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Thinking Your Way Up the Self-Talk Ladder

the self-talk ladderRecently, I attempted to track down an interesting quote about how the average person tends to repeat five times more negative than positive messages about himself or herself.

The surprise was what I got when I hit “enter.”

I got lots of hits describing how positive self-talk can backfire on us.

In fact, the more I read about this topic, the worse I felt. Apparently, if you suffer from low self-esteem and you try to raise it by repeating positive self-talk messages, you have a greater chance of making yourself feel worse than better.

This totally makes sense to me, by the way.

As someone who is slowly recovering from a lifetime of low self-esteem, I have put in my time and then some repeating those very same positive self-talk messages – usually with ever-worsening results.

It would seem the key is to choose to repeat messages that actually feel believable or possible, which (understandably) can be quite a feat if you are feeling like total crap.

But in this new era of studying the mind-body connection and finding that they are connected, well, all over the place, there is also an ongoing eagerness to learn to feel better in body AND in mind by making the mind a more positive place to live…or at least visit from time to time.

And I can say this. As I have continued on my recovery journey, I have become much kinder towards myself, if through no other mechanism than sheer dogged determination to do so.

In other words, after innumerable years of oh so many failed affirmations, one or two of them must have finally stuck. And once that happened, the others were easier to wedge into my brain alongside the surviving trailblazers.

But I wouldn’t be able to describe to you exactly how I did it, save for this little juicy tidbit I actually picked up from a book called “Ask and It is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires” by Esther and Jerry Hicks.

This is one of many books that often seem like variations on the theme of the popular “law of attraction” theories.

And don’t get me wrong here.

While to this day I have zero problem with developing an ability to bring more of what I want and less of what I don’t want into my life, I must also acknowledge that sometimes it is precisely the stuff I really don’t want that has turned out to be the same stuff I really do need in order to learn how to get more of what I want and less of what I don’t.

If that makes any type of obscure sense at all.

So even though I know the “Law of Attraction” has been a big blessing for some folks, it has never really worked well for me in a sense, because it actually tries to get me from A to Z  (or at least A to B) a lot faster than is healthy or even possible for me.

In other words, I actually seem to need a road map with more dead ends and roadblocks and wrong directions so I can learn the stuff I need to learn before I can learn the stuff I want to learn.

(I will totally understand if that didn’t make a single bit of sense at all!)

But what I learned while reading “Ask and It is Given” is also the reason I now know that repeating strong positive self-talk statements doesn’t work when I am in a particularly negative self-talk state. It doesn’t work because I don’t believe any of it – not for a minute.

So instead of soaking in the good vibes of all that rosy-positive self-talk, I am typically busy giving myself a stern lecture about spending yet another day blowing smoke up my own a**.

What DOES work, however, is this:

I reach for a thought that feels just a little bit better than whatever awful thought my mind has been thinking ad nauseam about myself.

So if I’m thinking, “I am the worst, most-selfish and worthless person on the planet,” I don’t try to immediately replace that thought with, “I am the kindest and most-wonderful person on the planet.”

As if. I wasn’t born yesterday.

Instead, I might replace it with a thought that feels just a little bit better – i.e. just a little bit more accurate, such as this thought, “Well, okay, I’m probably not the worst person on the whole planet. I mean, at least I’m not an axe murderer.”

That thought feels better. It also feels accurate – i.e., still true.” So my mind doesn’t waste any real energy or time trying to contradict it. In an odd and absolutely counter-intuitive way, suddenly I’m not feeling quite so bad about being me.

Once that thought settles in, I can then reach for the next “not quite so bad feeling thought.” So maybe that might be, “In fact, yesterday I got out of bed to feed my animals even though I didn’t want to. So that was unselfish – kind of nice, actually.”

Here again, the statement is true. My mind can’t argue the point since I did in fact get up, get out of the bed, clean out their habitats, and give them fresh food and water.

That thought also feels just a little bit better than, “well at least I’m not an axe murderer.” 

By continuing to do this, replacing a really awful-feeling thought with one that is still accurate but feels slightly less awful, I can work my way up the ladder from totally negative self-talk to increasingly positive self-talk that is still accurate and provable.

Since each teensy tiny incremental shift towards a more positive self-talk statement feels just the smallest bit better, as I continue to do this, I slowly begin to feel just the tiniest and most incrementally bit better about myself, about my life, and about being me.

I will tell you, when I first was teaching myself how to do this, I had to practice A LOT.

In fact, even though “Ask and It is Given” is a rather thick book (from what I can recall) with lots of ideas and chapters in it, this exercise is the only one I remember out of the whole book.

It is the one that “stuck.” It is the one I felt I could do, with authenticity and honesty, and it really did help me.

It still helps me today, although thankfully these days I typically do not have to start at the very bottom rung of the self-esteem thought ladder anymore.

But regardless of where I find myself on any given day, thinking a thought that feels a tiny bit better and is also still accurate than whatever thought I’m thinking that is making me miserable still works.

It works because my mind never turns down a good debate. It works because it builds on my own ability to be honest and accurate – something that also makes me feel better about being me.

And it works because it works – because whatever the heinous thought of the day is, thinking anything better than that always feels, well, better.

Today’s Takeaway: How do you relate to repeating affirmations or adopting a practice of positive self-talk? Have you found particular approaches or techniques more useful? Have you ever tried the tactic from “Ask and It is Given?” What works best to get your mind out of the self-gutter and back up above ground and into the sun again?

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Thinking Your Way Up the Self-Talk Ladder

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2016). Thinking Your Way Up the Self-Talk Ladder. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Sep 2016
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