I do it all the time. When I get stressed out I remind myself to “let it go,” and ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” When I’m running, I negotiate: “If I sprint to the flagpole then I can walk the next two blocks.” When I mindlessly put the milk away in the cupboard instead of the refrigerator, I laugh at myself and think, “Yikes! Get it together.”
Humans seem wired to talk to themselves. Our internal monologue — or sometimes our external monologue — helps us navigate and shape our daily lives. Wellness advocates have suggested self-talk remedies for personal problems from low self-esteem to lack of motivation to anorexia. And although the thought of self-affirmation exercises evokes images of Stewart Smiley’s “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like me!” on Saturday Night Live, there’s some science behind this practice.
In “Why Saying is Believing: The Science of Self-Talk,” NPR correspondent Laura Starecheski explored the relationship between talking to ourselves and wellness. Scientists have proven that our internal representations of ourselves — the mental images we have of our bodies — are dependent not only on our physical realities, but on what we imagine ourselves to be. For instance, women who habitually wore big hats were found to duck when they walked through doorways even when they weren’t wearing those hats. In their minds, they viewed themselves as wearing the hats even when it wasn’t physically true.
If our perceptions of ourselves are up to our imaginations, we can intentionally alter them by telling ourselves what we want to be. If I want to feel more confident in my swimsuit at the beach, I can teach my brain to see myself as having a more desirable figure by telling myself this is true.
So what type of self-talk is most effective? How can we intentionally talk to ourselves in a way that boosts our esteem, confidence, happiness, and productivity? Starecheski reports:
Koss decided to do an experiment…
He asked volunteers to give a speech — with only five minutes of mental preparation. As they prepped, he asked some to talk to themselves and to address themselves as “I.” Others he asked to either call themselves “you,” or to use their own names as they readied their speeches.
Kross says that people who used “I” had a mental monologue that sounded something like, ” ‘Oh, my god, how am I going do this? I can’t prepare a speech in five minutes without notes. It takes days for me to prepare a speech!’ ”
People who used their own names, on the other hand, were more likely to give themselves support and advice, saying things like, “Ethan, you can do this. You’ve given a ton of speeches before.” These people sounded more rational, and less emotional — perhaps because they were able to get some distance from themselves.
It seems that calling ourselves by name, and encouraging ourselves from this “external” stance, we can re-envision ourselves as capable and successful. And we can talk ourselves through our challenges so we can meet our goals.
“What we find,” Kross says, “is that a subtle linguistic shift — shifting from ‘I’ to your own name — can have really powerful self-regulatory effects.”
Not ready to sit yourself down and talk in a mirror? Set aside some protected time to journal to yourself, addressing yourself as if you are another person, to overcome obstacles as you face them. A few minutes spent on a written “pep talk” might go a long way.
Try it out yourself, or experiment with it in the classroom by asking students to use 3rd person self-talk before a big test or presentation. Let us know how it goes!