Me, Myself, and I: Finding Meaning in Self-Talk

Mar 4, 2024 | Aging Successfully, Conversations

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Man pointing upDo you talk to yourself? Do you ever wonder if that is normal, quirky, or troubling behavior?

I was talking to myself the other day when it occurred to me (or us!) that this could be an interesting topic for further exploration. I think the amount of self-talk that I do is OK, but I was interested in understanding if I am “normal” in the amount. I also thought it would be cool to see why people talk to themselves, under what circumstances. 

Having somewhat of a psychology background, my hunch was that I was likely “processing something,” working something out or deciding to. Also, I know that many of the people I coach engage in a lot of negative self-talk. Thirdly, I wanted to make sure I was on the positive and not the negative side of this activity.

I decided to allow myself a little rabbit hole reading. Afterall, if I could learn something to help a client or learn more about myself it might be worth that time. I might even pick up some trivia, I thought, so adding some play to the task was all it took for me.


What is Self-Talk?


Talking to yourself, often called “self-talk,” is a common and natural behavior. It’s generally considered healthy and provides a way for the brain to interpret and process daily experiences.

Imagine walking down the street and seeing someone walking alone, talking to themselves. You’d probably try to avoid them. In some contexts, talking to oneself is thought to be the habit of eccentrics or a signal of mental instability. Yet, the truth is we all talk to ourselves.

People talk to themselves for various reasons, including problem-solving, reasoning, planning, motivation, and attention. Self-talk is common, and experts believe talking to yourself out loud can help you process your thoughts in a healthy, productive way.

As one might imagine, there is positive self-talk and negative self-talk. We are going to cover both in this segment.

People are becoming more aware that positive self-talk is a powerful tool for increasing self-confidence and curbing negative emotions. People who can master positive self-talk are considered more confident, motivated, and productive.


Why Do People Talk to Themselves?


Most people have an inner monologue, but many also engage in external self-talk. Almost everyone talks out loud to themselves, at least occasionally, but some do it more often than others.

While external self-talk is relatively common, there has not been much research into why some people talk to themselves out loud, and others do not. 

One theory suggests that people who spend more time alone may be likelier to talk to themselves. Because they have fewer interactions with others, their self-talk may serve as a form of social communication. 

There is a fair amount of research supporting this theory. Studies have shown that adults who were an only-child are more likely to engage in external self-talk.

Another study found that people who are lonely and have a strong need to belong are also more likely to talk to themselves. Self-talk, in this case, serves to fill a need that is not being met by social relationships.


Types of Self-Talk


There are a few different types of ways that you might talk to yourself

  • Positive and negative self-talk: Positively talking to yourself may involve delivering self-affirmations or statements designed to help you stay motivated and inspired. Negatively talking to yourself often centers on statements that are self-critical or blaming. “Well, I blew that again. I knew I would. I always do.
  • Instructional self-talk: This form of self-directed speech is centered on talking through the steps that you will need to follow to solve a problem or perform a task. “Find my keys, find my keys, gotta find my keys….”
  • Motivational self-talk: This type of speech is focused on encouraging to perform a task. For example, you might congratulate yourself for your efforts or remind yourself that you can succeed. “You’ve got this, Tracy!”

Studies suggest that talking to yourself in a positive, instructional, or motivational way can help improve your performance.


Benefits of Talking to Yourself


Aside from the obvious “Build You Up” signals that we can dish and receive, talking to yourself can have a number of benefits. Some of these include 


Talking to yourself can be a useful way to gain some distance from your own experiences. It allows you to reflect on the things happening in your life. It can allow you to separate you from you, and remove or lessen intense emotions. Self-talk can minimize the immediate emotion and knee-jerk feelings you might have in the moment. By providing some distance, self-talk can be a great way to objectively see things.

One way to do that is by talking in the third person, and we will return to that in just a bit.


Talking to yourself can also be motivating. Consider the times you’ve hyped yourself up to face a challenge by telling yourself, “I can do this” or “You’ve got this.” Such thoughts can be useful when you keep them inside, but externalizing such ideas can often be even more motivating. So, talk!

A 2020 study explored the impact of self-talk on 170 athletes’ motivation and performance levels. It found that self-talk was related to increased intrinsic motivation, leading to higher effort, enjoyment, and a sense of competence among athletes. Athletes employ self-talk. 

Do you ever wonder what is going through the minds of those college athletes at the free-throw line? The camera follows them standing at the free throw line, and they seem to be collecting themselves. I wonder what motivational self-talk they may be engaging? 

What if you need motivation to convince yourself to do that task you don’t want to do? Self-talk can help some people keep their motivation up. In addition, if you are feeling down or unmotivated, you might talk to yourself and remind yourself of your goals and how important it is to keep going. Keep your eyes on the prize and press on.


Talking to yourself can also be a way to work through problems you might be facing. This tactic, known as self-explaining, can help people monitor their progress and improve their performance as they work through a problem.

Spending a few moments talking to yourself can give you the time to focus and reflect on the problem and all your options. 

  1. See things more clearly: When putting thoughts into words, we can better gain clarity and perspective on a situation, which can be helpful when making decisions. In this way, we may be more capable of working through problems and coming up with solutions. I find this to be true. If I am talking it out, even with myself, a new solution often emerges. Direction comes out of me.
  2. Make better sense of emotions: Talking to yourself about your feelings can help you become more aware of them and better understand why you are feeling the way you do. This, in turn, can help you manage your emotions more effectively.
  3. Boost confidence: Talking to yourself can easily remind yourself of your strengths and capabilities and enhance your self-esteem.

Better Memory

If you’ve ever talked to yourself as you roam the aisles of the grocery store, do not fret—research has shown it might help you better remember the items on your list. 

In one study I referenced, participants had to search for items in a store without saying anything.  During the second phase of the experiment, the participants were told to repeat the names of the items they were looking for as they searched. The results showed that those who talked to themselves found it easier to find what they sought.

Try not to smile the next time you are in the grocery store and you witness a self-talker, they are on to something. 


Getting the Most Out of Self-Talk


Talking to yourself can have benefits, but there are also things that you can do to make sure you are getting the most out of your self-talk. Strategies that can help are 

Keep It Positive

Negative self-talk, whether in your mind or out loud, can seriously impact your well-being. Finding ways to reframe your words can be beneficial if you tend to dwell or ruminate on negativity

This doesn’t mean saying things that are overly positive or unrealistic. For example, you do not want to replace a negative statement such as “I’m terrible at this” with “I’m the best at this.” Instead, make positive but realistic statements that foster a more optimistic mindset. For example, you might say “This is hard but you are learning. You’re getting better every day.”

Manage your talk – Harness it as a process

Manage your emotions by talking in the third person. It’s kind of like shifting into narrating what’s going on. 

Researchers have found that when people talked to themselves in the third person, they could better regulate their emotions. This can be particularly helpful when dealing with difficult or stressful feelings. 

Instead of talking to yourself in the first person, try switching to a third-person (“she/he/they”) perspective. This means eliminating “I, Me, or my.” Just drop “I” and use “you,” he,” or “she. ” instead. Narrate: “Charles is having a tough time. Charles says he hates this.”

Using the third person can help give you some distance from those feelings, which can help you evaluate them more objectively, almost as if you were observing someone else’s thoughts rather than your own.

Basketball legend LeBron James was observed talking in third person when he announced in a memorable interview that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010. That decision upset a lot of fans and Clevelanders, also. He said: 

“One thing that I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision,” James replied when asked about Cavaliers fans’ angry reaction to the move. “And, you know, I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what LeBron James was going to do to make him happy.” 

At first, LeBron was called out as an egoist for referring to himself in the third person. Can you discern this technique working in his memorable interview about his decision? Taken in context, his third-person talk may reveal the star’s efforts to control his emotions in a charged situation and to help with his decision.

In another approach Brené Brown, best-selling author, TEDTalker, and University of Houston professor refers to the negative voices in her head as her gremlins. By giving her negative thoughts a name, she is both stepping away from them and poking fun at them.  (Have yourself some fun giving your negative thoughts a name. I am thinking Bucky because I can snarl it, and bucking is what I am doing, bucking the notion).

Tune In to What You’re Saying

Talking to yourself is most beneficial when you pay attention and listen to what you are saying. The next time “you and you” are having a conversation, try a quick check: Is this dialogue positive, helpful, or less than positive?

One of my favorite quotes is “Be careful how you talk to yourself, you might be listening.” Lisa Hayes. Lisa Hayes writes about the power of self-talk, which has become quite the catchphrase for the subject.  

Self-talk isn’t always a positive force. If you are engaging in negative self-talk, it can take a toll on your confidence, self-esteem, and mental well-being. Here I am referring to rumination, that which results in negative self-talk.

I am here to tell you plenty of people slide into the negative. It is astonishingly easy.

Rumination is the flip side of positive self-talk.   Thinking through a problem can be useful, but small issues tend to snowball if you spend a lot of time ruminating. Constant rumination can make you more likely to experience depression or anxiety. Sometimes it may be best to see a mental health care professional. In most cases, you can talk to yourself without it being a cause for worry.

There are plenty of people who are very aware of their self-talk. They may think it funny, quirky, “something I do.” But when they learned more about self-talk, they realized that somehow they had gone from the quirky to less-than-positive, which has become a problem for them. Or a pattern they’d fallen into, and they wished to reshape it. Do you want to turn some of your self-talk around? I coach on this thing frequently for folks wishing to make changes in business and life. 


If it’s time to rein it in, there are ways to shape your self-talk.


So, what can you do to manage your talks to, or with, yourself? I employ several strategies in my coaching, and here are a few of my favorites.

  • Strategic self-talk interventions. Purposefully using predetermined cue words or phrases to support well-being, manage problems, or improve task performance (e.g., repeating the phrase “Stay calm, stay focused” before giving a public speech to boost confidence). A popular phrase  we’ve seen on everything from clothing to posters and Pinterest is “Keep calm and carry on.” Start there.
  • Be aware of what you’re saying to yourself. Just stopping and recognizing negative thoughts for what they are is the first step to working through the problem. Ask yourself, would you talk like this to someone else?
  • Speak kindly to yourself. The language we use greatly impacts our thoughts and overall positivity. Use positive, kind, and compassionate words to describe yourself. Avoid self-criticism and negative language. I have a friend who once said to me as I was putting myself down…“Hey! Don’t talk to my friend Nancy like that!” It startled me and got me thinking about my self-talk, how much I was doing, and buying.
  • Write it down. Journaling can be a helpful practice that may help you process emotions, explore solutions, and even relieve symptoms of stress. It’s been proven that spending some quiet time and dedicating time to yourself to “get it out of your head and onto paper” can be helpful. Then, you can reread and decide how much credence to give your self-talk. 
  • Yoo-hoo lists. Recently I was encouraged by a coach to make a “Yoo-hoo List,” to jot down something that was presenting, or seemed to be “wanting out,” was asking for my attention. When things are in motion in my day, I jot it down and return to an item later when I am no longer the daily swivet.
  • Challenge your thoughts. Ask yourself, rebut: Is it true? (Often, it is not). Ask yourself for another explanation or way of looking at a situation. Remember that many things you worry about don’t happen. Much negative self-talk is exaggerated.

To put your thoughts into perspective, use the “So What? Technique.” I had a friend who used to challenge herself as a form of rebuttal and play a little. Here is how it works: In your self-talk, or employing your self-talk, you could say anything and follow it with the words “So What?” In doing so, you are forced to rethink or make it a priority. 

For example: It is going to rain all day. So What?  I am catching every red light! So What?  I have to make some dinner. So What? This little confirm or deny-moment can make you quickly rethink: is this true, is this a problem, what priority should I assign? Do I want to say something different (to myself)?

  • Stop the thought. You can do this ‘thought stopping’ technique visually by imagining the thought being stopped or squashed, etc. -or by having a little ritual. In your mind, squash a bug! Some folks who are weaning themselves from cigarettes have been know to snap the rubber band they are wearing on their wrist to interrupt the thought patterns, try that. Invent yourself a stop-word, something that could be said out loud, in case you are talking out loud, and someone hears you.  “Oh, Potatoes!”
  • Replace the thought with a neutral or positive thought. Ask yourself – what is a more helpful thought?  “I HATE rain” could become “We do need the rain” or “Tomorrow starts five sunny days.”

Positive self-talk is not about tricking yourself into viewing everything as wonderful. It’s likely impossible, and not productive, to always have a positive view. Instead, positive self-talk helps you see the whole truth, not just the negative aspects of any situation.  By using more positive self-talk, you are more likely to build confidence and self-esteem and feel more in control of events.

And that is how I close many of my videos, by telling you that I hope you find something I have covered today useful and to help you move forward comfortably in life.

I recommend that you go ahead and talk to yourself. It’s normal and good for you – if you have the right conversations.


Trying to make sense of it all? Nancy Ruffner is a Patient Advocate who coaches, consults and speaks on topics involving healthcare navigation, caregiving, or aging successfully. Let’s talk, plan solve! Set your Complimentary Consultation toward engagement here or call 919.628.4428 today!