This sounded so silly the first time I heard it: Your brain hears what you say. Of course your brain hears what you say, and it hardly needs to hear anyway since whatever I say came from that very same brain. Right? But once I learned this concept in a mindfulness class a few years ago, it became such a part of my healing. 

This concept is true for everyone, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of mental health — from being fit as a fiddle to struggling daily with a particular condition. 

When you say or think negative things, your brain tends to go all-in on the negative. 

  • “No, you won’t get that job, there’s no way you are even close to qualified.” So maybe you decide not to even apply for the job. Or you apply, but then are not confident during the interview, and don’t get the job.

When you say or think positive things, your brain goes all-in on your awesomeness.

  • “Yes, you’ve got this. You have practiced and you have talent and you are a rock star.” So, maybe you win the race. Or ace the presentation. Or get that promotion. Because you believed you could.

All of life isn’t actually so easy — just think good thoughts and everything that comes your way is promised to be good. But positive thinking, and positive self-talk, really does make a difference. And that’s where this little idiom comes into play — it’s to remind you to talk to yourself positively.

In my case, I was pretty far over on the struggling side of the mental health end of the spectrum — with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after mass violence. This manifested itself in many ways, one of them being a tendency to negative thoughts, about things happening to me and about things that could happen in the world.

My brain was stuck in overdrive, being afraid of much of what was going on around me. And it was working so hard to protect me from anything that could possibly hurt me. Even as I walked through the world feeling like I was basically ok, and looking perfectly normal to others. My brain was still in overprotect mode; interpreting many things as dangerous. 

Screeches of brakes or loud noises would find me imagining a loud crash and people wounded. Fire. Smoke. Sirens. Waving to an acquaintance on the sidewalk across the street would have me expecting him to suddenly be shot by someone in the next car to drive by; or to be hit by that car as he stepped into the sidewalk to come over to say hi. Bang. Crash. Blood.

How and why would this brain possibly care what I said? How would telling myself I was safe, that all was well, that a bad thing didn’t just happen, actually help? My mindfulness teacher explained it in a way that finally made sense to me: “Your brain hears what you say.” I was ready, at least, to understand that this referred to the power of positive language. And there are studies to back this up. 

This quote has been attributed to many: Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right. It took a mindfulness teacher and lots of therapy for me to realize that it didn’t just mean things like prepping for a big presentation or training for the Olympics or the after work softball league. It meant the little things in life, too. Like telling myself I am strong. I am resilient. I will recover from PTSD. That I may be less comfortable now that I would prefer, but I’ll feel better soon. That’s what it took for me to finally realize that I’ve got a handle on this. And now my brain hears me say that all the time.