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Psychology

Talk To Yourself

Talk To Yourself: The Value of Self-Talk For Just About Everything

Self-Talk, Self-Regulation, Positive Thinking, Psychology

When we talk to ourselves, who is listening? Surely not Potato Cat! Learn more about the power of self-talk for just about everything in life.
When we talk to ourselves, who is listening? Surely not Potato Cat! Learn more about the power of self-talk for just about everything in life.

Have you ever caught yourself talking to yourself out loud? Ever wonder who is doing the talking? And who is that self talking to?

Recently, I participated in a 59-mile relay race. Each relay team had five people running two legs, and each leg was separated by the other team members, giving me a chance to dig a little deeper than usual into faster paces by inserting food and rest between the race legs. At the same time, the 50-mile and 50-kilometer ultramarathon racers were on the same course, completing their distances as solo runners. At 6:30am and the sun shining with barely a cloud in the sky, we were about to have an awesome, if not long day, of running.

Because of the length of the race, the rules did not prohibit racers from listening to music on their mp3 players. Yet as is my custom, I do not run with an iPod, even though there are plenty of scientific studies that show that people exercise longer and report less discomfort when they listen to music.

Why would I run without an iPod? Why wouldn’t I like the distraction? Why would I fly in the face of science?

I admit it. I talk to myself.

If I listen to music, I am too distracted to hear myself saying what it is I really need to hear in the moment. And in long endurance training and racing, you have some time out there to do some thinking! Might as well think the kind of thoughts that transform you from meh to amazing.

It’s time for me to share with you the value of  positive self-talk, not just for races and performance, but for just about everything in life. I want you to know how to unlock one of my secret sauces to awesomeness.

Ready? Let’s go!

Talking To Yourself Like A Boss

As I mentioned above, I talk to myself. It turns out, I am not alone! Research studies on the subject of self-talk indicate that talking to oneself – having a conversation with a part of oneself – is a common behavior. We use self-talk to think out loud, to hear our own thoughts, and to help clarify our feelings. We talk to ourselves to help remind ourselves to remember something, to challenge our thinking, and to give ourselves pep talks before facing a challenging situation.

Talking to ourselves is not just a behavior relegated to lonely people or people with schizophrenic hallucinations. Not only do we cut the loneliness of moments spent in an empty room, but we can intentionally host short micro communications with another part of ourself to reach a positive end, boost performance, and improve our tolerance of difficult or uncomfortable feelings.

You likely learned something about self talk through a teacher, coach, or parent. Do you recall receiving a supportive word, such as, “Try it! You can do it!”, or “Give it another chance… thataboy!”  Early experiences of positive voices external to ourselves become the foundation of how we learn to talk to ourselves. We cue these phrases and emotions up like song lists and recycle them in new situations that require more skill, effort, or experience than we actually possess.

Unfortunately, we can also internalize negative voices from our past. Learning to disregard negative voices and turn up the volume of positive self-talk is part of talking to yourself “like a boss”, with confidence, strength, and openness. When you encounter a situation that evokes feelings of insecurity, fear, and lack of confidence, positive self-talk can help you coach yourself into believing there is a possibility of achieving a good outcome or having a meaningful experience. “C’mon, give it a try! Who knows, you might even like this,”  is a simple example of self-talk that expands the possibility that something you encounter as fearful could actually be enjoyable.

Three Ways I Talk to Myself

There are three primary ways I talk to myself, and no, none of them will make you look crazy. In fact, at least one of them is more likely to cause others to feel you are highly intelligent. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, nor a scientific proof that self-talk “works” in every situation. Instead, read these as options for your tool box, and consider how you might use them in everyday situations to help you soothe uncomfortable emotions, decrease negative thinking, and broaden the possibility of successful outcomes.

Type 1: Say Your Name

Ethan Kross is an associate professor at the University of Michigan and has focused his research on Emotional Intelligence, and more recently, self talk. Kross discovered that when people refer to themselves by name versus using the first-person pronoun “I”, they were able to create a distance between the self and what they could imagine for the self. The distance is similar to the distance between one self and another person.  This distance is significant when you realize how easy it is to help someone else with a problem or issue, and yet more difficult to help yourself. Yet when you insert space between self and this “other self”, you are able to give more helpful feedback, take a step back and observe with more objectivity, and dialogue with that self in a more helpful manner.

Kross discovered that it was much more powerful to refer to oneself by name than to simply talk about oneself from the use of the first-person pronoun. An example of this could sound like this:

Example 1:  C’mon, I can do this. I can run faster. I’ve done this before.

Example 2: C’mon, Imei can do this. Bad-ass Imei can run faster. Imei has done this before and Imei can do it again.

If you went about all your decision making, asking out loud, “What would [insert your name] do?” you are activating this type of self-talk. This frame of reference inspires others to view you with more authority, power, and intelligence.  Why, you are referring to the Amazing You!

Another result of this self-distancing in naming yourself is that you may be able to think of outcomes that not only benefit yourself but others. As you refer to yourself by name as one outside of “I”, you can also see the impact of your thoughts, ideas, emotions, and decisions on a larger community. “What would Imei do?” launches a larger question that sails beyond my egocentric world and dares to touch others.

Type 2: Reframing

Reframing thoughts out loud by listening to how they sound and re-wording them in a more positive way is another form of self-talk that I have helped others use at work and in their closest relationships.

You can employ reframing by taking the original statement, and asking the question, “Do I like how this sounds or feels? Am I satisfied with the ‘truth’ of this statement?” Here is an example of reframing as self-talk:

Example 1: [original statement] I am terrible with mathematics.

Example 2: [reframed statement] I am becoming better with mathematics.

Example 3: [reframed, w/name inserted] Imei is actually getting better with mathematics. Imei is rocking the math with more and more practice!

Another form of advanced reframing involves understanding a statement of belief about yourself, usually negative, and stripping it of its power by reconstructing it into a reasonable, present-oriented truth. While I won’t get into the details here, it’s worth mentioning that many of my clients have found this form of reframing self-talk immensely helpful in changing the negative script  they have recorded and replayed in their heads since childhood.

Type 3: Affirmations

Coaches and counselors alike understand the power of using affirmations to improve self-esteem, increase confidence, and harness their internal resources. Affirmations are a common type of self-talk that can be used to help you in just about every activity and endeavor you can think of (and probably a few that you can’t!).

Interestingly enough, affirmations aren’t just “feel good” statements to be popped like happy pills when you feel down. They basically expand your thinking to what is possible for you, they may provide some protection from criticism, and they could also help you tolerate uncomfortable feelings for longer periods of time –  just long enough to keep you from impulsively acting out or over-reacting.

Example 1: [non-affirming statement] You have to earn love to be loved.

Example 2: [affirmation] There is nothing I need to do or be to be loved as I am.

Going back to my example of running in a relay race, an example of an affirmation that could help me run longer and stronger is to repeat the phrase, “I am a runner. When I run, it is the most natural thing to do. I am just like the other runners around me. We are just doing what we love to do.” By normalizing my feelings and behaviors in context, I am able to affirm that my running, in spite of moments of discomfort, is natural.

And yes, it is normal to wake up at 4:00am to get breakfast and be on the race course by 6:30am, because that is what runners do.

Imei’s Awesome Bonus Round: Self Talk With Song and Dance

Since you have read all the way to the end of this blog post, you are about to be rewarded with my most awesome bonus round — Self Talk with Song and Dance! Hooray!

When I was a little kid, I would wiggle my toes and smile whenever it was time to eat. My mother said I even had a little food dance! Whatever those dance steps were,  I have long forgotten. Yet by college, I had my own little food dance, and I still occasionally do my food dance in the kitchen.

[Sorry, I have no video of a food dance of myself to insert here].

Having a food dance is important to me, as eating has become complicated for me regarding Celiac Disease. Each time I have a positive experience eating food, I do some version of a food dance, or a I sing a little song of victory, such as the Lego Movie theme song, “Everything is awesome!”

On a more serious note (ok, how serious can I really be?!?), you can use song and dance as a type of emotional “shot in the arm” to help self- talk yourself into, up to, and through just about anything. Yes, even if what you are facing is the act of rolling out of bed. And yes, even if you are facing that awkward first date, where you wonder if the other person is going to like you.

I can’t say that singing and dancing my way through every difficult situation I have ever faced has been easy or has always worked without fail. It doesn’t. However, self-talking with song and dance helps in the same way affirmations do. By opening up possibility, you have a greater likelihood of experiencing something surprisingly better than you had imagined, or you may be able to tolerate that situation in ways to help you stay grounded, strong, and less vulnerable to criticism.

Your Turn

Of the three forms of self-talk, which one are you most likely to use? Do you find it useful? Have you tried naming yourself out loud to inspire confidence, gain a distanced perspective, or encourage others to see your intelligence and decision-making skills?

Oh, and if you’re going to try the song and dance version, be sure to get a private recording of it that only you can look at when you need it. Then, you’ll have a mobile version of your shot in the arm for viewing anywhere that you can’t actually burst out in song and bust a move!

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 29+ years in healthcare (20+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She is launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018), and is currently training for her third Ironman in August 2020; she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for two separate 100 Mile trail races in 2020. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, and cooking real food.

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