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The Science behind Self-Talk
We’ve all heard the saying, “Sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words can never harm me.” That is a response that kids are taught as a way to refute and ignore name-calling and other unkind talk by children. However, it is now understood that words can and do hurt people, perhaps as much as sticks or stones. So most children are taught at home and at school – from an early age — to watch what they say to others. Adults know that there are consequences for being rude, harsh, insulting or unkind to others.
Far less, however, is said about a different kind of dialogue that happens internally. Dubbed self-talk, it is a streaming conversation that individuals have with themselves. From the moment we wake until the instant when we finally drift off to sleep at night, we are thinking – and that stream of thought includes an internal dialogue that might silently sound something like this:
A person goes into the kitchen in the morning and grabs the empty coffee carafe and begins filling it with water. His mind is thinking “make coffee”. But his internal dialogue is saying “I am so tired. After staying up past midnight last night — ugh, I hate working so late – I’m going to need lots of caffeine today, especially since I need to finish that report today.” But then the internal self-talk might continue. “I need a new job. I hate myself for staying at a job where I’m not appreciated.” The thought process starts with a simple task of making a cup of coffee, but the internal dialogue often injects feelings related to working late, exhaustion, and some self-loathing regarding career choices. And that negative dialogue can set the tone for the entire day…. causing the person to feel more depleted, demoralized and physically fatigued than can be blamed on the lack of sleep.
Tell the Negative Committee that meets in your head to “Sit down and hush up.”
Self-talk is the clearest indicator of how a person treats himself. Sometimes the most difficult habit to break is how one talks to oneself. Rewriting self-talk is about regulating the conversation a person has internally about his progress, his past, his future and his worth. Many people struggle with being fair and extending charity and grace to themselves. The first step in breaking this kind of bad habit is to honestly evaluate one’s own inner dialogue. It means looking inward and asking the following questions:
- Is what I tell myself kind?
- Is what I tell myself true?
- Is what I tell myself necessary?
- Is what I tell myself helpful?
If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, then the next step is to consider how to approach that self-dialogue differently. Some additional questions to ask to gauge whether the internal dialogue is toxic includes:
- Am I magnifying the negative aspects of a situation and filtering out all of the positive ones?
- If something bad occurred, did I automatically blame myself?
- Do I automatically anticipate the worst outcome in a situation and blame myself for it?
- Do I berate myself as a total failure if everything does not go 100% perfectly?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then that is also a sign that the inner dialogue needs altering. After all, life brings enough detractors. No one needs to add to that by being his own biggest or most vocal critic or heckler.
Positive Self-Talk Can Be Helpful
That said, saying nice things to your reflection in the mirror is a self-help trope that’s been around for decades. And yet, it has been scientifically proven that what one says to oneself has a direct impact on one’s success, well-being and outcomes. Indeed, self-talk has been studied from the earliest days of research in experimental psychology. Self-talk was defined as the expression of a syntactically recognizable internal position in which the sender of the message is also the intended receiver. In studies, self-talk was either expressed internally or out loud and had expressive, interpretive, and self-regulatory functions.
In sport psychology, the cognitive revolution of the 1970s led researchers and practitioners to explore the ways in which self-talk affects performance. More recently, a review of a total of 47 studies were analyzed to determine if there really was a measurable benefit to positive internal dialogue. This review, conducted by David Tod and James Hardy at Liverpool John Moores University and Emily J. Oliver at Bangor University and reported in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology in October 2011, showed that there were measurable beneficial effects of positive, instructional, and motivational self-talk for performance.
But researchers have found a number of benefits of positive self-talk.
1. Improves Health
- Increases life span
- Lowers rates of depression
- Lowers levels of distress
- Increases 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
It’s unclear why people who engage in positive self-talk experience these health benefits. One theory is that having a positive outlook enables one to cope better with stressful situations, which reduces the harmful health effects of stress on the body. Another theory is that positive dialogue is usually adopted by people who want to do better and are already living healthier lifestyles by getting more physical activity, following a healthier diet, and not smoking or drinking alcohol in excess. So the positive self-talk is simply a correlational part of an overall focus on wellness. Whatever the reason, it works.
2. Reduces Stress – One major benefit of positive self-talk is its ability to help combat difficult situations that cause stress. It keeps the person in an optimistic place, allowing better control of stressful events or circumstances. This is particularly beneficial since stress can increase the risk for inflammation, weakened immune system, mental health disorders and disease. Using positive self-talk daily allows a person to solve problems and cope with life’s challenges, thereby reducing stress and its health consequences.
3. Eases Anxiety – Research shows it decreases anxiety and worry. The key is to replace worry with a more positive inner dialogue in order to counter the feelings of anxiety. A study on the efficacy of self-talk training on junior sub-elite athletes found it not only reduced anxiety but it also increased self-confidence, self-optimization, self-efficacy and performance. The young athletes in the experimental groups received either one week or eight weeks of self-talk intervention, which proved to enhance the psychological mindset of the participants.
4. Promotes Confidence – Positive self-talk increases self-confidence, which can improve occupational performance and relationships. This has the complete opposite effect of negative inner thoughts, which leads to self-esteem issues and a sense of worthlessness.
5. Increases Happiness – Practicing positive inner dialogues increases happiness and can make the person feel more energized and optimistic. In a positive state, a person is able to connect better with others and relax.
6. Encourages Healthy Habits – Not only does positive self-talk improve health, but it also encourages choosing and sticking to healthy habits. The key with this is to make positive thoughts outweigh negative thoughts, allowing the person to be in a healthier, more optimistic and encouraging mental space. After all, how would someone treat their body well when constantly putting oneself down or thinking negatively about the world? Inner dialogue has a trickle effect on mood and motivation to stay healthy.
7. Reduces Negativity and Psychological Symptoms – Studies found that reducing negative self-talk improved psychological symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and anger.
8. Improved Relationships – Another good reason to regulate self-talk and be kind to oneself is that the relationship with oneself sets the tone for every other relationship one has.
Sweet Talking the Self
There are two main types of helpful self-talk:
- Motivational – It is helpful to pump oneself up before a stressful or frightening task or encourage oneself to complete a task, such as saying, “Come on! You can do this.”
- Instructional – It is also valuable to talk oneself through a task, step-by-step, so that it becomes ingrained, such as a golfer talking through each component of his swing (“eye on the ball, head down, etc.”). This is particularly helpful during a complex or challenging task.
When engaging in self-talk, here are some tips to keep it constructive:
- Keep it short and precise.
- Be consistent- do it regularly so it becomes automatic.
- Use third person language instead of first person. Addressing oneself by name or saying “you” instead of “I” helps increase kindness to oneself, kind of like taking on the role of a good friend.
- Don’t be overconfident. Being overconfident can cause arrogance. Instead, it helps to say something like, “You worked really hard to get ready for this. You can do it!”
- Don’t be critical. Being too critical can cause a cycle of shame and perceived failure.
With Covid-19 cases on the upswing and the need for people to stay safe, sane and optimistic in the face of a harsh winter and even harsher economy, the need to keep the inner dialogue positive is more important than ever, especially for professionals and business people. Author Beverly Engel suggests for people to, “Turn down the volume of your negative inner voice and create a nurturing inner voice to take its place. When you make a mistake, forgive yourself, learn from it, and move on instead of obsessing about it.” Let that still, small voice in your head whisper sweetness to your inner self. Consider that positive self-talk is to the mind and soul as a medicine is to body.
Quote of the Week
“After all, beating yourself up is never a fair fight.” Andrea Gibson
© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.