Is Your Self-Talk Helping You?

Recently I stumbled across an article and chuckled at the title: “How Do I Know If I Have an Inner Monologue?” After all, if you find yourself wondering if you have an inner monologue, congratulations – you’ve just discovered your inner monologue! But it turns out that not everyone experiences that internal voice. As much as it might seem surprising to those of us who do as a natural part of our lived experience, newer studies are starting to reveal that this isn’t a universal experience. In an illuminating (if slightly problematic) interview between students at Francis Marion University in Pennsylvania, one student describes the experience of thinking without an internal voice this way: “I just feel like the information is in there and I can pull it forward if I want it. It’s like files; there’s categories of information in my head and I can pull them to the front if I need them.” Those without an internal voice often report that writing in a journal or talking with a friend can help them reflect and process the day’s events, instead of just “thinking them through.”

Last week’s article on “anchor songs” was inspired somewhat by Jon Acuff’s book Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking, in which Acuff likens our internal voice to the music we hear at different points in our life. Some of what we hear is unique, but much of it we hear repeatedly – and sometimes we just wish we could change the channel! These might be phrases that we repeat to ourselves about our abilities or attitude; ususally declarative statements about the kind of person you believe you are based on impactful things that someone who held a place of authority in your life – like a boss, a parent, a teacher, a romantic partner – has said about you at some point in the past. So you might find yourself repeating variations on a theme of “I’m lazy / selfish / disorganized / someone who doesn’t finish things…” and while self-talk is not inherently self-critical, many of the phrases and beliefs we repeat about ourselves only perpetuate a negative self-perception, ultimately often creating results that only reaffirm that self-judgment.

Acuff’s book describes these repeated negative self-criticisms as “broken soundtracks” and suggests a three-step process to turn this overthinking from damaging to helpful: 1) Retire your broken soundtrack; 2) Replace those thoughts with new, positive ones; and 3) Repeat what you want. This may seem formulaic and simplistic, and of course it’s easier said than done. The underlying point is that we have to actively fight against the negative self-talk we hear on a daily basis; we’re the ones repeating it to ourselves, even if it was something we initially inherited from someone else. But how do we “retire our broken soundtracks” and create new ones which will support us – and the people we live and work with – during the week ahead?

This Week’s Tip:

Pay attention to the self-critical beliefs and phrases you repeat this week, whether in your inner monologue or in conversation with others, and use Jon Acuff’s three questions to address them:

  1. Is it true? Treat it as a hypothesis rather than a fact. Put your belief under the microscope and look for evidence to disprove it. Do you think you give up easily? Look for evidence of things that you have persevered with. Pay particular attention to your own hyperbole – “always” and “never”.
  2. Is it helpful? While many self-critical beliefs are inherently unhelpful, some might become helpful if reframed: “I leave everything until the last minute” could become “I thrive under pressure,” for example. “I’m a perfectionist” could become “I care about the small details that make a big difference.”
  3. Is it kind? Is this the kind of thing you would say to a friend? If you’re not sure, ask a friend how they’d feel if you said this about them. We’re often our own worst enemies, and speak to ourselves in ways we would never speak to someone else. What if you treated yourself as a friend? How would you speak to yourself then?

Try these out this week, and let us know how it goes! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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