“OK, once I’m in Costco, I’ll need to grab milk, tomatoes, and eggs.”
You glance at the woman beside you, fully expecting she's on the phone with someone. But she’s not. No sign of earbuds. Nothing on her wrist, either. Confirmed: she’s talking to herself. Weird. Or is it?
Because, chances are, while you may not audibly speak to yourself in the presence of others, you might have talked to yourself in your head. And possibly conducted hours-long monologues when in private.
Does that mean you’re a little odd, too? Put your concerns to rest (for now) because…
Self-talk is perfectly normal
Psychologists believe that self-talk comes naturally to us, originating from when we were children learning to talk.
Self-talk develops out of—and is continuous with—social talk (i.e., conversations with others). Many scientists also believe that self-talk plays a crucial role in the development of high-level cognitive functions including reasoning, problem-solving, attention, motivation, planning, and plan execution.
So, self-talk is:
- Pretty much a universal phenomenon (fun fact: some of us may spend more time talking to ourselves than others!), and
- Something we’ve been doing since we were learning our ABCs.
Then engaging in self-talk or hearing others babbling to themselves isn’t something to be concerned about, right? Not necessarily.
Types of self-talk
That’s because there are four types of self-talk, and not all are helpful. The four types of self-talk are:
- Self-reinforcement: Exactly what it sounds like—this refers to things you say when praising yourself (e.g., “Wow, I did so well!”).
- Self-management: When you talk to yourself to get things done. (Examples include “What’s on my to-do list today?” and “Should I send my laptop in for repair or just buy a new one?”)
- Social assessment: This is when you replay a conversation (e.g., “You shouldn’t be ungrateful when your colleagues help") or rehearse what you plan to say to someone (e.g., "Mom, I appreciate you coming over, but I'd like it if you gave me some advance notice so I can prepare for your arrival.")
- Self-criticism: Judgmental self-talk (e.g., “Why did I say that in a job interview? Now they’re never going to hire me!”)
Broadly speaking, types #1-3 of self-talk are helpful. Studies show that self-reinforcement may boost self-confidence and improve performance; self-management may enhance certain cognitive functions (e.g., improved memory); and social assessment could help lower social stress related to making a positive impression on others and public speaking.
Type #4 of self-talk (self-criticism) is more of a concern. That's because it's almost always framed negatively (e.g., "I'm not good at this, so why am I even trying?" and "I can never do anything right!") and that's worrying, given the well-established link between negative thoughts and:
- Increased risk of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression; and
- Decreased motivation and greater feelings of helplessness.
Be mindful of your language
That said, it’s important to note that, depending on how you frame your conversations, types #1-3 of self-talk can also be harmful.
Case in point (type #3: social assessment): “He said I did a great job on the deck, but his expression was a little off…What if he secretly wants to kick me off the team?” As mentioned earlier, in general, you want to minimize the amount of negativity in your self-talk.
- Be aware of what you’re saying to yourself: When did you last talk to yourself? You might have done it a minute ago but were unaware. So, pay attention to when you talk to yourself and "catch" your negative self-talk as it happens.
- Reframe negative self-talk: Your manager rejects your proposal, and your knee-jerk reaction is, "Why did I even try? My ideas always suck." At this critical point, pause, and consciously choose a more compassionate and neutral statement—e.g., "My ideas might not be a good fit for now, but let's ask for more detailed feedback, so I can map out what my next steps should be."
- Repeat the process: Banishing negative self-talk isn't easy when you've likely been doing it all your life. But by giving yourself enough compassion and patience, you'll eventually get to a point where self-talk serves you—instead of hurting you.