In a pre-Covid world, I was the sort of person who plugged my headphones in to drown out the sound of people chattering around me in the office. Only when I had a big deadline coming up, mind, and I really needed to concentrate (I’m not a monster).
In lockdown, though, I’ve ditched the headphones – and I work tirelessly to supply my own ‘office ambience’.
By which I mean that I talk to myself. A lot.
Of course, I have some form in this department. I have it on very good authority, in fact, that during stressful, adrenaline-fuelled moments of the past, I would occasionally speak aloud.
“Oh god, I’m not going to make it,” I’d mutter to myself while running (late again) for the bus. “Are you kidding me?” I’d ask the world at large, whenever dealt some perceived blow, such as my phone running out of battery.
And let’s not forget the many, many times I uttered the phrase, “Where the fuck are my fucking keys?” while upending everything in my handbag, and then the entire house, only to find them in the bottom of my coat pocket, exactly where I’d left them.
Nowadays, though, I don’t go anywhere. My phone is never far from a charger. And I know exactly where my dust-covered keys are (I think). So it makes sense that my self-talk has evolved to match my new circumstances, transforming from the occasional expletive-riddled outburst to full-blown conversations with myself at large.
Sometimes, I can kid myself that I’m talking to my thoroughly uninterested rescue dog. The majority of the time, though, it’s very much me addressing myself in the sort of soothing, teacherly tones that always struck a chord with me as a kid.
“Now, there’s no need to get upset,” I’ll tell myself, after having a little cry over a minor workplace disaster. “You didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s nobody’s fault – so let’s take a few deep breaths, and then we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.”
Yes, I often address myself as “we” and “you” now. Yes, the self-talk seems to come from some calmer element of my personality. And, yes, obviously I googled the words, “Is talking to yourself a sign of madness?” when I first realised I was doing it.
Thankfully, psychotherapist Ruairi Stewart (aka The Happy Whole Coach), promises me that this absolutely is not the case.
“There are lots of reasons why we talk to ourselves,” he says. “It’s one of the ways we can organise our thoughts.
“As humans we have a constant stream of consciousness, we are always experiencing thoughts. For the most part, this is our inner dialogue, our self-talk, which can reflect how we see ourselves and others. Talking to ourselves allows us the ability to clarify our thoughts by speaking them out loud.”
Stewart adds: “Talking to yourself can also be a way of self-motivating and staying focused. The important thing to take note of is how you speak to yourself or about yourself – if negative thoughts have more of a voice than positive ones – that’s something you need to address, either internally or out loud!”
This is deeply reassuring. And so, armed with this information, I ask friends and relatives if they, too, have begun talking to themselves more frequently during lockdown.
A quick straw poll finds that, yeah, we’re all much more into self-talk nowadays. So why is this?
“I think this could be for any number of reasons,” says Stewart. “Firstly, it’s helping people deal with feelings of loneliness, especially if they are missing social interactions or the hustle and bustle of ‘normal’ daily life.
“It can also help people clarify their thoughts and attend to the things that are most important at the moment by speaking them out loud as if to remind themselves of its importance.”
Stewart adds: “Speaking out loud to yourself can also allow you to really hear your thoughts and to challenge and explore them. In some cases this can relieve anxiety around making certain decisions.
“By role-playing with yourself, you can catch some of your thoughts and recognise whether or not they are serving you or if they are fear-based. In this way, you can also shift gears and allow your self-talk to become motivational in order to get things done, which can help you to stay focused on maintaining a healthy routine.
“And talking out loud can be really helpful if you are using it to speak to yourself in an encouraging and uplifting way. If you’re complimenting yourself, encouraging yourself, reminding yourself of your strengths, even telling yourself ‘you’ve got this’ out loud – it can do wonders for how you feel in the moment.”
Of course, people are spending way more time on their own during lockdown than they have ever done before, so this may be a big factor as to why they are speaking to themselves out loud more frequently. And Stewart notes that this can also be a sign that they have become comfortable in their own space without feeling like it’s strange behaviour, because it is “totally normal and very common”.
In fact, while many (like myself) might assume that talking to oneself is the first sign of madness, Stewart is keen to stress that nothing could be further from the truth.
“It is a very human, very normal and common behaviour,” he tells me. “We all do this from time to time and I would say it’s a healthy sign that a person is alert, self-aware, and attempting to process their thoughts and feelings.
“The problem is, people have begun to see talking to yourself as a sign of madness because of how certain mental health issues have been represented throughout history. Having full-blown conversations with yourself might look like a dialogue between multiple people who are answering one another, but it is most likely just a way in which to work through a certain situation or issue internally.”
Better still, Stewart goes on to note that talking to yourself out loud actually comes hand-in-hand with several benefits.
“It can give you greater clarity and awareness of your thoughts at that moment,” he says, “and allow you to challenge these thoughts and explore them in real-time, which helps with decision making and keeps you focused on a task at hand.”
And, if we do it right, Stewart believes that talking to ourselves can do wonders for our self-esteem, offering up Muhammad Ali and his spoken mantras up as an example. “The flipside of this is when your thoughts become negative and self-critical,” he warns.
“They often go unchallenged in your mind, chipping away at how you see yourself in a negative way. We all need to be careful not to give these thoughts a voice in a way that consumes us.”
With that in mind, then, how can we maximise the mental health benefits of talking to ourselves?
“Pay attention to your thoughts, especially if they are more negative than positive,” says Stewart.
Learn to challenge yourself
“If your thoughts aren’t helpful, constructive, positive or resourceful, you need to change them into something that is,” says Stewart. “Reframe them to be something more empowering. Think about what you would say to someone you love if you needed to challenge their negative thoughts to help them feel better, then do this for yourself.”
Big yourself up
“Focus on speaking to yourself in an encouraging way and compliment yourself. You have to become your own biggest cheerleader. Normalise speaking to yourself in a loving way. This will help you make a shift to see yourself in a more positive light.”
Use affirmations and speak them out loud daily
“When you are talking about yourself, notice the things you say when you describe yourself or your ability and focus on keeping this positive. Break the habit of putting yourself down or berating yourself. Your language is so important, so pay attention to it because it forms a big part of the story you tell yourself about who you are.”
Finally, Stewart adds that we need to remind ourselves of our strengths. “Take stock of the things you are doing well and praise yourself for it,” he says. “This will empower your belief in yourself.”
With that in mind, then, I’m off to give myself a talking-to via the bathroom mirror.