A woman looking anxious on a subway train

The joys of the commute. Photo by Zackary Canepari/Panos Pictures


Eight ways to give yourself a pep talk when you feel stuck

The joys of the commute. Photo by Zackary Canepari/Panos Pictures

by Rachel Goldsmith Turow + BIO





All of us could do with more words of encouragement and perspective, and they don’t need to come from another person

My friend Greta gives the most amazing pep talks. She starts by asking you, ‘What’s the title of your pep talk?’ And after you tell her the title – anything from ‘You feel like you’re stagnating, but you are growing in a million ways!’ to ‘You can and will start to go on dates again this year’ – she launches in. You can count on Greta’s pep talks to impart a powerful mix of confidence, energy and recognition of your deepest potential.

However, there are times when a pep-talking friend isn’t readily available. In such moments, knowing how to give yourself an effective pep talk could come in handy. Giving yourself a pep talk can be a bit challenging, as most of us find it easier to offer new perspectives and provide kind encouragement to our friends and family, rather than to ourselves. It’s harder to be the pep-talker when you’re in need of pep in the first place. But it is doable.

Pep talks can provide comfort, hope, direction or vitality when you feel stuck. Perhaps you sometimes feel besieged by self-criticism, a common mental habit, even if you know that beating yourself up is counterproductive. Or you might be struggling with low levels of motivation or energy. You might doubt that things could change, or feel confused about figuring out the next steps toward your goals. A self-directed pep talk – that is, an effort to handle your thoughts, feelings or actions in a constructive way, typically involving silent or spoken words – can lead you to different avenues of thinking, transform your emotions, and inspire new behaviours.

Habits of thinking are extremely powerful. A single ‘dose’ of pep talking can only do so much. You might need to practise a new approach several times, so that it gains ground over your default thinking. Giving yourself a pep talk might feel weird or awkward at first, and that’s OK. It usually gets more comfortable with practice.

At Seattle University, I teach ‘science and practice’ psychology courses in which students incorporate the techniques below over a four-week period. Many students have reflected that the strategies initially seemed trivial, silly or ‘fake’, but that they were somewhat surprised to notice meaningful improvements in their wellbeing after a few weeks of regular practice.

An ideal pep talk depends on both your individual preferences and the situation at hand. I like having a few go-to techniques so that if one isn’t delivering quite the pep I need, I can move on to find a more effective angle. You can implement these techniques individually; however, some research indicates that they might be especially effective if two or more techniques are combined. Here are a few key strategies for you to try.

Tune into your wise mind

Is there a part of you that feels defeated or overwhelmed, that echoes harshly critical voices, or that leads you to self-sabotage? Well, there is also another part of you: your ‘wise mind’. This is the part that wants you to take the best possible care of yourself, and for your actions to be aligned with your values.

The concept of ‘wise mind’ represents a combination of both rational and emotional thinking. For instance, if you had a multi-hour assignment to complete, a wise-mind approach wouldn’t involve working straight through the night, or procrastinating until the last minute because you feared or disliked the task. Using your wise mind, you might instead tell yourself something like: ‘OK, you’re not going to stay up all night working, because you’ll feel miserable tomorrow. Let’s plan for two hours of work, one hour of relaxation, sleep, and finishing up tomorrow morning before the meeting. Go you!’

Spend a few minutes regarding your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations from the perspective of a kind observer

A wise-mind perspective that balances emotion with reason could also help you turn away from a potentially harmful behaviour, such as overusing a substance or binging on social media. Your wise mind is at work if you tell yourself, for example: ‘Scrolling through Instagram for an hour actually just bummed me out. I think I need to do something like taking care of my body, or connecting with a friend in real life. Time to put the phone down and make a plan.’

Some methods for tuning into your wise mind include trying to step back to look at the bigger picture of a situation you’re in; spending a few minutes just noticing the sensations of your breathing; or regarding your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations from the perspective of a kind observer. If you practise observing your feelings without judging them – as though they were passing weather in a larger atmosphere – that can make it less likely that you will become overly entangled with moment-to-moment emotions, and more likely that you will relate to a deeper sense of your wise mind.

Reframe a problem

When you’re facing a problem, the way that you view it in the moment might feel entrenched – as if it’s the only way anyone could see it. You might see the problem through a self-critical lens, one that suggests there is something wrong with you. Or perhaps you feel very angry at someone else, or at the state of the world.

Is there some way that you could take how you’re thinking about the problem and flip it around, so that it has the most positive spin imaginable, while still being realistic? For instance, you might tell yourself something like: ‘Even though my cold is getting in the way of active tasks, I suppose I could use this time to sit here and send some emails or get a bit of writing done.’ One clever study reported that when students were told to think of their test anxiety as an activating energy that could help them succeed, they performed better than those who did not receive the reframing instructions.

Here are some other examples of the sorts of reframing you could include in a personal pep talk:

  • To handle mistakes: ‘Making mistakes is part of learning to cook, not a sign that I’m incapable. The lasagne was too soggy the first time, and somewhat burnt when I tried a higher temperature, so next time I’m going to try an intermediate temperature and check on it. No big deal, just part of the process of building my skills.’
  • To go from worrying to problem-solving: ‘I’m worried my job is so busy that I’m losing contact with my friends. But I can think of this as a puzzle to solve. How can I sustain my friendships while also meeting work deadlines? Well, I could send at least three text messages to friends each day, just asking how they’re doing. Maybe a friend and I could even plan a “work date” at a café, or a hike after my upcoming deadline.’

Reframing isn’t meant to invalidate pain and suffering, since suppressing or numbing feelings can lead to worse mental health. But reframing problems can supply additional perspectives that can make suffering more bearable. Practising reframing is linked with lower levels of depression, perhaps because it interrupts rumination – going over the same material in your mind repeatedly, often with a self-critical focus. Research also suggests that its benefits include increased persistence, less reactivity to stress, and better long-term mental and physical health.

Spot the success

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, unproductive or even hopeless when thinking of all of the tasks yet to be accomplished (‘I haven’t done enough today’). Instead of sinking into those feelings, you can focus on listing up to 10 actions that you have completed today that benefitted you, someone else, or the world. No item is too small.

Reminding yourself that many problems are a normal part of being human can also help decrease perfectionism

Although it’s easy to discount actions like getting out of bed, sending a work email, or texting a friend, each action matters here. The practice of acknowledging those completed actions in a ‘done list’ – even for a few minutes – can assuage the sense that you haven’t done enough. Just the act of making the list can help; however, you can also reinforce the behaviours and your feelings about them by commenting on them to yourself as you make the list: eg, ‘Well done’, ‘You did it!’ or ‘That’s helpful that you got that challenging email sent.’

Some people who complete ‘spot the success’ find that the exercise helps motivate them to accomplish more, because it generates a feeling of helpful momentum. After practising ‘spot the success’ for several weeks, one of my students reflected: ‘It felt trivial when I started, but as time passed, it made me feel as though my days were valuable and productive. It also helped when I felt unmotivated.’

Normalise challenges

From aggravating work situations to the struggle to exercise more, so many of the challenges you might face are actually commonplace. You can remind yourself that many humans all over the planet find the same issue to be difficult, and struggling with it doesn’t mean that there’s something terrible or unworkable about you.

Normalising challenges can be an antidote to assumptions such as ‘I shouldn’t feel this way’ or ‘I should be able to handle this better.’ Reminding yourself that many problems are a normal part of being human can also help decrease perfectionism. Normalising problems doesn’t make them disappear, but it can help soften the self-blame and stigma that often make them worse. (However, a ‘normalising’ pep talk should not lead you to minimise serious problems or refrain from seeking outside support.)

Here are some examples of normalising:

  • ‘It’s OK that I don’t automatically know how to manage my toddler’s tantrums. Most people don’t have much experience raising small kids before they have their own. This is a learning process that will be frustrating or difficult at times.’
  • ‘I sometimes feel like my anxiety and depression mean that there’s something wrong with me – as though I’m defective. But anxiety and depression are very common; they don’t make me weird or even that unusual. In fact, managing difficult thoughts and feelings is part of the normal work of being a human.’

Recite your mantra

Rather than trying to generate new words when you’re already stressed, you could plan to have some comforting words that are ready to go when you need them. Many people find solace, and even improve their overall wellbeing, through the practice of silently repeating particular phrases to themselves.

One of the most well-researched mantra methods is loving-kindness meditation, in which people repeat a few good wishes for themselves in a row (and sometimes good wishes for others, if they choose), for several minutes. Example phrases include:

  • ‘May I be safe.’
  • ‘May I be content.’
  • ‘May I be peaceful.’
  • ‘May I live with ease.’
  • ‘May I be well in body and mind.’
  • ‘May my actions be skilful and kind.’

A pep talk is meant to shift your thinking and your feelings, and perhaps even your actions

You could select from these or choose any other phrases that feel well suited to you or your situation.

Some people find that repeating kind phrases to themselves seems corny or awkward at first, but it can become much more comfortable with practice. One of my students wrote: ‘It felt almost like a “fake it until you make it” situation before any changes were evident.’ Another commented that, ‘On the days I practised [loving-kindness meditation] in the morning, often before class or work, I noticed that I felt more positive throughout the day.’


Sometimes people benefit from thinking in pictures, rather than relying on words alone. Recently, I was sick with the flu for two weeks. I tried to give myself a pep talk along the lines of: ‘You will most likely feel better again!’ It didn’t work. Instead, I felt relief and comfort from imagining a blazing orange-red fire. For some reason, the colour of the fire seemed even more nourishing than its imaginary heat.

Scientific research on visualisation demonstrates that ‘rehearsing’ specific actions in your mind can improve outcomes such as athletic performance. Sometimes people combine a visualisation sequence with step-by-step narration. You might visualise yourself engaging in an activity as you’re also talking yourself through it. For example, if you were visualising a golf swing, you might narrate as you picture each step: ‘I breathe in through my nose, and I feel my body relax on the exhale. My grip on the club is in the correct position, and it’s just firm enough, but not tense.’

Or, let’s say you are imagining a dreaded meeting with your boss. Your inner talk might sound something like: ‘I’m remembering that this is just one setback, and that I’ve met my targets on the last four projects. Even if my boss is upset, I know I’ve done my best. To manage my anxiety during the meeting, I quietly wiggle my toes, helping to redistribute some of the physical sensation away from the stress I feel in my upper body.’

Acknowledge suffering

A pep talk is meant to shift your thinking and your feelings, and perhaps even your actions. But it works best if you can validate how you’re feeling, and not set up the expectation that things will always go perfectly or feel easy. Here are some examples of validation during a pep talk:

  • ‘Being unemployed truly stinks: the worry about money, feeling upset that my career isn’t going how I’d hoped, and the uncertainty about when and how I’ll find my next job. Those are all genuinely difficult feelings to manage. I’m going to cope with them by making mental space for those feelings and by caring for them, instead of trying to bottle them up.’
  • ‘I’m in a lot of pain after the breakup. There are so many things I miss about my ex, and I feel loneliness, grief, anger and sorrow. All of those feelings are real, and they’re hard. I know they won’t disappear overnight. I’ll handle it as well as I can without pressuring myself to handle it “better”.’

Sometimes, words flow better after focusing on the body first

Putting too much pressure on yourself to be or feel different can backfire, whereas accepting your thoughts and feelings without judging them is linked to better mental health. You can acknowledge, validate, and refrain from criticising your internal experiences even if you are also working on building new thoughts and emotions. It’s also possible that someone or something outside of you needs to change, and you can acknowledge that, rather than putting the full burden on yourself to feel or think differently.

Please don’t rely on internal pep talks alone to manage risk for suicide or other self-harm; instead, seek text, phone or in-person crisis support right away. Issues such as substance misuse and other physical or mental health difficulties are also best managed by combining your own pep talks and other coping skills with the support of a professional.

Act first, pep talk later

If you’re struggling to feel motivated to do something, such as exercising or starting a work task, it can often help to ‘leapfrog’ right to the behaviour. Just try to get your body to do the thing, even if you don’t feel like it. People assume that motivation always precedes behaviour; however, research shows that behaviour often leads to a greater sense of motivation.

The psychology term for this approach is ‘behavioural activation’. Planning activities that are aligned with your goals and values and committing to them (even if you have to drag yourself) is an excellent way to get going. For instance, if you are struggling to get to the gym, you might pack up everything you need and schedule your visit for a certain time on your calendar. I write my swimming schedule on my calendar, in pen, as the first step in committing to it. The focus, then, would be just on getting your body physically inside the gym, even for one minute, rather than on trying to become motivated first with a pep talk. Then, after even one minute, you could praise yourself for the action (‘I made it here, this is a positive step’), so that you reinforce the behaviour and increase the likelihood that you will repeat it.

I also find that, sometimes, words flow better after focusing on the body first. Have you ever noticed that you feel revitalised, and even have access to a different mental perspective, after you move your body? Or get some air, even if you only go for a walk around the block? I’ve sometimes felt as though different yoga poses open up new possibilities in the mind. Exercise, dance, walk, or move as you’re able; or, tune into body sensations through a body scan or meditation. Doing so could help make your personal pep talks even more effective.

Finally, remember to repeat whichever pep talk techniques work for you! Shifting your perspectives, feelings and actions often requires repetition, and that’s OK. Over time, it will likely feel easier and more natural to give yourself a pep talk, so that the way you relate to yourself moment to moment becomes infused with encouragement and new possibilities.





8 May 2024