Is Talking to Yourself Good for You?
I recently went to see author Amy Alkon speak about her book Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence. I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to understand how to unf*ck myself. What I remember most from her talk is how she motivates herself to act. She speaks to herself in the second- or third-person to separate “I” from the slog of the act itself. I left thinking, wow, maybe I’ll be more productive now.
“Nisha, it’s time to get out of bed.”
“You will do ten push-ups.”
Of course, I forgot about it soon after, but I became curious about this phenomenon.
A 2014 study reviewed evidence that people tend to adopt a broader perspective and a more positive mindset when speaking in second- or third-person. They found that when individuals gave themselves advice in second-person when completing a cognitive task, they performed better and had a more positive attitude than when giving themselves advice in first-person. Another study revealed that non-first-person self-talk makes stressful situations less threatening, even for people that are socially anxious.
I started thinking about all the things I could finally do if I just referred to myself by my own name or as “you”:
- Nisha, get up at 5:30 a.m.
- It’s time for you to work out.
- Nisha is going to read for thirty minutes.
- You will meditate before getting in bed.
One of my favorite social media accounts, Bunny Michael, applies this strategy beautifully. Their memes depict two images of themselves as “Me” and “Higher Self”:
Is it this easy? I’m not sure. And if we do succeed, would we somehow psych ourselves out once it becomes normalized? Humans love novelty, so if we can somehow renew this method after it becomes stagnant, maybe we will have it all figured out.
This also has to be a conscious effort. Half the time I talk to myself internally or out loud, it’s either unconscious or subconscious. Sometimes it’s when I’m walking from my parking garage to my office. I don’t know if this improves my performance or attitude, but I do know that it’s probably making me look a little odd to passersby.
Consciously inducing non-first-person self-talking can potentially facilitate some positive outcomes. And I certainly think we should try to harness this if possible. But does that mean that first-person non-conscious self-talk is harmful?
When I worked as a speech therapist in a private practice and a public school, expansion of language was usually a common goal for language-impaired children for obvious reasons. It helped with school success, fostering communication between peers and teachers, and overall developmental health. More robust language skills also result in stronger self-regulation. As a clinician, I was elated when a child spoke more regardless of whether they were talking to themselves or to me. In a way, I was happier they were talking to themselves because self-talk is also associated with stronger reasoning and problem-solving skills.
We usually begin self-talk when we are 2 to 3 years old. And as adults, it’s quite possible that we talk to ourselves more than with others. And when we do, we speak dyadically — there is a distinct speaker and listener. While we have this inner conversation, we make private commitments. We say, “I need to go home and wash the dishes today.” But that doesn’t always work because the speaker knows the dishes need to be washed, but the listener might be tired. The listener might want to watch Game of Thrones. The listener thinks that the dishes can wait until tomorrow. I suppose this can be harmful, but, as humans, this is also natural. But we can consciously try to increase our self-talk awareness when we are able.
Speaking in second- or third-person can alleviate this conundrum. We create distance from our inner selves and we become accountable to an imaginary self. The trick is to make it a conscious effort, and, of course, not beat any of our selves up if we don’t succeed.