What Does It Mean That I Talk to Myself? The Impact of Self-Talk on Stress and Performance


Healthy Living - March 8, 2016
David Prescott, PhD - Acadia Hospital
Do Most People Talk to Themselves?  Whether we admit it or not, most of us talk to ourselves.  In most cases, this is simply a part of everyday life, helping us to organize our thoughts and direct our behavior.  Psychologists are learning how to identify helpful patterns of self-talk.  Psychologists have learned that teaching people to talk to themselves in a certain manner can help them make better decisions, improve performance, enhance self-esteem, and better manage stress. 
How and When You Talk to Yourself Matters:  The fact that we talk to ourselves may be interesting and occasionally amusing. But we are beginning to understand how self-talk can be used to improve our overall well-being. Examples include:
  • Talking to yourself out loud can help you organize and find things.
  • Certain types of self-talk help you make a rational decision about an emotional topic.
  • Self-talk can help you manage stress during a job interview or a first date.
  • Certain types of self-talk can help improve your feelings of self-worth.
Talk Your Way Through Finding Something:  One important benefit of talking to yourself is that talking out loud appears to help you organize and find things when you are rushed or stressed.  Psychologist Gary Lupyan and his colleagues studies whether people were better at finding something they were searching for (think your car keys) when they talked their way through the search compared to doing a silent search.  Simply saying out loud what you were looking for and continuing to talk your way through the search helped people find something more quickly.
Refer to Yourself as “You”:  Distancing is the ability to separate our emotional reaction to a difficult situation, from our ability to make objective decisions.  Creating emotional distance can be done simply by referring to yourself as “you” or by your name, rather than be using “I.”  So, for example, you could ask yourself “Why am I stressed in this situation;” or, you could say to yourself “Why are you stressed in this situation.”  It turns out that using “you” is generally better.  Even that small change in language helps people make more rational and objective decisions.  People whose self-talk is built around talking to themselves in the third person, appear to make better decisions than those who talk to themselves in the first person. 
Motivating Self-Talk:  How we talk to ourselves can help us with stressful or competitive situations, such as job interviews, athletic competition, or social situations like dating.  In these situations, pay attention to the dialogue that is running through your head, and practice saying what you are thinking out loud.  Then, make sure that your self-talk is positive or goal focused.  Make it brief and directed towards your goal.  For example, if you are going on a first date, saying “You look fine” or “Try to relax” out loud can help take the edge off your anxiety.
Self-Talk and Self-Esteem:  Cognitive psychologists have long understood the importance of paying attention to the internal thought processes of people who struggle with depression, anxiety, or anger.  In each case, changing the internal dialogue, or making it more explicit, is a good step in better managing these emotions.  Simply stating your thoughts out loud often helps you identify more helpful ways of talking to yourself.
For More Information:
American Psychological Association Help Center:  http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/index.aspx
Emotion and Self-Control Lab: http://selfcontrol.psych.lsa.umich.edu/
Mayo Clinic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cognitive-behavioral-therapy/home/ovc-20186868