How to Talk to Yourself so You will Listen, Part I: Understanding Self Talk

Self talk is inner speech—the conversations and mostly coaching we do with ourselves. Inner speech is good, it is necessary, it is required. Self-talk supports both learning and action. As much as we can sometimes hate the voice in our heads, without it we would be handicapped: people who lack the capacity for inner speech have severe learning and memory difficulties and they often lack the capacity to control their behavior. Inner speech helps us learn through the repetition of instruction, and it supports action through the narration of what we need to do—it helps us anticipate, plan and complete.

But one crucial thing to understand about inner speech is that all inner speech, all self talk started out as ‘other talk.’  Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet developmental psychologist, stated, “We could say that the relations between higher mental function were at one time real relations between people” “I relate to myself in the same way people related to me.” We learned to speak to ourselves through the language of others, through the tone of others, across our lifespan. Our early caregivers laid the first tracks, and then other important voices were added to the internal chorus. The ability to take in the voices of others makes us adaptive as a species—in one generation we can shift the learning if we need to, and it also makes us better at living in communities—we literally have a community voice to help us navigate the norms and rules within groups.

Your own inner speech will be the most frequent voice you will ever hear in your life. It began as outward speech around 3 years old and moved to a silent inner speech by 7. And it has been a constant presence ever since. The question is: Is it serving you? Serving your learning? Serving your healing? Serving you in your relationships and your work? Because once you are in your adulthood—your inner speech becomes yours to edit and revise.

By far the best parenting book in the world is How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen and Listen so Your Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish.  It is the THE primer on how to emotionally coach your child with empathy and help both of you communicate effectively. I have assigned it to every counseling and psychology class I have ever taught because I don’t think anyone has ever written a better primer on how to effectively listen and talk with empathy. And if I were going to write a primer on self-talk I would start with the rules in this book. Listen with full attention, acknowledge the feelings with a word, and give the feeling a name.

Most people do not complain about their self talk being ‘too nice.’ Most people talk about their self talk being a mean voice, a judgmental voice, an oppressive voice. But I have often found that people are reluctant to get rid of this voice because they fear that without it they wouldn’t get anything done. And to this I say—it’s time to train your inner voice to be an effective coach, rather than a cruel coach. Cruelty is a short term strategy. It can be effective in a crisis, but over the long term it loses effectiveness and we get good at tuning it out. We think the antidote is to be nice but it is not. The antidote is to be effective, parental in the best sense of that word, a good coach.

What does this mean? It means being able to see the situation for what it is, and see yourself with all your strengths and foibles and say what needs to be said with kindness and support—without letting you off the hook: Describe what you see, give the information necessary, and use a word or a mantra to do what needs to be done.

Many athletes I have worked with over the years always complained loudly that their negative self-talk was motivating—sort of inner trash talk that got them geared up to be better at their game. And whether it is sport or any other endeavor I have found this one thing to be true: negative self talk can only be motivating if at your core—you don’t really believe it. If you believe at your core that you are bad, or worthless, or lazy—then negative self-talk will eventually hit that core and will erode your performance. I have watched Olympic Gold Medalists stop in their tracks with their own negative self talk. If you don’t have a strong sense of worthiness as Brene Brown calls it, then the negative self talk isn’t a challenge, it’s a pronouncement of what you believe to be your dark truth.

And if you want to build a sense of worthiness then you will have to really work with your self talk. For today, just increase your awareness of it. Make a figure and ground shift and let your inner voice become foreground. Don’t do anything to change it yet—just listen to it. Ask yourself --where did those ideas come from? Whose voices did I borrow to create that voice? Ask yourself how each of the voices are serving your or how they are getting in your way. Become aware of your mood and your motivation as you listen to yourself speak. Get to know your voice so you know what you want to keep and what you might want to change. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014