How to Talk to Yourself so You Will Listen, Part II: Practices for Effective Self Talk

Self-talk can either help you or hinder you—like the words from anyone else. It’s just harder to ignore the voice in your head because as the saying goes: wherever you go, there you are.

While there is plenty of self-talk when it comes to figuring things out—and sorting through thoughts, most self-talk comes from trying to control our behavior. It either wants to get us to do something: Get up off the couch and walk now! Or, it wants to get us to NOT do something: Take a big, deep breath and close your computer before you reply to that email and regret it.

The problem is, as I started to describe in a previous post, that the habitual voice that many people use is judgmental, mean and threatening. Any voice that is mean or judgmental doesn’t put us in a state of mind to get things done—it’s a voice that puts us in a state of mind to pull the covers over our heads or take a stiff drink.

And threatening. My favorite example of why threatening doesn’t work is that the most dangerous threat that a person can receive—the threat of death—is not actually a motivator for behavior change. When people are told by their cardiac physicians that they will likely die if they don’t change their behavior, only 1 in 7 actually do. Six out of Seven don’t. Even under the threat of death. Threats simply aren’t effective. In the words of a Disney princess: Let it go.

So here are three practices to support effective self-talk for growth and healing:

Practice I: Be a person of very few words

Whether I am working with athletes, executives, trauma clients or parents I have found that one of the best practices for effective self-talk is the mantra---no more than 3 three words. If you can make it one, even better. If you were to walk in to your kid’s room and see clothes all over the floor you could totally lose it and start a diatribe: Look at this mess, haven’t I told you to pick it up, I am never going to buy you new clothes again…. Or, you could just walk in, look at the floor and your child and simply say: Clothes. By saying it in a word you get your point across, the task is apparent, and you have left the child and relationship intact. This is the goal of your self talk as well: get your point across, keep yourself in the best state possible for the outcome you want, and leave the relationship with yourself intact.

It’s best to think of situations that usually trip you up—where you typically use your self –talk as a weapon of self-destruction, rather than a tool for self-growth, and then come up with short one, two or three word mantras that you can pull out and use. Short, simple: Breathe, Smile, It’s Okay, Just one more, I got this. I have found with athletes that if they focus on the action they need to get a result, rather than the result itself, it works much better. For example, if they say Eyes Up! or Quick Legs! rather than some long discussion with themselves about trying harder to win. The same is true for all us—One at a time! is way more effective for getting through a stack of paperwork than some lecture on how you never get things done. So pick 3 mantras to practice this week.

Practice II: Call yourself by your name or something even kinder…

Yes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but your actual name has more power than you think. Recent research shows that if we use our own names in our self-talk, as in: Gretchen, you are almost done, hang in there, we are more likely to coach ourselves with kindness and compassion and be more effective than if we say “I.” When we use “I” we tend to become demanding and judgmental.

My mother-in-law used to always put the word dear after our names when she spoke to us, as in: Gretchen, dear, what a lovely job you did with the garden. I think adding dear to your self talk wouldn’t be asking too much either. And I worked with an intern on one of my psychology rotations who, when she was really struggling, would call herself Honeychild as in: Honeychild you are going to get this report done and then be able to go home. Which I thought was brilliant.  So if you catch yourself in the act of negative self talk—shift to using your name, the name you like to be called, the name you want to be called—and allow for a more effective and compassionate voice.

Practice III: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, let someone else do the talking.

Sometimes the voices seem to win. You can’t change them, and they just won’t shut up. There is a truth that the harder you try to fall asleep and focus on falling asleep, the harder it is to actually fall asleep. There is a parallel experience with inner voices. Sometimes the harder you try to shut them down, the louder and more annoying they get. So sometimes it’s just better to drown them out. Listen to music or a podcast on your walk. Do your paperwork with a favorite movie playing. Listen to a book on tape while you do whatever task you need to do. Sometimes listening to someone else’s voice, anyone else’s voice is the only way to get a break from your own. Sometimes it’s just more important to do the thing you need to do, with the least damage possible, than it is to fight or re-program the voices. And from a neuroscience perspective—you are doing something challenging with a different experience: you are giving your neural pathways a chance to re-reroute.