This post is part of the Weeks of Self blog series, hosted by Theresa Destrebecq of Thrive Within.
We all have voices in our heads. No, I’m not talking about multiple personality disorder. I’m talking about self-talk.
What is Self-talk?
Self-talk provides the narration for our human experience, it’s the stream-of-conscious thoughts that flit through our minds and help us understand our reality. Notice that I didn’t say it narrates reality. As Michael A. Singer writes in The Untethered Soul, “Your consciousness is actually experiencing your mental model of reality, not reality itself.”
Sometimes the voices in our heads relay facts or observations such as: “Oh, I was supposed to call Bob today. I could call him now, but I don’t have my hands-free set. I suppose I’ll have to call him when I get home. I don’t really want to talk to him now…but I need to do this. It’s the responsible thing to do.”
Sometimes the voices praise us, “Yeah, I rocked that presentation! That was awesome.”
And sometimes the voices turn downright nasty, “Well that was colossally stupid. I just made a huge fool of myself…”
Recently my self-talk has been dominated by Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s” lyrics and flashes of business insight at 3am, when I’d prefer to be asleep. I know you know what I’m talking about.
Because self-talk illustrates our mental model of reality, it can be a powerful self-discovery tool. Our self-talk points to our immediate, subconscious responses to experiences; reflects deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world; and has a significant impact on how we feel and behave.
How to Become More Aware of Your Self-Talk
To learn more about yourself through your self-talk, first you must notice what the voices are saying. We each have thousands of thoughts per day, so many that we may be unaware of most of them. Paying attention to our self-talk is thus an exercise in mindfulness. I’ve found three methods that help in observing my mental chatter:
Meditation. Designed to help you achieve mental peace, meditation is an excellent way to observe your self-talk—because your mind will fight to distract you.
When you first start meditating, you might try to silence your thoughts by focusing on your breath, but those sneaky voices often pop in anyway. As they do, you can acknowledge them and move back to your breathing then, once meditation has finished, make a note of what thoughts sprang to mind.
Regular meditation also provides a key to managing your self-talk by helping you learn to not react to every thought in your head and instead to watch detachedly, as if from a distance.
Exercise. Have you ever gotten into the flow of exercise and become more conscious to your thoughts? My husband swears by running for this purpose. There’s something about the rhythmic, repetitive motion that distracts enough of his brain so that he can be more aware of his underlying thoughts.
I’ve found this to be true for myself through yoga and walking. Focusing on the movement of my body calms my mind to the point where I become more attuned and better able to observe my thoughts. The secret to reaching this state is to exercise alone and without distractions. Sorry, iPod.
Journaling. My favorite way to observe my self-talk is through journaling. Since 2010, I’ve written morning pages, three pages of handwritten, stream-of-conscious notes each day. I also kept a journal for many years before that.
Writing down your thoughts, especially first thing in the morning or when your mind is going a million miles per minute, helps you see your mental models, the stories you tell yourself to make sense of the world. Having these thoughts written down also gives you a leg up on the second part of this work, managing your self-talk.
How to Manage Your Self-Talk
Once you’ve developed a habit of observing your self-talk, you can determine if it is positive or negative, empowering or disempowering. When I first started, mine was profoundly negative. It was only because I became aware of that, though, I was able to change it.
Question it. When you’re observing your thoughts, you can ask yourself: Is this fair, true, and helpful? Do I want to believe this message?
If it helps you, great! You can work to strengthen positive self-talk by acknowledging it. If your thoughts aren’t so helpful, knowing this will provide the impetus to make needed changes.
Pep it up. You can change inherent self-talk by giving yourself a pep talk. Admittedly, this doesn’t work too well when you’re in a negative spiral and is best attempted when you’re nervous and need to psych yourself up for a strong performance.
When I photographed my first few weddings, for example, I had the following conversation with myself as I drove to the event: “You’ve got this, Kate! You’re a good photographer. You’re going to stay in the moment, focus on what’s happening around you, see the shot, and capture it.” Sometimes I’d even say this out loud for emphasis.
According to psychologist Bridgett Ross, what I did was a combination of motivational and instructional self-talk, not only encouraging myself but providing specific action steps to accomplish my goal. The combination of the two is stronger than motivational words alone.
Rewrite your story. One more way to improve your mental state and related self-talk is by working with positive affirmations. I’ve written about affirmations before so I won’t go into too many details here. To create affirmations that work, remember to phrase them in the positive, focus on the present tense, and keep them believable. If no part of you believes what you’re peddling, your mind will ignore it or worse, scoff at it.
Next week I’m going to delve a bit deeper into self-talk and tackling your gremlins, those nasty voices that kill your spirit and undermine your progress. Until then, enjoy the next Weeks of Self post, going live on Wednesday from Sara Yao.