Whether you mutter like John McClane, scheme like Carl Spackler, or procrastinate like Hamlet, you talk to yourself. Everyone does. Perk up your ears and you’ll hear a whispered chorus of self-praise and excoriation. And there are dialogues you don’t hear as well. Many psychologists believe thinking itself is a form of self-talk. In short, we get to know ourselves the same way we get to know other people: by having a conversation.
The formal definition of self-talk is “a dialogue through which the individual interprets feelings and perceptions, regulates and changes evaluations and convictions, and gives him/herself instructions and reinforcement.” Some psychologists believe one’s self is made up of two parts, one that controls the mind and engages with perceptions, and another that simply acts. Self-talk can be seen as the bridge between these two selves. The practice can be incredibly helpful, or detrimental, depending on how you go about it.
Everyone’s private conversation is different, but these three tricks can make self-talking into a more helpful exercise.
“You” not “I”
It’s generally accepted that whether or not someone calls themselves ‘you’ or ‘I’ in audible or inner speech, it’s still considered self-talk. But in a 2014 study, researchers determined that using non-first person pronouns and one’s own name is the best way to self-talk.
The multi-university team emphasize in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that shifts in the language that people use to refer to themselves influences their ability to regulate their behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Calling yourself ‘you’ or your own name creates the much needed psychological distance that lets you reflect on events with more perspective. It also lessens feelings of stress for people who are feeling vulnerable to social anxiety and is makes for calming counter-measure in post-event (after the big game, the job interview, etc.) processing. In contrast, people who speak to themselves with “I” have a hard time escaping an egocentric point of view.
Self-talk is credited for creating a time “wedge” between the activity that’s happening and consideration. That space allows for reflection, but it’s not guaranteed that reflection will be beneficial. If you’re cheerleading for yourself, it’s likely to help. Motivational self-talk, particularly during sports, has been shown to help keep energy levels high and increase endurance performances. Positive self-talk is proven to be a cognitive tool that can elevate one’s mood and provide emotional support. On the flip side, studies have shown that critical self-talking results in lower-self esteem and an increased likelihood that the negative self-talking is going to continue.
Since the 1990s psychologists have become increasingly aware that individual’s can choose the way they think — and self-talking plays a large role in this. If self-talk really is an important component of self-awareness, it’s crucial for your well-being that you’re at least being nice to yourself.
Use in Case of Emergencies
If you can get over the idea that you look crazy when you self-talk (I just muttered “okay, okay, okay” spontaneously while writing this) it can be a practical tool in a variety of situations. A University of Toronto Scarborough study found that one’s inner voice is important in controlling the impulsive behavior we’re constantly trying to mitigate — those moments of just get this done and you don’t need that slice of cake. In a study where subjects were instructed to press a button when they saw a particular symbol, and their inner voice was muffled with the instruction to repeat the same word over and over again, the researchers found that people acted much more impulsively when they couldn’t self-talk. When people used self-talk, they had a much a better ability to appraise the situation.
Self-talking is also considered a benefit when learning something new — whether it’s a sport or a new language. The key to success here is to think or say short, precise, and consistent statements. Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, a self-talk researcher, told the Wall Street Journal, “What happens with self-talk is you stimulate your action, direct your action, and evaluate your action.” If you’re driving and you tell yourself to turn left at the next stop, you’re going to turn left.
But perhaps the most meaningful benefit of self-talk is that it motivates self-leadership — the process that establishes the personal direction and motivation needed for success. Individual performance, whether it’s work or one’s social life, is thought to be pretty much controlled by self-talk and mental imagery — going back to the idea that if you tell yourself you can be successful, you’re much more likely to be so.