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Lessons in Self-Talk

Self-talk is a constant stream of conversation running along inside of our heads — it is happening whether we are aware of it or not. Should I call her? Should I eat another doughnut? It can be positive or negative, motivational or instructional. It can be empowering, and it can be debilitating. 

All of our environments are filtered through ourselves — we interpret the world and environments and people around us, and it is that interpretation which becomes the truth of our world. Self-talk influences how we see the world. We should take note.

The Filter

Imagine you live in an apartment building in Chicago. If your downstairs neighbor has negative self-talk and your upstairs neighbor has positive self-talk, then the way they experience the same environment will be significantly different. 

On a spring day in Chicago, as it begins to rain, the downstairs neighbor might be upset about the weather. They might lament the puddles filling in the street. They might curse the idea that they cannot comfortably walk outside. 

On that same rainy day, your upstairs neighbor might also look out the window and see that it is raining. That neighbor, whose filter is colored by positive self-talk, might recognize that the jog they were planning is going to be a wet one, but that might actually be fun. If they do not feel like getting wet, they might just save their jog for later. That same neighbor might take it one step further to recognize that the rain is going to nourish crops. It will fuel the neighborhood gardens. They might see the rain as an absolutely essential component of life as we know it, listen to the pattern of its dropping on the sidewalk and see that, in its own way, it is sort of beautiful. 

This might seem like a banal elucidation of “perspective” — and in some ways it is — but what this simple experiment exhibits should be taken seriously. Two people in the same city, with the same address, experience the exact same environmental stimulus (the rain) in two very different ways — predetermined, in part, by the conversation going on between their ears.

Too much negative self-talk can be caused by (and can also lead to) anxiety and depression. There is likely a bidirectional influence going on in these cases. Conversely, positive self-talk can have the opposite effect. Positive self-talk is frequently the root of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a solutions-based approach to managing anxiety and other mental health concerns by gaining control over one’s thoughts.

We can all benefit from improving the filter through which we see the world.

Slowing Down

Our inner narratives can often run wild, moving so fast that we can barely take note, much less wrangle them into a place that serves us.

Mindfulness deliberately cultivated by breathing is a great way to slow down. Sitting and listening to your thoughts can be highly enlightening, but it can be difficult, especially if your mind is already running on hyper-drive. 

If sitting still and listening to your thoughts in peaceful contemplation just isn’t going to happen, consider journaling. Journaling is a highly effective method to become aware of and eventually gain control over self-talk. Ditch the iPad, grab a pen and a piece of paper and write down your thoughts and ideas. Working through a string of logic slowly and deliberately will allow you to tune into your self-talk; it will slow down your thinking. It will allow you a moment to listen to and process your inner narrative. 

If journaling doesn’t work, try talk therapy. Try starting a podcast or a YouTube channel. Write a poem. Write a song. Find a method to slow down and tune in to your inner narrative. 

There are countless methods to slow down. Select which one works best for you. Whichever method you ultimately select, recognize that it is an essential place to begin.

Staying Humble

To gain control over self-talk, you will need to be humble. During any process, there will be days that don’t go the way you planned. You must be willing to forgive yourself. If you can’t discipline your mind right away, no worries. A combination of humility and accountability will take you a long way.

It is easier to be accountable for your goals and the standards that you hold for yourself, if you are humble enough to recognize that things will not always go perfectly to plan. The humble can endure setbacks. They can keep their wits about them and make thoughtful next steps. They are less likely to spiral out and become angry with themselves and others.

Set high standards for yourself, hold yourself accountable, and do the things that you say you are going to do — and know that if you’re not consistently batting 1.000 it is okay. There will be other at-bats. If you are 0 for 9 on the day, humility might allow you to keep your cool and connect with the next pitch. Lack of humility might predetermine 0 for 10.

In a clear and humble state, control over self-talk is more tenable.

The highest level of one’s ability comes with a bi-directional, mutually enhancing relationship between humility and accountability.

Developing Fitness

Develop the fitness to think thoroughly. In regards to self-talk, it is not always easy to slow down, pay attention, work to understand, have humility, and be accountable. The self-talk you currently have is the narrative path you have been walking through the forest of your brain for — likely — your entire life. You will have to develop a fitness within the process.

The metaphor of physical fitness suits the conversation of psychological fitness. For most, the hardest mile they ever run is their first mile. To get oneself off of the couch, to lace up an under-used pair of running shoes and taking the steps toward a different and healthier version of yourself — a process that will knowingly be difficult — that is the hardest part. But after one moves through the discomfort, things get easier. The body adapts. The person become faster, stronger, fitter. Each subsequent mile is easier than the last.

A runner decides that their physical health is important enough to get up and run. The outcome validates the challenging process. Someone who hopes to gain control over their self-talk must rise up off the couch and set off in a daily psychological challenge. The outcomes, however subtle, will be worth it.

Commit

Slow down and listen to your self-talk. If it is not where you want it to be, commit to improving it. Commit to enhancing the filter through which you experience the world.

Return regularly to the process of slowing down and listening. Make adjustments as needed. Be both humble and accountable. Develop a fitness for this process and remind yourself regularly that it is worthwhile. 

If you are on the middle floor of an apartment building in Chicago and the forecast is calling for rain, do you go up or down? Do you work to see the world through a filter woven together with positive or negative self-talk?

You cannot control the weather. You have a say over the story playing out in your head. You are the author. Commit yourself to a positive ending.

References:

Self-Talk: Inner Voice. [n.d.]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/self-talk

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT. [n.d.]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/cognitive-behavioral-therapy

Lessons in Self-Talk


Jim Davis

JIM DAVIS is a former professional football player and champion powerlifter turned nationally recognized coach. He is a graduate of Harvard University, Northwestern University and Knox College. He serves as the Director of the Good Athlete Project and the Staff & Student Wellness Coordinator at New Trier High School. At New Trier, Jim leads one of the largest and most successful strength programs in the nation and was honored as 2018 NASA National Coach of the Year, and was Runner-Up in 2019. He has presented keynote addresses all over the world including Chicago, Boston, L.A., Ireland, and Haiti. His written work has been published in the Harvard Crimson, the Globe Post, the Orlando Sentinel, and Olympic and Paralympic Coaching Magazine, and his blog, BeyondStrength.net, was recently named one of the Top 20 Sports Psychology blogs by Feedspot.com. Find him at @goodathleteproject


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APA Reference
Davis, J. (2020). Lessons in Self-Talk. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/lessons-in-self-talk/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Jul 2020 (Originally: 10 Jul 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 9 Jul 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.