Self talk is actually smart

Sally Webster re-examines the concept of self-talk after watching an interesting portrayal of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s mental decline and recovery. 

One of the first scenes we see in currently showing film Love and Mercy, Brian Wilson is animatedly talking to himself. So what right? Later, in what has been universally described as an ‘unconventional portrait of Brian Wilson, the mercurial singer, songwriter and leader of The Beach Boys’, we see Brian’s tender mental state dissolving as he hears voices and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol.

I’m an avid self-talker too. Anything important to me – storylines, interviews, manuscripts and even potentially cringe-worthy personal conversations gets rehearsed. I’d just moved in with my ex-husband when he arrived home from work to find me furiously vacuuming and simultaneously rehearsing an argument I was intent on having that night. He stared at me for a moment and carried on into the kitchen to get a beer.

Whether we are well, ill or somewhere in between, most people talk to themselves. Apparently, the act is a habit that 9 out of 10 people practise; if you Google ‘talking to yourself’ you’ll see 228 million results, most with comments that self-generate for years. That’s a lot of people talking about talking to themselves. Yet most of us are afraid of being ‘caught’ doing it.

However what self-talkers who watched Brian’s decline in Love and Mercy can take heart in, is that talking to yourself and the most prolific aspect of schizophrenia, hearing voices, are not mutually exclusive. Nor does one necessarily lead to the other over time. But it’s hard to shake off the clinging stigma of age-old sayings like ‘The first sign of madness is talking to yourself.’

This phrase grew from misunderstandings about mental illnesses like schizophrenia, or as we call it now, psychosis.

This condition does genuinely need to be treated, but it is not about self-talk, as American author and psychiatrist Dr Rob Dobrenski explains: “Schizophrenia isn’t about self-talk, it’s about ‘other’ talk. People hear voices that aren’t their own, that other people can’t hear, or sometimes it will be multiple voices giving a commentary in one’s head.”

Given it only affects about 1% of Western populations and develops in young people between 15 and 25 years of age it is unlikely your self-talk is a symptom of a psychosis type that affected creative icons like early 19th century Zelda Fitzgerald, Vincent Van Gogh, and according to some accounts, Picasso.

In fact, as proven by a cachet of studies done in the last 10 years, talking to yourself is a smart habit to foster.

Healthy self-talk is known to help decision making – a 2007 radio interview with Wall St Journal reporter Jared Sandberg revealed 96 percent of us hold conversations with ourselves. He proudly explained when he most uses it: “It’s the decision making stuff, I exhort myself, I coach myself sometimes.”

Published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2011, psychologists Gary Lupyan (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Daniel Swingley (University of Pennsylvania) conducted a series of experiments that proved people find objects more quickly when they talk themselves through the task. Lupyan says the study was inspired by his own self-talk, and he learnt that some people happily practice it anywhere from an hourly to a weekly basis.

Author and businessman Harvey Mackay used the Early to Rise website to expand on that in 2008.

‘There are those who think people who talk to themselves are crazy, but nothing could be further from the truth. People who talk to themselves are competitive and they are often trying to better themselves. I’m constantly talking to myself because when you do this you are coaching yourself. It’s an opportunity to give yourself some constant, immediate, unfiltered feedback’.

Consultant psychiatrist and President of the Medical Association of Jamaica, Dr Aggery Irons offered the Jamaica Gleaner his thoughts in 2013, saying this practice adds another sensory input that the brain will process and add to what is already there: “…you are literally giving yourself feedback…literally thinking out loud. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is very helpful and adds another line of sensory input”.

The practice is well acknowledged in sport too. Using a dart-throwing gym class, Athanasios Kolovelonis and a team at the University of Thessaly in Greece documented the stages of self-talk: forethought about a goal or plan; carrying the plan out, or the performance; and lastly self-evaluation or reflection with the intention of bettering the next performance.

It seems no one is exempt from self-talk – we all did it happily between the ages of 3 and 7 years (before self-consciousness grasped us) while engaged in a task or at play. Later we whispered or mouthed the words, then we internalised them as we neared adulthood.

A study conducted by Dr. Adam Winsler of George Mason University showed how healthy this process is: children at kindergarten who talked to themselves were more confident and participatory than their peers. Self-talk helped them to deal with challenges and reflect on them afterwards.

There is however a recognised downside to self-talk, whether you verbalise or internalise it. When one only has oneself as a reference point – an increasingly common situation in an increasingly isolated lifestyle according to a Duke University study in 2006 – failing to be compassionate to oneself can be harmful.

Think of all the times you’ve made a mistake and reprimanded yourself in a way you would never do to a loved one or someone you respected. New Zealand based psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald says one of the first things he asks people about is the quality of their relationship with themselves.

“What is your self-talk like: is it kind, is it nasty? Depression is marked by negative or critical self-talk and these people will be quite mean to themselves. Anxious people will engage in worrying and doubtful self-talk, trying to find certainty where there is none.”

Dr Dobrenski agrees, saying while healthy self-talk is a balance of positive and negative, if people become depressed there’s almost incessant self-talk that is inherently negative.

“For instance, phrases like: things won’t work out for me, I’m a loser, I’m inferior, are used. The person often describes an inability to ‘turn off’ the talk.”

Wellness coach and author of 8 Keys to Stress Management, Elizabeth Scott, says there are techniques to help yourself notice negative self-talk patterns and transform your dialogue into positive talk, including changing self-limiting statements like “I can’t do that!” to questions like “How can I do this?”

Dr Dobrenski adds that the healthiest self-talk is balanced: “It’s not positive thinking outright.  It’s about recognizing the positive and negative, the shades of grey, the fact that very little is all or none, black or white.”