Enhancing our optimism through self-talk


We know an optimist when we see one. What we don’t know is if this person was simply born that way or if they have learnt to look at life in a more positive way. Can we change our mindset? Does a pessimist have a chance to become less negative? Research by Dr Martin Seligman shows we all have our individual explanatory style. Yes, it’s our self-talk.

We explain to ourselves – aloud or in our head – why a particular event or an experience is either positive or negative. Our self-talk shapes our world’s view. It’s time to pay more attention to our explanatory style. Why? Once we become more aware of our self-talk, we can learn to bounce back from setbacks more quickly and enjoy our achievements more fully. We can begin to change our mindset and grow.


Negative self-talk 

When we engage in negative self-talk we usually view past and new challenges as (1) permanent or (2) spread everywhere or (3) very personal.

  1.    This is pointless, I’ll never be able to buy eggs again.

  2.    Everybody in my town ignores the social distancing rules. I hate shopping.

  3.    What’s wrong with me? Why am I the only one who doesn’t understand it?


When we engage in negative self-talk, we usually see any good experience as (1) temporary or (2) specific or (3) external.

1.    I can’t imagine this nice weather will last all month. It’s just a short sunny spell.

2.    I was so lucky to buy some eggs yesterday. I bet my luck runs out when I go shopping again.

3.    The success of our project was a team effort and I don’t deserve any recognition.


Positive self-talk 

When we engage in positive self-talk, we typically see setbacks as (1) temporary or (2) specific or (3) external.

1.    I couldn’t buy any eggs today but I’ll try again later in the week. It’s tricky but not impossible.

2.    Next time I go shopping, I’ll try to avoid shoppers who walk around while talking on a mobile phone. I don’t want people to bump into me.

3.    These experts used complicated facts and figures when they talked, no wonder I couldn’t understand half of it.


When we engage in positive self-talk, we often see any good experience as (1) permanent or (2) far reaching or (3) very personal.

1.    I’ve just passed my first exam. I think I can succeed with all of them from now on.

2.    My kind neighbour has helped with my garden. I feel like I can count on many people in my community.

3.    I baked my first banana loaf. The recipe was easy to follow but it was my enthusiasm that made it all effortless and fun.


Understanding our explanatory style  

How do we change our explanatory style? Gradually. We can start by making a list of our recent experiences and then organising these into four categories based on the self-talk that followed:

  • Good experience + optimistic explanatory style

  • Bad experience + optimistic explanatory style

  • Good experience + pessimistic explanatory style

  • Bad experience + pessimistic explanatory style


Once the list is complete, we are able to better understand our self-talk and figure out if it becomes negative more frequently in certain circumstances. Sometimes it may come as a surprise we lack optimism after a fairly good experience. Try this exercise to improve your self-awareness.


Developing our optimism 

We often focus on bad experiences more. Our brain has a natural negativity bias. Imagine you have recently bought a great pair of shoes and you received several pleasant comments from friends and family but you also heard one unpleasant remark. Can you guess which remark will stick around in your head the longest?

How do we learn to become more optimistic? Here are ABCD steps to shift our mindset in the positive direction:

1.    Awareness – be aware of your explanatory style.

2.    Boldness – be bold and set an intention to allow more optimism in your life.

3.    Contentment – be content when you make some progress, and take a conscious note of your achievement, no matter how big or how small.

4.    Diligence – be diligent and when you make a mistake or fail, look for evidence this setback is temporary and something you can learn from and grow.


Are you ready to change your mindset? Try it! Pay more attention to your self-talk and work on your self-awareness. Don’t expect this transformation will happen overnight. It’s a journey so it takes some courage, some effort and a little bit of patience. It could be fun too! And there are benefits as well like better mental health, more resilience and more joy in everyday life. Working on our negative self-talk can help us better cope with current discomforts and be more optimistic about the future we can’t yet see.


Monika Waller, RB Mind Trustee and Positive Psychology Coach, examines the importance of recognising and understanding our inner voice.