A Better Way to Give Yourself a Pep Talk

There’s a simple reason affirmations don’t work

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I’m smart. I’m funny. I’m successful. People like me. This is a not-even-close-to-exhaustive list of things I wish I believed about myself on a given day –– the kind of stuff that, in the event no one else was around to give me a pep talk, I’d probably recite in a mirror with yesterday’s mascara running down my face. (All the more reason for a pep talk, I guess.)

As woo woo as it sounds, there’s plenty of evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that can help people challenge self-sabotaging thinking and in turn change their behavior, works. Therapists often use CBT to treat depression and anxiety, but you use it every time you talk yourself out of an emotional spiral or give yourself a pep talk to do something hard.

Affirmations, or punchy, positive statements, are one way to redirect your thinking. Some people believe self-affirmations target the unconscious mind, and by doing so, they improve your emotional well-being and even impact your habits and routines. The problem is, when you feel like crap about yourself, looking in the mirror and saying “I’m awesome” doesn’t just feel silly. It feels like lying. And chances are, you won’t benefit too much from a pep talk you don’t actually believe.

According to Laura Froyen, PhD, a Wisconsin-based parenting consultant and human development and family studies expert, there’s a simple way to bridge the gap between what you want to think and what you currently think about yourself. The key? Make your affirmations more believable.

Instead of starting with the big stuff, picture a ladder, with the belief you want to work up to. Each rung represents a simple affirmation –– ideally, one you can accept and internalize right now –– that you can build on over time. For example, if your goal is to believe you’re amazing at your job and start performing accordingly, start with “I’m not feeling great about myself today, but I’m doing my best.” Once you start to believe that, you can move on to the next rung –– “I’m learning something new every day” or “I’m getting closer to where I want to be.”

As you rehearse more believable affirmations, you’ll be able to convince yourself of the bigger stuff one rung at a time. It might take longer than you want, but in the process, you’ll learn two important lessons: how to persevere toward a long-term goal and, just as importantly, how to trust yourself in the process.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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