Author: Alex Kohn, M.A.
Who is the person you talk to the most? When asked this question, many of us might answer by providing the name of a parent, sibling, significant other, or close friend. Have you ever thought about the fact that you are the person you talk to the most?
Thousands of thoughts go through our mind each day. Now, think about the way you talk to yourself. What types of thoughts tend to go through your head? What do you tend to tell yourself? Is the way you talk to yourself sometimes helpful? Sometimes unhelpful? Neutral?
Researchers have demonstrated that the way we talk to ourselves matters, and that slight shifts in the language we use to talk to ourselves may affect our ability to regulate thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Kross et al., 2014). For example, in one study, Kross and colleagues found that individuals who engaged in non-first-person self-talk (i.e., referring to oneself using one’s first name or using he/she/they) performed better on a short task and exhibited less distress. In looking to the research, researchers and clinicians have found ways to specifically address unhelpful self-talk. Here are some ways to get started on first noticing self-talk and consequently addressing any unhelpful thoughts:
- Practice noticing what thoughts go through your mind. When we take the time to pause and notice our moment-by-moment thought processes, we may come to realize just how often we talk to ourselves! Remember, this is a practice. It takes time, patience, and intentionality to attend to our thoughts, as we typically are not naturally inclined to notice the thoughts passing through our minds.
- Once you notice a specific self-talk statement, ask yourself, “would I talk to a friend or loved one this way?”
- Create some distance between yourself and unhelpful thoughts by using a cognitive defusion technique. Cognitive defusion techniques aim to create space between one’s sense of self and one’s thoughts/feelings. Some cognitive defusion techniques include:
- Just Noticing: Use the language of observation (i.e., noticing) when talking about private experiences. For example, “I’m noticing that I’m judging myself right now.”
- The Mind: Treat “the mind” as something external, or as something separate from your personality (e.g., “Well, my mind is questioning myself again” or “My mind is worrying a lot today!”)
- Thoughts Are Not Causes: If a thought interferes as a barrier to an action, ask yourself, “is it possible to think that thought, as a thought, and do XYZ?” Try it out by deliberately thinking the thought while doing what it has been stopping (e.g., is it possible to feel anxiety and give the presentation anyway?)
- Pause, take a step back, and ask yourself, “Is there another way to think about this situation?” What else might be true? When we give ourselves the time and space to pause, we may be more likely to expand our awareness and think about the bigger picture, rather than getting caught up in one unhelpful thought or a strong emotion.
Intentionally attending to our thoughts takes a lot of practice. The initial step is noticing the thoughts going through our mind and then thinking about how we can channel our self-talk in a way that is most beneficial to our wellbeing.
Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: how you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 304-324. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035173