“Did I say that out loud?” Yes, yes you did. Contrary to what we like to believe, most of us talk to ourselves on a daily basis. Stylist investigates the triggers, and surprise benefits, of having a solo chat
Words: Caroline Corcoran
Do you think you talk to yourself? No? OK, let’s test out these scenarios. You’re seething after a man leers at you on the street, and have just thought of the perfect comeback 10 seconds after he disappears out of sight. Or perhaps you’re on a run and your legs are feeling unusually leaden but you’re determined to do another lap of the park. And imagine you press ‘delete’ instead of ‘send’ having just finished a long and crucial email. Think about your first reaction to all those situations and it’s more likely than not you’ve been guilty of muttering a word or two aloud.
“Everybody talks to themselves, whether it’s with or without conscious control,” says Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis, associate professor at Greece’s University of Thessaly who studies self-talk. “It can be silent or aloud, inherent or strategic and can be a valuable way of stimulating us into action or evaluating certain events.”
Put like that, it sounds almost rational. Especially when you consider talking to yourself can come in the form of motivational monologues (“Come on Sarah, you can do this!”), or self-motivating speeches often in a high-pitched panicked whisper, (“Calm down. Be rational. Why would anyone be on the roof in a storm at 2am?”). But of course there’s also the more awkward day-to-day unconscious muttering when concentrating or those unnecessary explanations to an empty changing room about why we’ve just clumsily walked into the mirror.
Such is the stigma of self-talking that we feel genuinely mortified when overheard having a chat with ourselves. Precisely why an animated imaginary argument turns awkwardly into a croon of a Sam Smith number when a colleague walks into the office kitchen. Self-consciousness around self-talk is a learned behaviour. As toddlers, we would have talked to ourselves freely, using speech to learn and assess new thoughts.
Researcher Gary Lupyan, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says: “As children, we use language to guide us through new processes like tying our shoelaces – we still do this as adults but we learn fewer new skills so we use it less. Language is very good for laying down procedures because it’s linear – you say one word at a time. By breaking it down into a set of instructions, it’s like you’re programming yourself. By taking it out of the internal (thought) and putting it into the external (language) it stops it being muddied by everything else.”
But from around the age of seven self-consciousness kicks in: we still speak to ourselves but the process becomes far more intimate and private. And the older we get, the less comfortable we are doing it, talking to ourselves mainly when we’re stressed and unhappy. When there are an excess of thoughts in our head, they will demand a way out – that’s when external self-talk occurs, sometimes even in the form of one rogue sentence (“I didn’t realise it wasn’t locked!”) as you mentally relive the time the train toilet door opened unexpectedly.
“Such is the stigma of self-talking we feel mortified when overheard having a chat with ourselves”
Sometimes self-talk even becomes silent, meaning that it takes place only in our heads. But even inner speech has been found to be accompanied by tiny muscular movements in the larynx and neuroscientists have found the active part of the brain when we speak aloud, the left inferior frontal gyrus, is also working hard when we speak to ourselves internally.
So where does this stigma come from? Why are we self-conscious about something we all do? Theories suggest that this embarrassment comes from the long-held societal belief that talking to ourselves is ‘the first sign of madness’ – an affliction bestowed upon the very old and those suffering from mental illness, such as schizophrenia.
But while it’s true that schizophrenics may respond to voices they hear as part of hallucinations or delusions, schizophrenia is a diagnosed condition that also comes with a host of other symptoms such as social withdrawal and apathy.
It’s good to talk
“The ‘first sign of madness’ idea is absolutely not true,” says psychotherapist Nadina Al-Jarrah (thetherapypractice.co.uk). “There is a clear clinical distinction between hearing voices and talking to yourself. If someone is hearing voices [research suggests that auditory hallucinations in schizophrenics occur when sufferers misinterpret their own inner talk as coming from an external source] then we need to point them towards a mental health assessment; if someone is talking to themselves, that is a different ball game: talking helps you to process, think about different points of view, to crystallise and clarify.”
In fact, self-talk can actually be enormously beneficial. It can help us focus our thoughts, find resolutions to problems and be kinder to ourselves in the long run. “One of the consequences of self-talk is to divorce us from the present moment and put us into a more abstract state,” explains Lupyan.
“In some forms of therapy, labelling your emotions – saying ‘I am feeling sad’ or ‘This has made me unhappy’ – has the effect of diffusing it. By labelling it you’re making it more abstract, more about the word than the feeling itself, which can help diffuse the negative feelings.”
So, talking to yourself is more a sign of mental health than mental illness. And experts are keen to point out that Olympic athletes, CEOs and Nobel Peace Prize winners all practice self-talk. So rather than an embarrassing secret habit, a regular tête-à-tête with a cup of tea, a chocolate digestive and your very own self could actually be the smartest thing you do today.
7 reasons why it’s good to talk (to yourself)
1. To motivate
When elite sprinters said to themselves words like “push” in a 1997 study, they ran faster than the control group, and Al-Jarrah says that even those of us who clearly aren’t Usain Bolt can benefit from that message too. Whether it’s to hold that plank at yoga or just make it through Ikea on Saturday without kicking someone in the shins. “Speaking out loud to ourselves can encourage us and push us forward,” she explains. There is a caveat though: child psychologists have concluded that our ability to give ourselves motivational speeches depends on the kind of language used to us as children. If we’ve heard phrases like, “You can do it, try again” in early life, we’ll use similar ones ourselves in adulthood. If we’ve been criticised, we’re more likely to mutter unhelpful and potentially damaging sentences like, “Idiot, you can’t do anything.”
2. For clarity
Many psychologists believe that talking out loud helps validate important and difficult decisions as we can clarify our thoughts. According to child psychologists, the more we talk to ourselves as children (imaginary friends count too) the more we are likely to continue it into adulthood, helping us be focused on tasks, and to be organised and self-controlled. “Thoughts can jump about like a pinball machine,” says Al-Jarrah. “Saying the words out loud helps to embed things.” It’s why saying, “No more Dairy Milk Buttons” out loud is more effective than expecting yourself to just return half the packet to the fridge: talking forces us to be explicit with ourselves and to anchor thoughts that have been swirling around, in the same way that we do when we write our feelings down in a letter or journal. “If you feel an emotion you can’t put your finger on you might be better at remembering the words than the emotions,” says psychologist Daniel Swingley.
3. To work through problems
When Malala Yousafzai was on The Daily Show, she recalled how she talked to herself to prepare for a potential confrontation with the Taliban. “‘If the Taliban comes, what would you do, Malala?’” she described herself as having said. “Then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’” Most of us will thankfully never face such terrifying situations but the technique works for everyday problems too – from getting to work on time when faced with more train delays to dealing with an issue at work. There is another key technique found in Malala’s words: she talks to herself as if she were another person. And that distance from the first person pronoun – “Laura, stop googling cats and do your presentation” – is invaluable. If we talk to ourselves using our names or even ‘you’ rather than ‘I’ we flip a switch in the cerebral cortex (the centre of thought) and the amygdala (the creative centre of emotions) that gives us psychological distance from our self. In a 2015 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Ethan Kross found switching the pronouns gave people better perspective, making them less likely to feel anxious overall.
4. As a handy life hack
In a 2011 study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, psychologists Daniel Swingley and Gary Lupyan found that participants who repeated the words “Raisin Bran” when looking for a box of the cereal in a picture of a supermarket shelf found it faster than those who didn’t say the words. Which will vindicate anyone who has ever run around their flat shouting, “Keys, keys, keys,” at 8am. “If you’re saying the word out loud, you can make that concept a little more active,” says Swingley. “It’s almost like it makes you think about it more intensely and then you’re making the image more solid in your head.”
5. For self-awareness
When was the last time you told your friend she shouldn’t apply for that job because she’s so useless she’d get laughed out of the interview? And yet when it comes to talking to ourselves, delivering this level of mean comes easy. “Notice when you speak negatively to yourself,” says Al-Jarrah. “The way we think about ourselves has an enormous effect on our neurology and our neurology affects our physiology.” And that’s when external stress symptoms like digestive problems, chest pain, headaches and insomnia raise their heads.
6. For a short-term memory boost
“If someone gives you a phone number, you’ll repeat it until you can put it into your phone,” says Swingley. “Saying things repeatedly can keep them in your short-term memory for longer.” And as you learned when you wrote out the key dates of World War II for A-Level revision, repetition is key. “We remember things we’ve done many times because we’re creating more connections in the brain and giving a richer experience,” says Swingley. Writing or speaking allows us to ‘produce’ something too, which means it solidifies in our minds more firmly than if we simply read through our notes for that speech, even if we did it 50 times.
7. It can counteract loneliness
Sometimes it can simply be the desire for any noise that can mean you spend several hours trying to make your attempt at a Scottish accent sound less Irish when stuck in traffic. There are 7.1 million people living alone in the UK and 4.2 million working from home, not to mention that even when we are surrounded by people, thanks to screens and headphones it’s easy to feel isolated. “Loneliness is a real issue,” says Al-Jarrah. “Talking is one of our primary means of communication. It’s how we tell people what we think, feel, who we are, and if we feel silenced in any way or shut down it can feel very threatening and isolating. But self-talk, done positively, can be one way to combat that.”
“If our self-talk is positive we are there for ourselves all the time,” adds Al-Jarrah. “If when you’re feeling bad you tell yourself, ‘I’m having a down day so I’m going to do something to cheer myself up and make myself feel better,’ that can be a genuinely helpful thing.”
Find your self-talk style
You may utter the words ‘idiot’ and ‘every time’ complete with a furrowed brow. This self-talk style is also very self-critical. Reproachers need to find ways to be kinder to themselves.
Expect inaudible mutterings, humming and tapping from the Mutterer. This type is not comfortable with silence and makes noise to help them find focus.
The Memory Jogger
Memory Joggers speak to themselves in the form of questions like “Where did I go after that?” and “What was her name again?” as they try to give their ailing memories a nudge.
The Mantra Reciter
On Instagram: loves a motivational quote. In real life: loves a motivational quote. Snippets of their positive mantras will be repeated and will include, “You got this” and “That is a great cup of tea”.
Appearing to be in a row with an unidentified adversary, the Arguer plays out imaginary arguments releasing the occasional escaped word and aggressive facial expressions.
Something has caused the Venter to be in a blind rage, which they find impossible to internalise. Usually found muttering expletives to themselves.
Images: Thinkstock, Rex Features