The billion-dollar self-help industry is powered by a single obsession: our hankering to look “outside” for solutions, inspirations and validations. From attending expensive conferences to buying formulaic books, we spend hours – if not days, months and even years – seeking a “magic” solution to end all our woes.
Ironically, somewhere in this maddening quest to find flash-and-fizzle quick fixes, we lose touch with ourselves… and especially our inner voice. I’m not saying that external motivators are ineffectual. Far from it.
However, banking solely on externals to bolster our self-esteem is neither sustaining nor satisfying. So, how do we shut out the noise around us and reconnect with the one person who really matters? You talk to them… or rather, you talk to yourself.
What is “self-talk”?
Self-talk is, quite simply, a running internal monologue about your feelings, your frustrations, your actions, your goals, your beliefs, your circumstances, your dreams and your nightmares.
“Since self-image is determined by what you consistently say to yourself about yourself, you have the power to direct your self-image by directing your self-talk,” writes Jason Selk and Tom Bartow in their bestseller Organize Tomorrow Today. And an improved self-image is the linchpin of not only a fun and fulfilling life, but a productive one as well.
The science behind self-talk is still emerging, but researchers are quickly realizing that it offers enormous cognitive, emotional and psychological benefits. As long as you know how to take advantage of it correctly.
Why should you talk to yourself?
Self-talk provides a multitude of advantages that impact both your short-term satisfaction and long-term well-being.
1) Increased focus
Rin Mitchell, a guest contributor for Big Think explains, “When you give yourself mental messages, whether out loud or in the mind, it enhances your attention span – allowing you to concentrate despite distractions.”
The next time you’re sitting in a crowded environment struggling to think or work with purpose, set about the task of talking to yourself while you work. Whether the crowd is physical or mental, your whispered vocals have the power to wrest you away from distractions. The mere act of self-talk forces the frontal lobe of your brain to focus on the task at hand.
2) Improved retention
According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, speaking a word or even an entire phrase aloud during study improves memory. This is called the “production effect”:
The words you speak aloud are now translated into speech and you have knowledge of producing the items as well as a memory of hearing them.
This is because verbal cues also trigger visual perception. Suddenly, the words you’re reading aren’t just black letters sprawled across a page, but tangible characters with meaning and emotion.
3) Better decisions
In high pressure situations, our insecurities naturally rear their ugly heads. Why? Because we’re afraid of screwing up. Fear is by far the most dominate human emotion. Fear of loss easily trumps the excitement of gain. This is what’s known as “loss aversion.”
Even worse, the less we acknowledge this fear, the more power it has to sway our decisions. “Having [an internal] dialogue can assist you in making a commendable compromise or a workable conciliation between your wants, your needs and others’ expectations,” says Linda Sapadin, a psychologist and success coach.
Self-talk names the demons in our heads, forces them out into the light, and restores self-assurance. In turn, this allows us to make more rational decisions, rather than knee-jerk, fear-based, or thoughtless responses.
4) Constant companionship
We’re born into this world as single entities. As we grow up, we connect with others in order to form relationships and view the world from fresh perspectives.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, we fail to continue our relationship with our own inner self… our oldest, truest and best friend. Psych Central’s Linda Sapadin provides a solution:
When you’re feeling lonely, chances are you’re neglecting to give enough attention to a very special person. One who is always there with you. Who’s that? You, of course. So, talk to yourself. Not just in your head. But out loud.
As strange as it might sound, self-talk reminds you that you aren’t alone. Even when the world around you feels dark and deserted, your unique thoughts, your emotions, and your deep desires are always with you.
5) Enhanced willpower
At the risk of getting all “Stuart Smalley” on you, positive affirmations – verbal statements that reinforce your skills and abilities – are no laughing matter.
Remez Sasson, the founder of Success Consciousness, puts it like this: “Repeated positive statements help you focus your mind on your aim. They also create corresponding mental images in the conscious mind, which affect the subconscious mind accordingly.”
Yes, saying nice things to yourself doesn’t always translate into effective actions. But being your own cheerleader gives you courage and conviction
6) Strengthen commitments
A lot of people extol the virtues of writing down your goals; however, most of us underestimate the power of speaking our goals out loud: “Sure, you can just make a list, but saying it out loud focuses your attention, reinforces the message, controls your runaway emotions and screens out distractions.”
For instance, instead of just jotting down your objectives, filing them away, or printing them up to hang on a wall, strengthen your commitment to what really matters by revisiting them verbally. Even if it’s daily goals, this two-minute self-talk will set you up for a proactive, productive and prioritized day.
How should you talk to yourself?
Admittedly, there is no one “right” way to talk to yourself. However, the wrong words, the wrong phrases, and even the wrong pronouns can actually leave you feeling worse than you first started. Here are three tips to make sure you’re getting the most out of your monologues.
1) Embrace the second person
Maintaining a psychological distance during self-talk sessions will prevent you from becoming emotionally attached to your problems. That’s why using the second person – “You” – instead of the first person – “I” – is vital.
Psychology Today stress exactly why pronouns matter: “By toggling the way we address the self – first person or third – we flip a switch in the cerebral cortex, the center of thought, and another in the amygdala, the seat of fear, moving closer to or further from our sense of self and all its emotional intensity.”
Second person pronouns result in a detached, controlled, and rational analysis of your situation, which increases the chances of making better decisions.
Obviously, it might feel a little funny at first to talk to yourself about yourself, but the same principle that makes “you” more powerful than “I” also applies to your name. According to Laura Starecheski at NPR:
“People who used their own names… were more likely to give themselves support and advice, saying things like, ‘Ethan, you can do this. You’ve given a ton of speeches before.’ These people sounded more rational, and less emotional – perhaps because they were able to get some distance from themselves.”
2) Overcome the negative feedback loop
Emotions are spontaneous. Telling yourself “how” to feel – i.e. “Don’t be nervous. Don’t be scared. Don’t be [fill-in-the-blank].” – doesn’t work. You might as well tell yourself to grow three inches by next Tuesday. So what can you control? Your thoughts. Or at least, the thoughts you invest in and repeat.
The truth is you become what you think. And once again – lest you think this all a bit too new-agey and touchy-feely – Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis roots this principle in cognitive psychology:
A big part of cognitive therapy is training clients to catch their thoughts, write them down, name the distortions, and then find alternative and more accurate ways of thinking.
Notice the three crucial steps towards reclaiming your peace of mind:
- Label your irrational fears and inhibiting frustrations.
- Reassure yourself that (1) they’re normal and (2) they aren’t real.
- Develop a counter script of positive self-talk by choosing three or four phrases to meditate on, and repeat them during times of distress.
3) Ask yourself questions
Instructional self-talk is useful when you are trying to follow a procedure with multiple steps or a plan with multiple variables. In such instances, you “tell yourself each step” in order to successfully execute all the steps.
However, it turns out that affirmations, while powerful, aren’t nearly as powerful as questions. Daniel Pink, in his bestselling To Sell is Human, lays out the situation like this:
Yes, positive self-talk is generally more effective than negative self-talk. But the most effective self-talk of all doesn’t merely shift emotions. It shifts linguistic categories.
How? Through what Daniel calls “interrogative self-talk.” The concept is simple: replace statements with questions.
Asking a question triggers curiosity and engages problem solving. So instead of saying, “I’m going to rock this interview,” ask yourself, “Aaron, why are you the best candidate?”
The first is an empty statement that might offer a short-term boost but provides no tangible evidence to support your claims. The second is a question that instantly gets you thinking about why you’re the best candidate. This makes it far easier to answer that question when it’s posed by another person.
The next time you feel awkward for blabbering to yourself about yourself, keep calm and talk on. It’s not only healthy, it’s also extremely productive. Rest assured, you’re not a weirdo. Linda Sapadin captures the entire process beautifully:
Whether you’re living by yourself or living with others, you’re always living with yourself. So, don’t leave yourself out of the equation.
Amen to that!
Now, I’d love to hear from you about the practice of self-talk in the comments. Just be sure to not ignore the person who matters the most.