How You Talk to Yourself is More Powerful Than You Realize
You know what I’m talking about. Your inner monologue.
“Where did I put my keys? […finds keys…] Agh! This is why I’m always late. Of course people can’t rely on me”
“Where did I put my keys? […finds keys…] Agh! [deep, intentional breath] Ok. What’s the lesson here? Next time, I’m going to put them in their home, where they belong.”
“Self-talk” is the unending chatter of your own voice, in the privacy of your head, that occasionally gets shared with the outside world. And how you respond to this “entity” can lead to night and day differences in your life, especially concerning your health. Most experts tend to categorize self-talk into two camps, Negative: “I suck at this, maybe I should just quit”, and Positive: “Wow, I did a lot better today with this than last week.” Of course there’s going to be a middle zone between these two valences with harmless neutral commentary, “What was I about to say?” The first step to avoid being harmed by your self-talk is to notice when it arrives.
You Must First Notice the Presence of Negative Self-Talk
Your inner speech consists of thoughts. Nothing more. And one of the first things to know about thoughts is that they often go unnoticed. So don’t feel bad, you’re in good company! One helpful strategy to increasing the probability that you will successfully recognize this unruly pattern of negative self-talk is by categorizing it. Name it. Joseph Goldstein talks about a part of self called, “The Judging Mind”. You’re going to miss many thoughts, but when you recognize that you’ve been in a shame spiral, consciously invoke the label, “This is The Judging Mind.” Now the judging mind can apply to judging others and ourselves, and for the scope of this article we’re only going to focus on self-judgment.
Research Points to the Benefits of Third Person Self-Talk
Once you’ve begun to practice recognizing The Judging Mind, what exactly happens next? Speak to yourself using your first or last name, or the pronoun “You”. It might sound something like this, “Robin, you don’t need to be so hard on yourself. Remember, the more you practice, the better you’ll get. You can do this Smitty!” Third person self-talk research is supporting the idea that when you relate to yourself in this way, especially during times of distress, you can improve emotion regulation and self control. If you’re interested you can read more in-depth here – Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI.
Don’t Say Anything to Yourself That You Wouldn’t Say to Anyone Else
Many people say things to themselves way worse than they would ever say to another person. Odds are you are in this camp – especially if you’ve been reading this far down the article ;). Even though labeling The Judging Mind is one way to become more consciously aware of negative self-talk, you might also try to ask yourself – especially when you’re feeling stressed, “Am I talking to myself the way I would speak to someone else?” Or better yet, “Am I treating myself the way I would if I were someone that I was responsible for helping?”
There Are Health Benefits to Positive Self-Talk
Working to master your self-talk is an important endeavor that not only affects you today, but it can have positive effects on the infinite versions of you that span out across your future. The Mayo Clinic Staff point to the following benefits that come from positive thinking:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress
- Greater resistance to the common cold
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
And don’t underestimate the power of being able to laugh at yourself. Give yourself permission to find the humor in the situation that may be stressing you out. When times get tough, be compassionate, be graceful, and be open to finding your authentic smile.
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.
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