I Talk To Myself

Did you ever ask yourself – “Wait, did I say that out loud”? You may have been horrified with the thought you shouldn’t have said it. But you don’t remember if you said it or not because you weren’t listening to yourself very carefully. Because you either did say it inside your head only, or in your head and also outside into the air. Both happen to all of us. There is a link between what we think (self-talk) and what we say (talk), but the connection is not always automatic. I decide if what I think should be said out loud or just kept to myself. Having a filter that prevents me from saying whatever pops into my head is a good thing, but I don't want to ignore what I am thinking all the time or I will generate personal and interaction problems. Communication skills include both talking to oneself and talking to others in meaningful and helpful ways. You can’t have a relationship without them both. I believe you can't interact with anyone unless you talk to yourself first. That's why I talk to myself.  You should actively talk and listen carefully to yourself regularly. It’s ok to move your lips if it helps you concentrate. 

When we were toddlers, what first sounded like blah, blah, blah eventually became understood as "I love you", "don't do that", "you're so smart" "good job" and so forth. These were patterns of words we recognized and remembered as feelings, thoughts and behavior. We heard, saw, felt, tasted and smelled them as we practiced and learned things. One of the joys of being a parent and grandparent is watching this development in the children we love. Observing our wobbling baby move their lips while talking to themselves, concentrating with great effort to pick up and throw a ball, can be very enjoyable. It's also a moment of great pride in their achievements. With extended practice they can become athletes with seemingly mechanized ball skills they could almost perform in their sleep. We know that choosing to vision themselves as a successful athlete (self-talk) keeps them emotionally involved in correcting flaws and practicing to become excellent. Conversely, on the other end of the tottering spectrum, I have no fantasies of being a pro football player. Delusional would be a more appropriate word for choosing to develop the highly skilled reflexive behavior of a pro football player during a game. They spend so much time practicing the feelings, thoughts and behavior associated with their participation that playing the game is almost spontaneous. I played the game as a teenager years ago. I have seriously diminished automatic muscle memory for it. Sad, but true. Over the years contemplating this while watching professional sports, I have talked to myself with fixed, unequivocal and preprogrammed reminders - "you can't do that, don't even think about it".

What is automatic behavior for some or most of us is not so for others. For example, when the rising sun or our alarm wakes us in the morning, most of us have automatic thoughts of getting up, taking care of hygiene issues, and maybe getting a cup of coffee before we start the day. If, however, we first have disturbing thoughts and feelings (like depression), or yesterday's memories of interaction difficulties (like a terrible relationship), those may interrupt and filter out the automatic feelings, thoughts and behavior of getting out of bed. Carefully listening to those thoughts may prompt a choice to stay in bed. Semi-mechanical behavior like walking or sitting in a chair while talking to a friend is not difficult unless you suffer from severe pain that constantly grates on your thoughts and emotions, seemingly compromising every movement. Like learning to throw a ball, disturbed emotions and thoughts can become scripted when practiced. Obsessive thoughts of regret, shame, sadness and hopelessness as well as fear, anxiety, worry, and doubt can become automatic too when practiced over and over, often with compulsive behavior. It is hard to feel, think and behave differently. Ruminating, chronic and difficult to change self-talk may require similar interaction that a toddler or an athlete need with a parent or a coach to make corrections. Discovering the narratives of anger, fear and sadness and their nuanced memories require a commitment to honest self-talk about what they mean and hopefully, choosing beneficial outcome patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. That's one of the things a therapist helps train you to do - notice the habits of how you talk to yourself.

A second example of the importance of identifying self-talk is the individual who is trying to stop using alcohol, other drugs, or compulsive behavior like gambling. What is metaphorically described as a trigger is something heard, seen, felt, tasted or smelled that prompts an automatic feeling, thought and behavior sequence that has been regularly practiced, sometimes for years. Recovery from these patterns require the recognition of that impulsive "skill" and then learning an alternate script of self-talk to practice until elbow-bending muscle memory of using something like alcohol or working the slot machines are replaced with new automatic behaviors. The 12 steps and community support of Alcoholics Anonymous assists with a new life free of the unwanted thoughts, feelings and behavior of addiction. Welcoming ideas about this new existence prompts competing self-talk of distrust and struggle because it conflicts with what the conditioned human has been telling themself for a long time. Be patient, talk honestly to yourself one day at a time, and let others help you practice talking yourself into a better way of altering your mind and mood.

Thirdly is the area of couple's interaction. Some of my automatic behaviors have annoyed my wife. It's like, "boy sees a girl and has to pull her hair" kind of stuff. Some of it is learned (nurture) and some of it is not (nature). More on that later. Needless to say, after 45 years of marriage I have learned to give myself a good talking to about knee-jerk behavior that she has to tell me to stop. I don't have many prompts to do things like that anymore. It has taken the implementation of persistent practice. When I fail to listen to new prompts instead of old prompts reconciliation may be required to restore harmony. Not doing this is one of the primary reasons marriages tip over and fall into ruin. So, to be a better husband I talk to myself.

Life is full of automatic feelings, thoughts and behavior. Most thoughts and feelings about a lot of things like eating with a fork, hearing the sounds around us, looking forward to living today and in the future, are habitual until they aren't. Mental health restoring, drug/alcohol recovery, and couples reconciliation requires practicing honest, humble, accurate identifying and updating the prompts and responses of automatic self-talk.