This is a well-used suggestion, eh? We see a lot of aphorisms with little pictures to accompany them: ‘you’ll spend a lot more time talking to yourself than anyone else so best be kind…’ and there is a very good point being made here, as we are often a lot less kind to ourselves than we would be to someone else. If I approach you as a friend and tell you I am struggling, full of self-doubt and having a generally hard time at the moment, you might seek to pick me up a little: ‘you know what you’re pretty good at a,b,c, I always think you’re great at…’ and so on. This stems from our inherent politeness and the way we are taught to build, cultivate, and repair relationships with others, we are taught, hopefully, as children to support and have compassion for others, I see great teachers doing this all the time. Self-talk, however, is not so much on the curriculum (probably as historically talking to yourself appeared to be a sign of madness). The trouble with the notion of not talking to yourself, out of fear of seeming mad, is we all talk to ourselves and all day long! And we always have done and will continue to do so, although we more often refer to this as thinking.
When was the last time you berated yourself? ‘what did you do that for you idiot?!’ and so on, are common thoughts and naturally this will have been fed into if our upbringings and early experiences were not so positive. Sometimes you might need to ‘mine’ for the parts of yourself that should be affirmed. For example, any kindness you show for others, your willingness to keep going when times are hard. It is far easier to pick faults- we as a species are inherently predisposed to spot what is wrong- a funny looking gas coming from the ground? Don’t go over and smell it… a hissing from within that dark cave? Stay away it’s dangerous… what is wrong or broken, of course, may kill us. On the savannah or in the jungle negativity is helpful. The world of the hunter gatherer is full of danger and alertness for what is wrong is needed. The social world we surround ourselves with now, however, Is different, sure we need to watch out for a car driving too close to the pavement… but in our world we interpret all sorts of other danger, how we look, how we feel, how we seem to others, not being enough… smart enough, beautiful enough, successful enough all equal potential threats and things that are ‘wrong’ and so depression, anxiety and poor mental health are rife amongst our societies.
The negativity bias makes sense because on the savannah it will have kept us alive; good quality self-talk, however, sees there is a difference between the rules of the jungle and living in the concrete jungle. The logical, calm, calculating you and the wilder, emotional more erratic you must be differentiated- and let’s face it we all have both aspects to our personalities. I will sometimes highlight the negativity bias by showing students my math skills on a board like this:
5+5 = 10
What is your first piece of feedback? I am guessing mostly; it isn’t: ‘well done you got 75% on that test!’ Or: ‘you got most of them right!’ We are programmed to say: ‘you got one wrong…’ So, this negativity bias is already In place, we already have an inbuilt and powerful capacity for spotting what is wrong, no need to work on this or develop it anymore, thank you evolution, you’ve nailed this part… Now we need to develop the habit of a positivity bias (the negativity spotting will still happen we are just aiming for balance here).
Good quality self-talk can help with this problem, as it recognises negativity which arises in us automatically and offers a counterpoint. We need to enhance our capacity to look for what is right and what is going well and to build this into daily practice, so we get good at it. We need this when times get hard more than ever to help keep us going and moving forwards while we wait for the world to right itself.
‘We need to enhance our capacity to look for what is right and what is going well’
Think about a time you ‘lost it’, ‘went mad’, or were just very emotionally upset, maybe you even did or said things you later regretted. At some point you probably gained your calmness and composure and can even see your behaviour/reactions as not that helpful (it didn’t stop you at the time, but you could see it later in the ‘cold light of day’). That part of you, the calm rationale part, is always there, but sometimes muted by the rage of other powerful emotions we are experiencing. The calm rationale voice does not tell us we are idiots, it will much more likely say: ‘you were upset, your emotions got the better of you and now you understandably feel regret’ it deals with the facts and not the emotional berating (‘you’re an idiot, you always do this, why do you keep doing it!!’).
Psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors may refer to these different systems operating in clients, as it can be more helpful than describing complex neurophysiology (i.e. specific brain areas which light up on a PET scan when we are very emotional versus calm). Eric Berne, picking up on the work of Sigmund Freud, identified the adult, parent and child as distinct parts of our thinking selves, and in his analogy the adult would be the calm rationale part, and the child (prone to emotion, as we all naturally are as actual children) represents us at our most emotional and sometimes erratic. The parent is another story but can of course be critical (of others when we speak to them but also to ourselves).
Often, I will refer to Steve Peter’s ‘Chimp and Human’ to my clients as a way of seeing the very distinct difference between our instinctively and emotionally led behaviours (which are not always, but often, irrational) and our more thoughtful and calm behaviours. The chimp is in us all and dals with threat, it comes from a distant past of a world full of predators and danger. There can, of course, be predators and danger in our world but the trouble is the chimp does not differentiate between actual danger and perceived threat which arises from simply thinking. I use the reference to help people get in touch with the different voices operating their lives and to start to operate effective mind-management and part of this is naturally: self-talk.
We cannot help having an inner chimp or child, they are important and needed lifelong but a little like having a dog, you cannot help the fact it is a dog, but you do bear responsibility for stopping it biting someone.
2 great strategies for promoting good internal conversations:
#1 Cultivate great self-talk
Listen to your self-talk- notice your own self-talk and even make a note of it, what do you say to yourself? Is it kind, or harsh and berating? (note this may, of course, be affected by the way you were spoken to as a child). Try speaking to yourself in the way you would a child or friend you wanted to help e.g., ‘it was a mistake, we all make mistakes, and you tried your best…’ rather than berating yourself and name calling.
#2 Find the good luck which surrounds you
Notice 5 bits of good luck every day for the next week. I ran an experiment with this gratitude type exercise- measuring people’s feelings of psychological wellbeing at a specific time of day and measuring it at the same time/place a week later (i.e. after 7 days of finding 5 bits of good luck). The results showed a clearly significant increase in wellbeing. The luck people found can seem somewhat trivial (a parking spot right outside the business they were visiting, good quality coffee at the takeaway stand, 50 cents on the sidewalk, or a kind word or door held open from a stranger). The point is we don’t always make ourselves look for what is right in our world; however small it is. The inherent negativity bias will however definitely remind of us of what is wrong. Thank the world for alerting you to danger and then look for good fortune as well, 5 bits of good luck per day, recorded in a notebook each evening for the next week, do it!