When You Talk to Yourself... There's a Right and a Wrong Voice to Use
By Laurie Santos
Think back to a time of crisis. A time when you made a mistake or faced a difficult obstacle.
What was the voice in your head saying?
And who did it sound like?
Ethan Kross - author of ‘Chatter: The Voice in our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness it’ – thinks he knows the voice most of us use to talk to ourselves when we’re feeling low.
It’s usually whatever person in your life was most “critical and hostile and disparaging”.
Some of us might channel a sarcastic teacher who gives you a humiliating rundown of our failings, or a brutal drill sergeant yelling at us to stop crying and get our act together. It could be a mean sibling, a bad boss, or the school bully.
My own negative self-talk usually involves a persona who’s really good at blaming me.
“Why do you always suck so badly?”
“Why can’t you do anything right?”
In a previous article, Ethan explained the strategies we can use to try to control the negative self-talk we all experience. The anxious, spiralling rumination he calls “chatter”.
Ethan suggested we:
- put our problems in perspective by saying: “How will I feel about this in a week/month/year/decade?” It’s likely the problem then won’t seem so scary.
- step outside of ourselves by talking in the third person. “Come on, Laurie. How are you going to solve this problem?” This form of distanced self-talk can help limit rumination and allows us to address whatever is worrying us.
- simulate the voice of a wise third person - someone with a bit of distance from the problem you’re facing.
“The trick with this last strategy is you want to activate the right alter ego,” says Ethan. “If I'm really struggling with a problem, I don't want to activate a really bad person.”
The tone we should be aiming for, says Ethan, is that of a “supportive coach”.
“And I remind people that when I say ‘supportive coach’, my most memorable coaches were not people who only patted me on the back and told me that it would be okay. They did do that, but they also gave me really good feedback at times and said: ‘You can do this better.’”
Ethan says adopting the “coach” persona has a special power. A coach’s whole job is to help us to grow and improve… to develop our strengths and address the things we’re less good at.
“That can be really helpful. Turns out when you transfer from thinking about an experience as: ‘Oh my God. I can't manage that!’ to ‘This is something that you can deal with.’ That's changing the nature of our internal conversations.”
When I picture a coach, I see someone (usually Ted Lasso) on a big sports field surrounded by people. When you’re trapped in a ruminative cycle of negative self-talk, you often feel very alone… like you’re the only person going through this anguish and self-doubt.
But it’s important to remember there are lots of other players on the field going through the same experience.
And you can create your own compassionate, supportive coach to remind you that imperfection is part of the human experience.
No one is perfect. (If people were perfect... we wouldn't need coaches.)
Everyone fails and falls sometime… and that’s what’s supposed to happen in order for us to grow.
So stay well, stay happy and start talking nicely to yourself,