This post is also available in Dutch.
We all talk to ourselves on a regular basis, and some of us get embarrassed when caught doing it audibly. But the time has come to end the stigma and start being proud of our self-talk.
A very well-established norm in our society is that you should avoid talking to yourself in public. If you cross paths with a stranger who is audibly talking to himself, you would probably find it very unusual.
Intuitively we are driven to see this behavior as strange because we assume that at least one receiver should be present to hear what we have to say. So it just feels odd when that’s not the case! The idea that only people with psychosis talk to themselves, has also contributed to it being a “no go” situation in a social context.
We all talk to ourselves!
Everyone tends to speak to their own minds to some degree or another, something that the scientific community calls self-talk. This is something that many philosophers and psychologists throughout history have argued to be a very common human feature. Usually we do it silently, but sometimes it feels so real that a couple of audible words may slip through the air. That happens even more often if no one is around!
More and more attention has been drawn to self-talk, especially to the positive or negative impact that these words might have on ourselves. However, scientists have reflected not only upon the consequences of self-talk, but also upon the reasons why we do it. And to fully understand that, we first need to understand what place self-talk holds in the realm of human language.
Is self-talk ”language”?
Language is a social phenomenon. It grew and developed from our constant attempt to communicate with each other. Linguists have focused therefore on how we interact and exchange information with the outside world. It becomes unclear how we can explain self-talk using of these theories: There’s no exchange of information if the sender and receiver are the same person, right?
That’s why Prof. Bart Geurts from Radboud University suggested an alternative theory in which self-talk is described as a form of commitment rather than a way to exchange information. In our lives, we commit ourselves to a lot of things: values and norms, plans and expectations, and anything else you can imagine! These commitments come from the communication we have with our family, friends and other agents of society.
To demonstrate his point, Prof. Geurts gives the following example: a mother sees her son reaching for the toaster with his hand, and she sends an imperative warning: “Don’t touch the toaster!” At this point, mother and son are exchanging information.
From that moment, the child will have other encounters with the toaster. He may be warned again, but at some point, the mother’s words will be imprinted in his mind. Every time he faces the toaster, he will tell himself the same exact words: “Don’t touch the toaster!”. He internalizes the mother’s message and the commitment is settled. And that’s just one of the many examples in which people engage in self-talk, especially during childhood. From a short warning that we tell ourselves, a whole inner-dialogue could develop between ourselves and our imaginary friend(s). And though as adults we probably no longer talk to imaginary friends , we still talk to our consciousness, particularly whenever our life commitments are at stake.
When self-talk is socially accepted
Although society still sees many forms of self-talk as awkward, there are certainly some exceptions to the rule, like when something in your life doesn’t go as expected, and you can’t contain your frustration.
Sports is also something that particularly triggers out-loud manifestations of different kinds of emotions. Regardless of the specific sport, it’s quite common to see athletes externalizing their attempt to motivate themselves, their frustration after a near miss, or their hysteria for accomplishing their goal. Some researchers have focused particularly on self-talk in the sports field, and suggest that this talk is more than just words: The more self-talk athletes had while doing high-intensity exercise, the better their physical performance was. This finding still needs to be confirmed by other researchers, but suggests that self-talk may function to enhance our performance.
So, you can see that self-talk is not such as weird thing after all. We all do it to a certain extent, so we don’t have to be ashamed if we’re caught in the act. It might even be the case that we find ourselves doing it more often in times of lock-down. Humans are social animals, and in times when we lack social interaction we may rely more on our inner dialogue.
So, now more than ever, it’s time to not ignore your self-talk. Keep the nice things it tells you, and reflect upon but do not overreact to the bad things it might say.