The voice in our heads

“Put some voices in my head, please!” 

Professor David Bredehoft, former chair of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department at Concordia University, suggests that affirmations – short statements made to ourselves regularly – can lead to improved well-being and life satisfaction.

We have a voice running constantly in our heads, he tells us, and this commentary or ‘self-talk,’ works with our conscious thoughts and unconscious biases to help us interpret and process our daily experiences.  It has a big influence on the way we process these experiences.

Dr. Bredehoft suggests that by training ourselves to push away constant, self-critical thoughts or negative “put-downs,” and replace them with affirmations, we can learn from our experiences and develop improved self-image, a more positive mindset, and improve our life satisfaction and well-being. Daily affirmations are also often used by therapists to treat depression, negative thinking, low self-esteem, and self-doubt.


The theory of self-affirmation was developed by social psychologist Professor Claude Steele of Stanford University in the late 1980s. It describes how individuals adapt to information or experiences that are threatening to their beliefs about themselves. In recent years, self-affirmation has been popularized by the self-help movement as one of the tools in the practice of positive thinking and self-empowerment.  

Research studies have validated that self-affirmation through self-talk – either internal or aloud – can be beneficial, if done correctly. Self-talk in the second or third person, as opposed to addressing ourselves in the first person, has been found to be more effective, because it creates a psychological distance and helps us face challenging moments more calmly.

Self-talk is most useful when it focuses on how to thrive, helping us to take a wider view of our lives and opportunities, instead of the near-term perceived threats or obstacles. It should also include acknowledging our doubts and fears. Some practitioners advocate using strategies of metacognition – the practice of being aware of one’s own thinking – to become better thinkers and decision-makers. It is a process of self-reflection that helps us make meaning of situations and circumstances.

Wishful thinking?

Self-affirmation can curb negative outcomes; however, sociologists caution that self-affirmations alone don’t work. Moreover, as Professor Timothy Wilson cautions in his book Strangers to Ourselves, too much introspection can actually do damage. Affirmations can increase our self-confidence and belief in our own abilities. They help us overcome fear and self-doubt, and help us look at the positive side.

However, they are only part of the solution and need to be paired with other techniques to be effective. We also need to act and put in our best efforts, shift our mindset, and work towards our goals. As Jeffrey Davis frames it, “With a more nuanced understanding of how to moderate our negative emotions, we must develop a skillset of learned optimism.”

Practicing Learned Optimism

The term Learned Optimism was coined by Dr. Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who is widely regarded as the father of positive psychology. In contrast to wishful thinking, Dr. Seligman presents learned optimism as a conscious practice of viewing the world from a positive perspective.  He is the author of over 30 books, including Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life: a national bestseller based on more than twenty years of clinical research, that demonstrates how optimism enhances the quality of life, and how anyone can learn to practice it.

Learn your ABCDE

The practice of learned optimism is tied to hope. To quote Mr. Davis once again: “learned optimism, like hope, is much more than a glass-half-full outlook on life. It is about acknowledging our struggles and reframing them in a way that empowers us to reclaim our agency and direct the course of our life.”

To help us with this reframing, Dr. Seligman developed the ABCDE model, which guides us through a process to learn optimism and unlearn helplessness and negativity. 

ABCDE stands for Adversity, Belief, Consequences, Disputation and Energization. The approach guides you through a set of exercises.  In brief, think of a challenge – an adverse situation you faced. Examine your beliefs – how did you assess yourself when faced with this challenge? What were your reactions? What did you think?

Now, assess these beliefs and their consequences.  What resulted from these beliefs? Did they help you move forward or hold you back? Did negative self-talk make it harder to meet the challenge?

Next, look at those limiting beliefs and dispute them. Find ways to disprove them. With training these exercises help you change your mindset, triggered by the realization that your negative self-talk was unfounded, and result in increasing your energy and motivation to think differently about yourself going forward. As with other skills, this learning and transformation requires effort and persistence.

What’s your style?

Take a moment to assess yourself. What is your style – your tendency – when you tell yourself why something happened in your life?  Are you generally optimistic? Are you typically pessimistic, ending up with a feeling of helplessness?  Has adversity in life backed you into a corner, and caused a change in your style? Do you need to kickstart and regain your belief in a positive future? 

If so, talk to yourself – with intention this time, and follow that up with positive action: learn, or re-learn optimism! Begin to believe in a positive future, and your ability to tackle whatever comes your way as you work towards your goals.

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within...