Positive Self-Talk

Printable Version

How Do I Learn How To Do It or Make Sure That I Am Doing It Right?

Posted on May 31, 2013 by Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors Blog

By: Carla S. Oliver, MSW, CCLS

The Power of Positive Affirmations

For many years, sports psychologists have recognized the importance of positive self-talk in helping athletes achieve their fullest potential. Everyone who plays a competitive sport or who competes at a serious level faces tough times and obstacles to success: pain (physical and mental), less than perfect conditions, challenging opponents, fatigue, and exhaustion. The only way an athlete can be successful when facing these difficult situations is to have powerful self-belief and great determination. Positive self-talk is one tool that athletes use to achieve their very best in competition.

The concept is far from new. Those of you who are old enough may recall Stuart Smalley, a Saturday Night Live (SNL) character from the early 1990s. Stuart was a goofy character who became well known for his “Daily Affirmations” bit each week.  He had lots of catch phrases, but the most well known that we heard as he stood in front of his mirror in each episode was, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.”

Despite the fact that Stuart was a character in a silly SNL skit, he was truly onto something. Positive affirmations affect our attitude. Our attitude, which can be greatly assisted by reminding ourselves of the positives, truly determines the direction in which our lives go. I have seen this over and over again throughout my personal life, and even more throughout my professional life. In my 20-plus years as a child life specialist, I have seen that the outcomes for people who have a positive outlook are largely successful, while those who have a more negative outlook seem to struggle from one problem to the next.

In the book The Power of TED (The Empowerment Dynamic) by David Emerald, the validity of this concept is demonstrated. In a “fable,” we are introduced to a man who finds himself wallowing in self-pity for all that is wrong in his life (death of a parent; infertility, leading to divorce, etc.,). Every aspect of his life is hurting him, causing him to feel alone and full of self-pity. Then he meets Ted, a man who helps him learn how to become a “creator” (defined in the book to be the complete opposite of victim.) The simplified premise is that it easier for us to become “victims” to all that is wrong in our lives rather than to create solutions that will empower us to realize positive outcomes.

Moving From Victim to Survivor

The use of the word “victim” in the book was striking to me. It is a word that many years ago I would have used to describe anyone who had sustained a burn injury or any trauma. However, when I started my career in burns more than 15 years ago, I immediately discovered that the children and families I encountered were far from victims,—they were survivors. This simple, yet important, distinction is what I would like you to use as you continue to read this article. We are not victims. We are survivors.

Beyond Surviving: Tools for Thriving

As you access Phoenix Society resources, you will notice that the concept of “self-talk” is discussed in many of them. That includes the social skills training program, Beyond Surviving: Tools for Thriving, one of the Phoenix Society’s new Online Learning courses. Developed by Barbara Kammerer Quayle, it teaches the use of two important tools: STEPS, for achieving social comfort and confidence, and Rehearse Your Responses (RYR), for responding to awkward questions, uncomfortable social situation, or bullying. Both STEPS and RYR require a pause to think before speaking. RYR requires you to remind yourself, “I can handle this easily and confidently.” STEPS begins with positive self-talk, such as “I love and accept myself the way I am and the way I am not,” and results in a realization that when faced with a challenge, “I can do it!”

But, what if we can’t think of anything positive?  What if we have beaten ourselves up so much that our self-talk is more like an internal bully? Instead of lifting us up, it undermines and criticizes us. This is when we must make ourselves work at changing our self-talk.

For many adults and adolescents, this is easier said than done. If we have spent our lives focused on all that is wrong with us, all the things we aren’t good at, how do we retrain ourselves to change?

In children, this might come easier. As we know, some children show resiliency after experiencing difficult situations. However, in my years of working with kids I have found that this really has more to do with someone’s temperament and personality rather than age.

I remember reading an article in 2011 about Sarah Bazey, a burn survivor who made the decision that she would not let her scars define her life. The authors described an extremely poignant moment in her life (a short time after her discharge from the burn center and right after a tough day of therapy) when she completely broke down: “She allowed herself 30 minutes to pity all that wasn’t in her life. Thirty minutes of pure bitterness, sadness, hurt, anger, and tears. And then…hope again. After all, what had always been a part of her life in the first place was a positive attitude. ‘I can do this’ was a refrain all too familiar to her. It was time to echo that conviction again.” Sarah’s positive self-talk played a key role in her recovery.

An Exercise in Self-Talk

Consider the following concepts to make your self-talk work for you rather than against you:


This process requires you to give yourself the time to self-reflect and to jot down each thought. It can be difficult to not only find but to justify the time to commit to this endeavor, but it is an essential step to the process. The goal is to become consciously aware each time you engage in self-talk. To do this, you must acknowledge that making a commitment to change to positive thinking without being intimate with the thoughts that run through our minds would be impossible.

For most of us, self-talk is so habitual that we are completely unaware that we are doing it. Therein lies the problem...if we are going to change our self-talk, we need to be aware of these thoughts as they happen. We must take the time to notice the things that you say to yourself during your day. For me, it was helpful to keep a small journal nearby and make a conscious effort to write down everything I thought to myself. You might be amazed how much you do it when you are actually paying attention to it!


The next step is to look at how much of your self-talk is negative and how much is positive. If any of it is negative, ask yourself : Is there any real evidence for this thought? So many times our thoughts and the way we perceive ourselves and our shortcomings come from our own childhood and adolescence. These are called self-fulfilling prophecies. Somewhere along our development we were told that we weren’t good at something or we were made fun of for a perceived flaw.  We took this opinion and made it come true. (For example, “She is just so absent- minded. She would forget her head if it wasn’t screwed on.” The next thing you know, she believes it, and these messages play out in her self-talk: “I shouldn’t take on X responsibility, or I can’t ever do X… I am too absent-minded.) These scripts can be really difficult to get out of our heads and many times we make them come true. But we must eliminate them, because they do not accurately define who we are.

The next question, then, should be the complete opposite of the first: Is there any evidence against this thought? (For example, if you are deciding not to attend a party where you won’t know many of the other guests because, you tell yourself, “People judge me because I [am too fat/thin/tall/short/have physical/developmental/emotional differences…or [fill in your blank here]).  

In the book Crucial Conversations, the authors spend a great deal of time illustrating how each and every one of us makes up stories in our own minds, that are often so far from reality, but we truly believe that they are true. In the training, they focus on reminding us to separate facts from stories. Furthermore, we need to stop turning others into villains. Instead we should ask ourselves, “Why would any reasonable, rational, and decent person do this?”

The following questions can also be helpful in evaluating self-talk:

If I were giving advice to someone in this exact same situation, what would that look like?

Most times, if we are completely honest with ourselves, we wouldn’t dream of allowing our friend/family member to get away with it. For example, if your friend didn’t want to go to a party for any reason, what would you say?   I’ll bet it would sound something like, “Don’t be ridiculous! You are so fun/nice/interesting/whatever. People will love meeting you and spending time with you.”  So, why are we constantly our harshest critic?

Is there a way to reframe the situation, and look at it in a more positive way?

For example, If I go to the party, I might actually have fun! I might meet some new and interesting people, and develop some new relationships.

Am I keeping things in perspective?        

We can be masterful at blowing things way out of proportion. A great example of this came from a close friend who once told me, “Anytime that I walk into a public area, I feel like everyone is whispering… ‘Look at that _____ (again, fill in your blank) woman.’ It’s easier to just stay home.”

To put this in perspective, what are the odds that people even notice that anyone is even walking in?  Chances are, in this day of technology, that the majority of the people will either have their eyes glued to their phones or will be engaged in conversation with someone, and not even look up. Of those that do, the notion that every one of them will be thinking something so negative is just plain silly.

Is this the right place to be focusing my energy?

At some point, you have to stop and think about where you are spending your time and energy. If it is wrapped up in negative thoughts and self-doubt rather than good things, you will become completely exhausted. Instead, make a commitment to change it, even if you only take baby steps.


Committing to Changing Your Self-Talk

If you decide that your self-talk is more on the pessimistic side, make a decision to replace your existing negative thoughts with more positive alternatives.

Changing self-talk requires some time and practice, since our ways of thinking tend to be quite ingrained. This is an ongoing effort and commitment.

Ultimately, the hope is that you connect with even one of these concepts and that you find a new level of comfort in situations that are uncomfortable. At the very least, may you feel empowered to be in complete control of your situation and your future.


Emerald, D. The Power of TED. Bainbridge Island, WA: Polaris Publishing; 2009.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., Switzler, A. Crucial Conversatons: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2002.
Fowler, S., Calman-Holt, K. “Sarah Bazey Deciding to Live a Life Not Defined by Scars.” Burn Support News. Spring 2011:2-4.


Carla S. Oliver, MSW, CCLS, is the manager of the therapeutic recreation/child life department at Children’s Hospital Colorado. She has practiced in the field of child life for more than 20 years, with the majority of her career dedicated to working with pediatric burn survivors and their families. Carla is a member of the mental health team for the World Burn Congress, where she has also co-presented the parent workshop for 4 years. She will be presenting the workshop at WBC 2013. Carla is also president-elect of the Child Life Council effective May 2013.


The Phoenix Society, Inc.® • 1835 R W Berends Dr. SW • Grand Rapids, MI 49519-4955 • 800.888.BURN • http://www.phoenix-society.org.  All Rights Reserved.