The Right Way To Talk To Yourself

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In the privacy of our minds, we all talk to ourselves—an inner monologue that might seem rather pointless. As one scientific paper on self-talk asks: “What can we tell ourselves that we don’t already know?” But as that study and others go on to show, the act of giving ourselves mental messages can help us learn and perform at our best. Researchers have identified the most effective forms of self-talk, collected here—so that the next time you talk to yourself, you know exactly what you should say.

Self-talk isn’t just motivational messages like “You can do it!” or “Almost there,” although this internal cheering section can give us confidence. A review of more than two dozen studies, published in 2011 in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, found that there’s another kind of mental message that is even more useful, called “instructional self-talk.” This is the kind of running commentary we engage in when we’re carrying out a difficult task, especially one that’s unfamiliar to us. Think about when you were first learning to drive. Your self-talk might have gone something like this: “Foot on the gas pedal, hands on the wheel, slow down for the curve here, now put your blinker on…”

Over time, of course, giving yourself instructions becomes unnecessary—but while you’re learning, it does three important things. First, it enhances our attention, focusing us on the important elements of the task and screening out distractions. Second, it helps us regulate our effort and make decisions about what to do, how to do it, and when. And third, self-talk allows us to control our cognitive and emotional reactions, steadying us so we stay on task.

In a recent study of students learning to throw darts in a gym class, Athanasios Kolovelonis and his colleagues at the University of Thessaly in Greece found that self-talk is most effective when incorporated into a cycle of thought and action. First comes forethought, when you set a goal for yourself and make a plan for how to get there. That’s followed by performance, when you enact the plan to the best of your ability. Last comes self-reflection, when you carefully evaluate what you’ve done and adjust your plan for the next time.

Self-talk can play a key part in this cycle. During the forethought phase, consider carefully what you’ll say to yourself. You can even write out a script. Repeat these self-instructions during the performance phase. With practice, you may find that your self-instructions become abbreviated; research has found that these so-called “cue words” can become powerful signals. In a study of elite sprinters, for example, the runners spoke certain words to themselves at certain times: “push” during the acceleration phase of the sprint, “heel” during the maximum-speed phase, and “claw” during the endurance phase. When they used these cue words, the athletes ran faster.

After the action is over, consider how you might change your self-talk to improve your performance next time—so that at the moment it matters, the right words are ringing in your ears.

Brilliant readers: When you talk to yourself, what do you say? Are there certain phrases or cue words you use to motivate or instruct yourself? Please share your thoughts in the comment section, below . . .

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16 Responses to “The Right Way To Talk To Yourself”

  1. Cathy Reilly says:

    I teach my public speaking students to use positive self talk when presenting. Instead of thinking “I won’t be nervous” or “I won’t let my hands shake”, (phrases which emphasizes negative thoughts), I encourage the studenst to develop three positive thoughts to use such as “I will smile”, “I will be confident”, and “I will stand tall”. Three phrases are easy to remember, and these positive possibilities can be very encouraging, especially when faced with a situation that many students consider to be threatening.

  2. Ed says:

    When I am learning how to do something new I say “I am learning how to do this and will improve over time with practice” so that I don’t run into the trap of acting like I already know how to produce the outcome. This places me in a beginner’s mind where at each stage of my actions I am learning how to do whatever it is that I am taking on. Beginner’s make mistakes which is part and parcel of learning and counters the self talk of self criticism or unrealistic expectations.

  3. Couldn’t agree more Annie! I felt I had to write to congratulate you on your excellent articles and blogs.
    You might be interested to know about The Silent Session that I devised in 2006 which has been used extensively in mental health and social services in the UK. You’re right – talking to ourselves is useful but “answering” ourselves is even more useful. I devised this structure when working with particularly resistant clients , referred via statutory agencies, who would not engage but who clearly needed to make changes in their lives.
    The Silent Session works in “confusing” the negative pattern that the client brings in to the room of “I’m refusing to speak to you”. When I suggest that that is exactly what I want him to do – not speak to me but instead to answer the questions out loud in his head.

    Obviously there is more to it than this short account here, for instance I utilise the strategies of Milton Erickson in order to “set the stage” and distract the client from his resistance, for example: “when you are ready for the next question, please raise the third finger of your left hand”.
    I have never had a client yet whose first response was not to look down, bewildered to count out the third finger of his/her left hand to check out the significance.
    The outcome for them is that now that they don’t have to “edit” their thoughts to give me either the “palatable” version of the problem or just deliver whatever it is they want me to hear, or worse still, leave the session to indicate their mistrust of all “psychs” the Silent Session provides them with time to sit with the truth without disclosing anything to me. It’s not ideal but it’s better than no service at all. It fits totally with our main model of Solution Focused Brief Therapy “you don’t need to know a person’s problem in order to help them resolve it”.
    So congratulations once again on an excellent article Annie that I have sent to my colleagues and wider afield – first class!

  4. J. E. Sigler says:

    It’s funny, because I presume most of this research came out of psych, but I’m a doctoral student in communication who is very keen on the idea of “intrapersonal communication”. A lot of comm scholars turn their noses up at this concept, saying it’s just “thinking”. But I think the research you’ve presented here suggests otherwise. We really do “communicate with ourselves” in much the same way we would give instructions to another.

    Thanks for another great mail, Annie!

  5. Annie –
    Great piece. Good thoughts. Well written. I’m a consultant. fundamentally we try to increase signal and decrease/eliminate noise. Two recent examples of cue words to achieve that. #1 Strong woman creative had not been involved in agency pitch but was required to carry load in further mtgs to get business. Fear, resistance palpable. Through questions it was easy to see she had an “answer thee questions” objective to survive. As we focused her on being stronger she found it:”Consumer behavior”.Became her cue words to take control and be strong. Signal 10 Noise 0 #2 CEO going into hostile AGM. Didn’t have specific answers to certain questions. When he tried in prep, he was weak.It wasn’t working.Gave him one word: “appropriate” as in “when appropriate…” gave him confidence and that led to control and he used the heck out of that cue. Overdone? Maybe, but he survived. Conclusion: it is the right way to talk to yourself.

  6. John Bennett says:

    As I read this post, my thinking was not just talking to myself but, more importantly asking myself questions. I never allow myself to believe I have all the answers or even an answer previously used with success AND usable again. Then I got to the part noting the importance of self-reflection – the self-questioning! As important as that is after the effort, equally important during the effort is self-assessing!!! Knowing the incredibly small probability of correctly selecting the ordered steps for any meaningful effort, without regular self-assessment, how could we make good mid-effort changes???

  7. Jill Berry says:

    I enjoyed reading this – thanks. I read Margaret Archer ‘Making our way through the world’ recently as part of my studies towards my EdD, and found that fascinating.

  8. Raphaël says:

    The 3 steps you speak of about that study on darts throwing are nothing but the 3 steps of self-regulation ! 😉

  9. guy smith says:

    I enjoyed reading this – thanks.

  10. Nick says:

    Talking to yourself is now socially acceptable :-) Hopefully it can be kept within your head though, otherwise your learning success could turn into your social downfall.

    • Anastasiah says:

      Yes indeed because it is not what most people expect or are used to. Not many people are willing to delve into the realm of “not usual”. I wish more people practice self-talk and “encourage” themselves to achieve the impossible. What a world this would be!

  11. Anastasiah says:

    This is brilliant indeed. I often talk positively to myself when confronted with challenges. So far it has worked very well for me. I have surmounted insurmountable challenge’s including regaining my functions after suffering stroke after brain haemorrhage. I believe I can do all things even under very serious conditions.

    Thank you very much Annie for helping me reflect on this.
    Best, Anastasiah

  12. Stefan says:

    I share the opinion that it was a very good and important post. My contribution will be short.
    1. Some (not all!) wished go improve their behaviour. Tehe is no other way, I think, to do it than a continuous talking to oneself.
    2. An intro-talk makes impossible a spontaneous reaction. I’m – as it is said – “a secondary person”. When I want to talk during a public discussion I first tell my intervention to myself, correct and reorganize etc.; then it is to late to speak.
    3. Intro-talk is inevitable in each reasonable decision making, in particular teacher’s decision making in the course of a lesson, when time is short. “Of course, the student is wrong; what should be done best for him/her. for the class?” Alan Bishop researched and wrote on it.
    4. Let me recall Vygodski’s famous claim that it was speech that came first, thought only second.

    I’m new on this blog. It was a lucky day, the December 6th, for me to have come across it when looking for an information on Amanda Ripley’s book.

  13. Tomg says:

    Talking out loud to inanimate objects or to animals who won’t interrupt you is a good way to completely vet out a thought.

  14. I teach writing productivity at Mark Twain House, The Loft, Grub Street Writers, and many other venues. Perfectionism is the ultimate demotivator, and it’s important to understand that it is a much wider category than most people realize. It includes behaviors like grandiosity (thinking things that are harder for others should be easy for you), privileging of product over process, overvaluing of external validation and rewards, invidious comparisons, shortsightedness, labels, hyperbole, and much more. Eliminating perfectionism (and a few other conditions like ambivalence and scarcity) from your life and work and you’ll reclaim your natural motivation.

    Hillary Rettig, Author
    The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block

  15. Don Johnson says:

    Again you have struck a chord as I started door to door sales in college and read Og Mandino and some other positive thinking books which helped my career. Later in life ran into Robert Sturmer of his own transformational training SuperLife and learned the art of positive self-talk and positive affirmations. I truly believe in the positive self-talk as I have used it for many years.
    Recently learned a new method of overcoming emotions in situations from Drew Stevens. He suggests thinking of a math equation or something you need your right brain for when feeling overcome by emotions from your left brain. I love learning new things even at my age. I guess that is why I love reading your newsletter.
    By the way, Sturmer used to claim he worked with Napoleon Hill. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was true.

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