Is It Normal to Talk to Yourself?
In any relationship, communication is paramount. But is the communication you have with yourself every minute of every day a help or a hindrance to how you live your life?
We engage in self-talk all the time. From confidence boosts to critical thinking to self-critiques, talking to ourselves can be an incredibly useful practice. When it's done right, self-talk can enrich both our public and personal lives.
"Since we're always appraising situations in relation to ourselves, self-talk makes up a considerable portion of our lives," said Tasha Holland-Kornegay, Ph.D., an author, speaker, mental health professional and founder of Our Treatment Center in North Carolina.
'What is self-talk?' I thought to myself
"Self-talk is that voice in your head: your self-statements about you, your job, the future, politics, power, everything," explained Rick Brandon, Ph.D., founder of Brandon Partners, a leadership development firm in California, and author of "Straight Talk," a book detailing the significance of inner cognition. "That little voice in our heads goes on when we're awake, daydreaming, performing any task, even sleeping. It's our unconscious dreams."
Talking to ourselves usually starts around age 2 or 3 and grows progressively complex over time. In the medical world, it is better known as "self-directed speech" and has far more pros than cons when it's positive. In fact, positive self-talk is a pivotal aspect of mindfulness regarding self-care.
Brandon said most of our self-talk is derived from messages we received as children that we then internalized and used to program our brains; the more messages we received, the more potential we have for self-talk.
"Sometimes people may have self-talk during decision-making, in preparing for something coming up such as an expected difficult conversation or in giving self-encouragement when completing a challenging task," said Christopher Taylor, Ph.D., founder of Taylor Counseling Group in Dallas and co-founder of the Empifany app. "People may also engage in self-talk following a mistake."
"Self-talk can be good or bad depending on what you listen for and choose to change," said Gilda Carle, Ph.D., a speaker based in Arizona and the author of "I'm Worth Loving! Here's Why." "Remember that without self-talk, emotions in our culture tend to be buried."
Much ado about self-talk
Self-talk is not limited to any specific factor and is highly individualized. Every person experiences it differently.
"The key is to turn off autopilot to examine and monitor your mental habits and resulting feelings," Brandon said. "Positive: optimism, confidence, self-esteem, affection. Or negative: 'flight' emotions of anxiety, insecurity, intimidations, passivity, or 'fight' emotions of anger, hostility, aggression."
Quantity and incidence
Some people talk to themselves more than others. According to experts, this is dependent on both internal and external factors. Carle pointed out that some people are more auditory than others and need to hear themselves discuss their feelings to consciously identify what they are. Both Brandon and Taylor noted having limited social networks and being isolated can be factors contributing to increased self-talk, and Taylor claimed negative self-talk can both further the solitude and increase symptoms of anxiety and depression.
"Some people may be more conscious of their self-talk, and others might go out of their way to create their own conversations," Holland-Kornegay said. "Someone particularly constructive may make a point to look at themselves in the mirror and give themselves a pep talk before a job interview. Likewise, people who have a considerably negative view may find themselves unconsciously putting themselves down throughout the day."
In sexual situations
We talk to ourselves before, during and after sexual encounters. Whether the self-talk is positive or negative has the potential to make or break the experience.
Brandon said if you've had a negative sexual experience—or no experience—you may torture yourself with putdowns, catastrophizing or enduring a pessimistic mental rehearsal, which can create dysfunction and performance problems. Instead, he recommended visualizing a successful experience with words or images beforehand.
"Program yourself positively with self-statements about your virility and attractiveness. See it and believe it," he said. "[During sex], coach yourself and positively reinforce yourself; better yet, release yourself to focus instead on the other person, not yourself, and be present."
"Romantic encounters tend to have high emotional stakes," Holland-Kornegay explained. "Sex is, as you can imagine, a pretty emotional experience, especially if it's with someone you're in a new relationship with. Understand that you're hardwired to doubt yourself and feel anxious: 'Do I look OK? Will my partner be satisfied? Am I doing enough?'"
To combat these intrusive thoughts, she likewise recommended being in the moment, along with enjoying a bit of romance and making sure the positive self-talk continues afterward to avoid harmful rumination.
"Many of my clients happily get lost in their sexual situations, and so they talk to themselves after the fact. All too often, that self-talk is critical and negating of the experience," Carle said. "That kind of self-talk can bring them down."
As a solution, each expert suggested focusing on the positive aspects of the rendezvous to boost self-esteem and increase the likelihood of satisfying sex in the future.
When to be concerned
Self-talk can be equally helpful or harmful, depending on the type of discussion you're having with yourself.
"Whenever your self-talk has an unconstructive consequence, it's a problem," Holland-Kornegay said. "Whenever you find yourself feeling insecure, incompetent or undesirable, ask yourself what good these thoughts are doing and start inching them toward more constructive ones."
Neglecting to reverse your thoughts from negative to positive can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, which creates a feedback loop where bad thoughts bring about bad consequences, she said.
"If it's difficult to stop the self-talk, it may also be an issue, especially if the individual continues to ruminate on topics without being able to disengage from or distract from the thoughts," Taylor added.
Carle seconded the warning against the dangers of negative obsessive thoughts, claiming it's possible to "put the brakes on your negativity and vow to reboot to positivity" to remedy them.
Brandon advocated self-awareness as a useful tool in your self-talk first aid kit to track and pinpoint the negative feelings. You can make a conscious decision to "switch channels" and change them.
"Have a no-guilt zone," he recommended. "Just congratulate yourself for becoming more aware and in charge of your thinking and motivation."
Taylor cautioned that some forms of negative self-talk can indicate a deeper underlying problem.
"In some cases, self-talk could indicate schizophrenia, particularly if there are hallucinations accompanying the thoughts or an incoherent pattern to the thoughts, with the thoughts being difficult to follow," he said. "Warning signs that would likely benefit from professional intervention would be negative and critical thought patterns negatively impacting mental health and an inability to stop thoughts when wanted or needed, hallucinations or more delusional self-talk."
What did you say?
Overall, talking to ourselves is a good practice when steeped in optimism and encouragement. Brandon urged us to remember the ABCD's of self-talk to support your self-concept, feelings, actions and performance: "Become Aware of your self-talk, Believe you can change it, Choose to Change negative self-talk and Do it."
Even if self-talk is derogatory, you have the power to change it. Holland-Kornegay said positive self-talk is a counterbalance to the distorted negative thoughts that we don't normally challenge, and each expert emphasized the necessity of encouraging ourselves through our own inner dialogue.
"Positive self-talk isn't just the latest wellness buzzword. It's an actionable way to bring more positivity into your life, practice self-compassion and, hopefully, create new positive outcomes, too," Holland-Kornegay explained. "As you become more understanding and compassionate about yourself, you can find more emotional resilience and enrichment in life."