Imagine you are walking down the street and see someone walking alone talking to themselves. You’d probably try to avoid them. In some contexts, talking to oneself is thought to be the habit of eccentrics or a signal of mental instability. Yet, the truth is we all talk to ourselves.
Have you ever been caught talking to yourself by a friend or family member? It can be embarrassing!
Consider that we have an inner dialogue that is constantly running. Occasionally, we may involuntarily blurt out something. Our self-talk has a tremendous influence on our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Yet, we often disregard it or at least underestimate its impact.
Many of us have a constant critical dialogue running in our heads. If we try to suppress it, it only gets stronger. Research shows that there are some specific ways to use self-talk to your benefit.
Self-talk can enhance your cognitive performance
Research shows that self-talk may help the brain perform better. In experiments designed to measure cognitive performance, participants read instructions and then do the task. Some participants read their instructions silently, others out loud. Results generally show that reading aloud helps us sustain concentration and improves our performance.
In another study, participants completed a standard cognitive task that involved finding certain items by visually scanning for them. Participants generally find things faster when talking themselves through it. These findings mean that self-talk may improve visual processing. So if you’re having difficulty figuring out how to assemble a bookcase, try reading the instructions aloud. If you can’t find something, try talking yourself through it as you search for it.
Psychologists find that the beginning of self-talk in toddlerhood is associated with learning new motor skills, like reaching for objects and learning to walk, and later mastering more complex tasks like tying shoelaces. Some psychologists even believe that talking aloud can be a sign of superior cognitive functioning when the mind is not wandering. Rather than making you crazy, self-talk can make you intellectually more competent.
Self-talk can boost your self-confidence
It’s no secret that words of encouragement nurture self-confidence and self-esteem and increase one’s chances for success. It works even when the encouragement comes from yourself! And you can do it any time.
Researchers have found the encouraging self-talk boosts performance across a range of athletics, from tennis to surfing and more. In these studies, researchers divide the players into two groups. Both groups follow the same training program, but the experimental group practices self-talk. By the end of the training, the experimental group shows heightened self-confidence and reduced anxiety. And those who practiced encouraging self-talk also improved their performance.
Self-talk can help you manage negative emotions
You can use self-talk to talk yourself down. Research shows that talking to yourself in the third-person can be a particularly effective way to calm yourself down.
To measure how changing perspectives impact our emotions, researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, participants were hooked up to an electroencephalograph (EEG) which measured brain activity and were then shown images that varied from neutral to disturbing. One group responded to the images in the first person (e.g., “I am finding this disturbing). The other group used in the third person (“Tara is finding this disturbing.”) The third-person group decreased their emotional brain activity much faster.
In a second experiment, participants reflected on painful experiences while connected to a functional MRI machine that measured brain activity. Participants who reflected in the third person showed less brain activity in regions associated with painful experiences.
These findings suggest that speaking to yourself in a way that gives you a bit of distance helps you calm yourself down and not re-experience the event’s pain when you tell it. On the other hand, speaking about stressful and disturbing experiences in the first person may serve to stir things up again, and you could even feel as though you are re-experiencing the traumatic event all over again.
So, the benefits of self-talk are numerous — if you know how to use it. How do you get better at leveraging your self-talk?
Try talking to yourself in the mirror or on video. It can provide great insights into your self-talk and how it affects you in the moment — and generally throughout your life. Why does it work? The mirror creates a way to externalize your inner dialogue to see it from a different perspective. You’ll get to know your patterns of self-talk and understand your critical voices, so you can cultivate a more encouraging dialogue with yourself for maximum benefits. Find out more about using the mirror to understand yourself here.
Dr. Tara Well is a psychology professor at Barnard College in New York City where she developed a mirror-based meditation called “a revelation” in the New York Times. She has taught hundreds of people how to use the mirror to awaken self-compassion, manage emotions, and improve face-to-face communication. Find out more at www.MirrorMeditation.com
Image courtesy of Monica Turlui.