or don’t like to write? All positive interventions have to start somewhere….



Dweck, C. (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education, (pp. 37-60). San Diego, CA, US: Academic Press.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Gable, S., Reis, H., Impett, E., & Asher, E. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87, 228-245.

Kamins, M. and Dweck, C. (1999). Person Versus Process Praise and Criticism: Implications for Contingent Self-Worth and Coping, Developmental Psychology , 35, 3, 835-847.

Krakovsky, M.  (2007, March-April).  The effort effect.  An article about Carol Dweck and her work in the Stanford Magazine, retrieved April 10 2007 from

Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1990, 2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

172/365 courtesy of helgasms!


  • Christine Duvivier says:

    Kathryn, I love your article– it is timely because we just learned about capitalizing in our last onsite. Also, I’ve been teaching my (college-age) children some of these things– so I can send them your article for further understanding. Like you, I wish I had learned all of this sooner.

  • Elona says:

    Thanks for bringing the topic to my attention. I’m with Christine in saying I wish I’d learned about this sooner.

    Do you know of any resources on this topic that would be suitable for teenagers. You know, written at their level. I teach at-risk teens and teach them about multiple intelligences, emotional intelligence and learning styles. I think my students would benefit from learning some strategies to help them become more resilient.

  • Elona,

    The first thing that comes to mind is the Penn Resiliencey Project. Karen Reivich is one of the key scholars on that program, which is geared at middle school students — and probably usable with high school students.

    I also found Amy Fineburg’s seven-day syllabus for teaching general positive psychology to high school students. It is more general than just resilience, but these other topics are important as well:

    Andrew Shatte, one of the co-authors of The Resilience Factor, has been working with a project in Toronto. Here’s a short handout that the project prepared for parents on resilience:

    Darlene Kordich Hall has a paper titled Resilience: Giving Children the Skills to Bounce Back that might be helpful:

    I found the above examples by searching for ‘Penn Resilience Project’ — It seems to be the foundation work, so newer work on the subject tends to reference it.

    Good luck! Sounds like an important effort. Perhaps you can adapt existing resources for your students and then contribute them back to the rest of the community of people concerned with teen resilience.


  • Jeff Dustin says:


    Curb makes me cringe whenever I watch it. Larry just needs to chill a little bit, but never does and he always gets his just desserts. That show is totally about Karma.

    I am pumped about your self talk intervention. It explores an area that sorely needed illumination. Lately, I’ve been skimming some of the brain-based learning and teaching literature and it seems possible through brain plasticity that rewiring your self talk might create durable memories and influence happiness that way.

    Habits might = neuronal networks that fire a lot (read are practiced daily).

    This may point to the power of the ritual. Ritualistic behavior like practicing The Mirror, A Self-Talk Intervention, could become a very powerful but neglected force for positive change.

    Good Job!

  • […] My husband and I recently attended an all-day seminar at UNC called the Assault of Laughter: Satire Across the Ages. One professor showed clips from the TV show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, of Larry David talking to himself in the mirror (Search here for “bathroom mirror” to see script). The camera shifted back and forth between the Larry in the mirror towering up and yelling accusations and the real Larry cowering and promising to do better. It was very funny, but it was also sad because it seemed so static – nothing seemed likely to change. But it doesn’t have to be so.  Click here to read more of  "Self-talk: A positive intervention under construction" […]

  • Glen says:

    The simple notion of talking to and about ourselves as we would choose to have others talk to and about us can make us aware of how differently we would like others to see us, compared to what we know ourselves to be. The idea that you can pull yourself up from the bootstraps by focusing on positives and trying to reconcile negatives as temporary setbacks, can often be the simplest and yet most effective principle of Self-Talk there is.

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