“If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is grandmotherly advice that most of us heard early in life. And American vaudeville entertainer and social philosopher Will Rogers said, “So live that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.”
Being careful about what we say to others makes sense. But psychologists have come to understand that it’s probably even more important to be aware of how we talk to ourselves.
It was a huge leap when our ancestors developed language. Language allows humans to consciously cooperate in ways unavailable to other species. And having language allows us to more efficiently keep track of and control our actions. So self-talk is adaptive and necessary.
Talking to ourselves helps keep us on target. It helps us stay focused and reminds us of things that might otherwise be neglected. At times, however, self-talk expands into constant chatter. And, unfortunately, a lot of that talk is not helpful or healthy. In fact, a major goal of most forms of meditation is to quiet the mind and allow a more centered appreciation of each moment. In psychology, the advice is focused on attempting to change the content of self-talk from patterns that are destructive to mood and behavior to patterns that are helpful.
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Many of the early studies on improving self-talk took place in the field of sports psychology. They discovered that an important factor separating good from elite athletes is how they talk to themselves. To enhance athletic performance, the goal became to control self-talk.
Dr. Victor Garlock
A recent article published in a journal for coaches describes three areas where positive self-talk can make a difference: building confidence, dealing with anxiety and staying focused. Sentences such as “I’ve got this,” “This present moment right now is all that matters” or, “I‘ve practiced this a million times” can set the body free to do what it knows how to do.
A widely studied and implemented program developed by Eastern Washington University incorporates concepts from cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. It links destructive thought patterns to psychological difficulties like depression and anxiety. The program was first implemented with students, but has since been made available to the general population as a self-help tool.
Participants are encouraged to monitor their self-talk for destructive patterns and then taught ways to correct them. An overall pattern of negative self-talk seems to be rooted in the mistaken idea that yelling at oneself will improve behavior. “How could you make such a ridiculous mistake?” or, “That’s the third time this month you forgot to put the trash out on the right night. What are you, stupid?” These sorts of self-condemnations have been shown to backfire, and make mistakes more common. But they also have a negative impact on mood and self-esteem.
Certain specific patterns have been identified as getting us into trouble, including: expecting perfection, and seeing mistakes as failures; too much emphasis on the opinions of others; comparing ourselves with others in ways that make us come out on the bottom; and repetition of “should” statements like, “I should have known better” or, “I should have seen that coming.”)
In my book “Your Genius Within,” I describe how hypnosis and dream interpretation can reveal the creative intelligence that lies beneath the surface of our conscious minds. Hypnosis can unlock inner resources, and dreams sometimes reveal insights that prove valuable in waking life.
With that in mind, I hesitate to entirely endorse squelching our inner thoughts. Talking to ourselves lies at the crossroads between the conscious and unconscious minds. Highly creative people report that they have learned to pay attention to what’s going on inside their heads. A novelist acquaintance once told me that when she is in the middle of writing a new novel, her characters may have conversations in her head between the times when she is writing. She often finds that her best strategy is to find a way of weaving those conversations into the fabric of the novel.
So I believe it is sometimes a good idea to pay attention to persistent nagging thoughts. We may be stuck in a rut. Or there may be valuable information our conscious minds have not yet noticed. On the other hand, it makes sense to consciously intervene when troubling and negative thoughts become automatic and get in the way of productive behavior and a peaceful state of mind. Telling the difference may be challenging, but cooperation between conscious and unconscious is the goal.
Dr. Victor Garlock, a retired psychology professor at Cayuga Community College, is the author of “The Gift of Psychology,” a recently published collection of monthly articles originally published in The Citizen during the past six years. He is also author of the earlier book “Your Genius Within: Sleep, Dreams, and Hypnosis.” Dr. Garlock offers a limited number of personal counseling sessions at The Center, a holistic health center in Auburn. For information, call (315) 704-0319 or visit thecenter4wellness.com.
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