Is talking to yourself healthy or not?

A newspaper article once caught my eye. The piece, headlined ‘Why talking to yourself is NOT a sign of a mental illness’, reflected on a psychologist Paloma Mari-Beffa’s view that both inner self-talk and talking out loud can have very positive effects.

The article highlights that inner self-talk (and yes we all talk to ourselves in our heads) is a key part of how our minds work to manage the way we function. Talking out loud can amplify the self-instruction element of our internal conversation to increase control over a task and improve performance.

I can vouch for the positive and negative impacts of self-talk too, based on my experience of coaching leaders and working with teams.

Interestingly the starting point is often not so much about improving performance by simply being more positive – I term that being ‘happy stupid’. It’s a bit more subtle than that. I’ve found it’s more about taking control of the nature of inner self-talk and use of negative verbal language especially, self-depreciating inner mind chatter. My view is that this is an important learning point for all leaders.

Some people use negative language to motivate themselves, but as a contrast, negative self-talk can be a significant factor in compounding feelings of low confidence, self-doubt, insecurity, or poor motivation as well. I have worked with many, otherwise highly intelligent, competent, and capable people who have quite literally talked themselves out solving personal or business problems. I’ve done it myself too.

How about you? Do you find that you talk to yourself using negative and limiting language too?

Fortunately, if you do, then you are certainly not alone. However, there are a variety of ways in which we can take control of what’s happening.

Oi, you! Yes, you! Mind your language

One very useful tool is to reframe your negative emotions by introducing language that promotes a positive or growth mindset instead. At the very least it is helpful to soften your emotive and negative language.

For example, instead of telling yourself, ‘the last project was a complete failure,’ instead say ‘we learned a lot of valuable lessons from the last project’.

This language is far more purposeful. Simply put, using negative language leads us to use the ‘downstairs’ part of our brains. That part of our brains is hard-wired up to access our fears and survival and protection instincts.

In contrast, purposeful language leads us to access more of the ‘upstairs’ part of our brains. This part of the brain enables to process more choices, options, possibilities, and potentialities.

Becoming self-aware of your self-talk and verbal language is a major step towards gaining strong emotional intelligence skills. In this way, you quickly become aware of how easy it is to replace highly emotive words that have a negative impact on you and others, with softer and more purposeful words.

For example, ‘concerned’ to ‘aware’, ‘insecure’ to ‘unsure’, or ‘furious’ to ‘passionate’.

What if?

Another reframing tool is to pose ‘What if?’ questions to yourself. For instance:

‘What if the Board likes our marketing strategy?’ or ‘What if my experience is just right for the new job?’. These sorts of questions stimulate your brain into thinking and presupposing positively instead about your situations and activities that you are considering. It’s an excellent way to conjure up some attractive scenarios that will naturally introduce you to more intelligent ways to talk to yourself and to others too.

That leads me to a third idea (and of course there are lots more), which is the use of affirmations.

That quite simply uses the language you have uncovered in your reframing to make positive statements to yourself. Back to the newspaper article – you can even follow Paloma Mari-Beffa’s advice and say them out loud for added performance.

Stand in front of the mirror and practise, tell yourself that ‘I am an effective leader’ or ‘the presentation will be a success’. Remember to match your language with open and empowered body postures too.

But, best to do this alone, otherwise you’ll look a right turkey!

You’ll be amazed how quickly your mind will work to make those statements come true.

Don’t hit the ball in the water

Every golf player quickly learns not to say or think: ‘Don’t hit the ball in the water’, or ‘Don’t muff this shot up’. The intention here is good, but these phrases will predispose them to do exactly that. Therefore, the ball ends up in the water, and so the shot gets muffed up.

We often hear ‘Don’t worry about…’ this or that, or ‘don’t get this wrong’. But this type of language results in you focussing on this or that worry and getting things wrong – back to the downstairs part of our brains again.

Therefore, the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ certainly holds true.

But remember, thinking about what you don’t want sets up your attention to think about the very thing you don’t want. Ultimately this often leads to low performance.  So instead, a more successful strategy is to think about what you do want, rather than what you don’t want.

Personal anecdote

I used to have quite a negative attitude to life and I always worried about things not turning out how I want them to. However, a few years ago I consciously decided to work on myself and start to use purposeful language more of the time.

Since then, I’ve benefited hugely from the results. In particular, it has helped me to see the world more positively rather than negatively and I have also found that I my conversations with others is far more rewarding. Therefore, I know it works.

Since then as an educator I am privileged to guide leaders and teams to use purposeful language too. It does take practise though. However, it’s often one of the first steps for many people towards unblocking the obstacles that are preventing their potential to be realised.

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