Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 2 ed.

Chapter 5. Developing Cognitive Skills Through Your Internal Dialogue

We have thousands of thoughts a day. Our internal dialogue or self-talk is one of the most powerful tools we have.

In this chapter you will learn about the different types of thought you have and how to change them using force and rigour.

The relationship between beliefs and thoughts is shown by this modified diagram from Chapter 2.

This time the relationship is a little more elaborate. You will notice the arrows going in both directions, indicating that beliefs influence what you think, and what you think influences what you believe. Your thoughts influence your performance and your performance may trigger your thoughts. Finally, your performances and beliefs also influence each other.

This interaction can be healthy or unhealthy, helpful or unhelpful. If your belief is healthy, the interaction between your thoughts, performance and belief is also healthy, but if your belief is unhealthy so is the interaction.

Cycle diagram from Belief (top) to Self-talk (right) to Your performance and behaviour (left).

Internal Dialogue or Self-Talk

On any given day, thousands of thoughts go through your mind. Some of these thoughts are called ‘internal dialogue’ or ‘self-talk’. They tend to be the things you say about yourself when you face challenges, obstacles or problems throughout the day. Self-talk usually happens in your head at normal speed. It is just the usual dialogue you have with yourself.

All of us engage in self-talk as part of our cognitive process. What happens when your self-talk is negative and unhelpful? Years of negative, unhelpful self-talk will have an impact. If you continue to feed your mind negative self-talk, eventually you will end up developing an unhealthy belief about yourself or your abilities. This belief will in turn trigger more negative self-talk. The emotional results − and your success − will be hugely influenced by this. Negative self-talk will result in a vicious cycle and become a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. This means that as your negative self-talk is maintained, your unhealthy beliefs become stronger and your performance and emotions more badly affected. So essentially you end up thinking ‘see, I knew I wouldn't be able to do it, that's typical’.

You will recognize negative self-talk from the following expressions:

·        That sounds difficult

·        I don't think that I can do it

·        I'm sure I will mess it up

·        I'm not that good

·        I'll probably fail

·        I've always been this way

·        I give up, it's too much

·        I can't believe you'd want me on your team

·        I don't know much about anything

·        I don't think I'm going to do a good job

·        I don't think I'll impress anyone

·        It's just little old me

If you fill your mind with such thoughts from the moment you wake up until you go to bed, their negativity will impact on you in a fundamental way whenever you think about yourself and your abilities.

If you hold an unhealthy belief, negative self-talk tends to be at its worst when you make a commitment to do something or when there is pressure. It is vital that you are mindful of this when you set goals and begin the process of changing unhealthy irrational beliefs.

Negative Automatic Thoughts

Negative automatic thoughts (NAT) are the things that you always say to yourself in the same specific situations, such as going to a job interview. They are called ‘automatic’ because you do not take time to analyse whether they are true or not. You just accept them. They tend to be based on assumptions rather than facts. They are the product of unhealthy beliefs and, if they are not challenged, they reinforce the unhealthy belief.

It is important that you become aware of your negative automatic thoughts and the situations in which they occur, because changing them is another way for you to strengthen your healthy belief, your emotions and results. It is a good idea to identify the unhealthy beliefs that are triggered when you set a goal and the negative automatic thoughts that stem from them. Distracting yourself from them and engaging in sabotaging behaviours will not make them go away.

You will recognize negative automatic thoughts because the unhealthy belief is usually triggered. Negative automatic thoughts also tend to differ from self-talk in that you feel they come into your head faster than ordinary internal dialogue.

Your Hot Thoughts

Hot thoughts are specific unhealthy beliefs that you become very conscious of, usually in times of intense emotional disturbance. Most unhealthy beliefs tend to be just beyond our conscious awareness, but when the belief is triggered, and particularly when the demand is not being met, you will experience unhealthy negative emotions such as anxiety, anger or rage very intensely. On such occasions your thoughts will be extreme, for example, awfulizing, low frustration tolerance and self- or other-damning patterns may become more pronounced. You will be more aware of thoughts like ‘this is terrible’, ‘I can't bear this’ or ‘I'm so useless’ or ‘he's horrible’.


Write down your goal, your unhealthy belief and your healthy belief, together with the ‘what's in it for me’ reasons.

Look at your unhealthy belief and reflect on the type of thoughts it provokes.

Break these thoughts down into:


Your usual internal dialogue about the problem, for example ‘I'm not into going to the gym’.

Negative Automatic Thoughts

The rushed thoughts you have when you are in a situation feeling uncomfortable, for example ‘exercising is so boring’.

Hot Thoughts

For example, ‘I can't stand being in the gym a moment longer’.

How to Change Internal Dialogue

You already know that habits can be good, bad or neutral. First you start to think about something, then you start to repeat it, and before long it becomes the way you think. It becomes normal and usual. This is the process of habit formation.

Applying the habitual process to self-talk, you will see that it is exactly the same. If you start thinking negatively and do not question the truth, sense or helpfulness of your thoughts but just keep repeating the same old nonsense, then it becomes a habit. Negative self-talk is nothing more than an old bad habit. And you can change it.

The first step in any change process is to identify the problem and then set a goal. You will need to become aware of your negative self-talk by noticing how you describe yourself and your abilities, and what you say about yourself when you are faced with challenges and obstacles. If your general tendency is to say ‘I give up’, or ‘it's too hard’, your self-talk is unhelpful to you given your desire to achieve a goal.

After identifying your negative self-talk, think about a more helpful thing to say. For example, if you identify your negative self-talk as ‘I give up’, the more helpful thought would be ‘I'll persist, I don't give up easily’.

Typical examples:

Negative Self-Talk

Helpful Self-Talk

That sounds difficult

It sounds challenging

I don't think that I can do it

I will have a good go

I'm sure I will mess it up

I want to do it well

I'm not that good

I'm looking forward to learning

I'll probably fail

I want to succeed

I've always been this way

I'm open to change

I give up, it's too much

I'm resilient, I don't give up easily

I can't believe you'd want me on your team

Thanks, I'm looking forward to it

I don't know much about anything

I'm eager to learn

I don't think I'm going to do a good job

I will do my very best

I don't think I'll impress anyone

I'm nervous but will go for it

It's just little old me

It's me

These examples are just some of many possible versions of helpful self-talk. Finding your own helpful expressions will make it much easier to integrate them into your thinking.

It is important to remember that your helpful self-talk has to be supported by your healthy belief. If you just work on your self-talk but ignore your healthy belief, the helpful self-talk becomes more difficult to believe. For example, if you take the negative self-talk ‘I'll probably fail’ and the helpful self-talk ‘I want to succeed’, you will see that the unhealthy belief ‘I must not fail because if I fail it proves I'm a failure’ will sabotage your helpful self-talk. So your healthy belief about failure or success becomes: ‘I want to succeed but that does not mean I must and if I fail, it does not mean I am a failure. I remain worthwhile but fallible regardless.’ Reciting the healthy belief will allow you to integrate the more positive self-talk of ‘I want to succeed’.

Essentially you are starting the process of energizing the healthy belief by reciting it and by feeding your mind helpful self-talk while stopping the negative self-talk.

You can see the process more easily in the diagram below:

Diagram depicting the change of internal dialogue from reciting healthy beliefs to repeating helpful self-talk to gradual change of performance and emotions and vice versa.

How to Change Negative Automatic Thoughts

You can apply the same process to changing your negative automatic thoughts. Begin by identifying the negative automatic thoughts that are the cognitive consequence of your unhealthy belief. Write down more helpful versions that fit with the healthy belief you wish to strengthen in order to achieve your goal. Then replace the negative automatic thoughts as they come into your awareness with their helpful versions and recite your healthy belief. Repeat this process until the helpful thoughts become normal and usual.

Negative automatic thoughts tend to be present in specific situ-ations. This means you will need to be prepared to replace them with their helpful versions there and then, and to recite your healthy belief. Becoming familiar with them in advance will make it easier for you when you are in the situation itself.

The following are some examples of negative automatic thoughts and their helpful counterparts.

Negative Automatic Thoughts

Helpful versions

No one here likes me

Some people will like me

She's bored with me

We have different interests


I accept this possibility

I can't think of anything funny to say

I'll just be me, I'll say something funny when I'm ready

I can't enjoy myself

I will learn to enjoy myself sooner or later

These helpful versions need to be supported by the healthy belief.

How to Change Your Hot Thoughts

Changing your hot thoughts will yield the best and quickest results. If you are really challenged as a result of your worst scenario happening – for example failing, finding out someone thinks negatively of you, being treated unfairly – and you take control of your thoughts by changing them to their healthy versions in that moment, you will be taking a big step in changing your unhealthy belief. Your healthy belief will help you to deal with the negative situation in the most helpful and constructive way.

The following are some examples of hot thoughts and their healthy counterparts.

Hot thoughts

Healthy versions

I can't stand this

I can stand this. It's hard but I can stand it

It's horrible

It's not horrible. It's bad but not horrible

I'm such a loser

I am not a loser. I'm fallible; some people will like me and some won't


Write down your goal and healthy belief together with the ‘what's in it for me’ reasons.

Look at the negative examples of self-talk, negative automatic thoughts and hot thoughts you worked on in the previous exercise.

Work out their helpful and healthy versions and write them down as follows:

Helpful Self-Talk

For example, ‘I'm learning to enjoy going to the gym’.

Helpful version of Negative Automatic Thoughts

If the negative automatic thought was ‘exercising is so boring’, the helpful thought could be ‘exercising is challenging at the moment but good for my goal’.

Healthy version of Hot Thoughts

If the hot thought is ‘I can't stand being in the gym for a moment longer’, the healthy version would be ‘I can definitely stand being in the gym for another half an hour even though it's challenging at the moment’.

Start rehearsing and repeating the healthy versions each time the negative or unhelpful thoughts come into your mind.

Support your helpful thinking by reciting your healthy beliefs when you are challenged.

Past, Present and Future Expressions

Remember that when you describe yourself, you reinforce positive or negative traits and characteristics. For example, you may automatically say, ‘I've always been like this’. In striving for your goals, you need to bring the present and what you are currently doing into your self-talk.

You are usually unaware of how your internal dialogue or self-talk reinforces your healthy or unhealthy beliefs, attitudes and traits. You may carelessly use expressions like, ‘yes, that's so me’ when you have forgotten something, or you may say, ‘I'm always late’. You are allowing these thoughts to continue filtering through your mind, shaping how you think of yourself. If you decide that you want to make a change and achieve your goal, it is important to acknowledge that you are now striving for change and to be mindful of expressions that describe you as you were in the past, with your old habits and attitudes.

Essentially, your self-talk decides that you ‘are’ or ‘are not’ a particular way. If you say ‘I find going to the gym boring’ then you are confirming and reinforcing a past attitude – you are not ‘someone who likes the gym’. You may think, ‘but that's how I feel about it’. The truth of the matter is that's how you have felt about it up to now. There is a possibility that you may change that thinking if you are open to it, and particularly if you have an important goal to achieve. Expressions based on past conditioning do not take your goal into consideration. If you have a goal to lose weight and going to the gym is one of your weight loss strategies, telling yourself that you are someone who doesn't like the gym will affect your motivation. All you are doing is affirming old thinking, bringing the past into the present and into your future. Instead, you can bring your goal, choice and desires into your mind when you are thinking about the gym.

Changing your self-talk expressions gives you a simple and truthful way of talking about the present. You don't have to lie by telling yourself that you love going to the gym. That would be too far removed from the current truth. But you can say, ‘I am choosing to go to the gym and hopefully will learn to enjoy it because I have a goal to achieve’. This new self-talk is a more accurate reflection of what you are now doing and wanting to achieve.

It is equally important to affirm your success and the fact that you are now challenging old traits and behaviours. This is about taking responsibility and acknowledging the helpful changes you are now making. Instead of criticizing yourself, you can give yourself a pat on the back and congratulate yourself on your success or hard work.

You have now learned a way of talking and thinking that is grounded in resiliency and high tolerance of discomfort when you are challenging yourself.


I used to be someone who hated getting up early; now I choose to get up early to have more time because I want to achieve my goal. In time, getting up early will be easier.

I used to be someone who always said yes; now I'm learning to be more assertive so I'm learning to say no.

I used to be someone who found socializing very hard; now I'm learning to stretch my comfort zone and hopefully I will learn to enjoy it.

I used to be someone who got very anxious; now I'm learning new ways to deal with my feelings and eventually I will feel calm.

I used to be someone who procrastinated a lot; now I'm learning how to beat that habit because I want to be more productive.


Write your goal and healthy beliefs down, for example:

Goal: To be confident in social situations in six months' time. Healthy belief: I'd really like people to like me but they don't have to. If they don't, it doesn't mean I'm a failure. I'm worthy but fallible.

Reflect on the self-talk expressions about your traits and habits that are unhelpful to your goal because they fixate you on the past. Write these expressions down, for example: ‘I'm always shy in social situations.’

Use the above examples to express your constructive thoughts more truthfully so they can support your goal. For example: ‘I used to be shy in social situations. Now I'm learning to be confident by working on my healthy belief.’

Force and Rigour

Your thinking needs to be forceful and passionate, like that of those teachers who are very effective at lecturing or presenting and engage your attention and interest. Positively persuasive and memorable teachers are skilled at the following:

·        explaining their subject;

·        enabling students to personalize the information;

·        helping students understand the benefits of what they are learning;

·        capturing the attention of their students.

One of the main reasons their subjects appear more interesting and lively is that the information is communicated in a forceful, passionate, energetic and lively manner. Passion and energy help the message to be communicated well, enabling it to sink in and become integrated into the listener's psyche. The same applies when you want to replace your old unhealthy beliefs with the healthy ones.

Healthy beliefs integrate into the psyche more effectively if you rehearse and recite them with force and energy, as opposed to in a lacklustre, half-hearted manner. This way you will believe the healthy beliefs quicker. When this happens your emotions will change accordingly.

You can see how this also applies to your:

·        self-talk

·        helpful thoughts and

·        healthy thoughts.

Think about what happens if you recite your healthy belief in a half-hearted way. For example, read the following in a low, weak voice:

‘I am a worthwhile, valuable but fallible person.’

They are just words and reading them in this way conveys no feeling in your body.

Passion, forcefulness and the energy you put behind your words matter when you are trying to trigger an emotional response. Now read the same words, putting all these elements into your voice as you read them:


You are in the process of changing a habit. This may feel odd at first, but with repetition you will get used to it provided you already know in your head that it is a true, logical and helpful statement. Remember that your feelings will change last. If you did not feel odd when reading it with energy and passion, you will have noticed a stronger positive emotion in your body.


Start rehearsing and reciting your healthy beliefs, self-talk, helpful thoughts and healthy thoughts in a forceful and energetic manner at least twice a day and each time the old thoughts creep in.