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Everyone Does It! How Self-Talk Helps

How you speak to yourself - aloud or silently - influences your emotional health, so choose your words wisely.

It might feel silly, but you're not the only one who does it. Everyone talks to themselves - typically inside our heads, and usually silently. It's that running dialog that gets us through the day: "Do this, go here, don't forget that."

What If We're Talking to Ourselves Out Loud?

Rather than a sign you're "losing it," having an audible dialog can be helpful, according to a study published in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Researchers found that saying the name of an object aloud - "keys…keys…keys" - helped participants successfully locate that object.

It turns out that using a verbal label - "keys" - affected perceptual processing and made it easier for the eyes to find the object. This worked best when participants were seeking familiar objects. It was easier to find a "Coke" than a "Speed Stick," meaning Speed Stick Deodorant.

When You Talk to Yourself, Should You Call Yourself By Name?

At least one researcher says "Yes."

In a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers had participants reflect silently on past painful experiences in the first person ("I") and third person ("Mary"). Those who mentally spoke in the third person were better able to regulate their emotions than those who referred to themselves as "I." The researchers theorize that using the third person creates a bit of psychological distance from thoughts and feelings, allowing for more reasoned reflection.

Positive or Negative Self-Talk

What you say after your name also matters. Talking to yourself positively in the third person can provide a boost. Saying "Mary, you're doing well. Keep going!" can reduce stress or anxiety.

Talking to yourself negatively - calling yourself stupid or lazy - plummets your self-worth and increases stress and anxiety.

Self-awareness and mindfulness are two key ways to identify and improve negative self-talk, which falls into three general categories: labeling ("I'm so stupid!"), catastrophizing ("I'm going to be fired!") and overgeneralizing ("I always make mistakes!").

By developing a self-awareness of these thinking patterns, you can cultivate mindfulness, learn to identify negative thoughts and begin to operate from within the present moment.

Challenge Yourself to Use Positive Self-Talk

When you find yourself being your harshest critic and falling prey to these thinking patterns, try challenging that negative voice in these ways:

  1. Reality test it.
    What evidence exists for this statement?
    Are my thoughts just interpretations?
    What is the truth?
  2. Find an alternative.
    Is there another way to look at the situation?
    What would I say about this if I were being positive?
  3. Gain some perspective.
    What's the best and worst thing that can happen?
    What's actually likely to happen?
    Am I overreacting or labeling myself too harshly?

Say you've made a mistake. Your harsh inner voice might say, "Mary, that was really stupid." Now try this positive approach: "Mary, everyone makes mistakes. By learning from this mistake, you are going to be better at your job."

That's taking the positive out of the negative - and just might help you find hope hidden in any situation.

CHI Health Behavioral Care Team
CHI Health Behavioral Care Team

These blogs were written by members of the CHI Health Behavioral Care team.

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