The Nature of Self-Talk

Oh yeah, the dreaded self-talk, that inner talk that can build you up into a frenzy or inspire you into action. This article opens the study of self-talk beyond the mere resourceful and unresourceful self-talk. This article was the result of my ongoing study of how people think through change as well as my work with clients.

The nominalized term ‘self-talk’ indicates, one, that each of us has a definition of what that means and therefore it is varied. Further talking to your Self indicates dissociation – you are outside your kinesthetic self to have a dialogue with it.

I found self-talk and talking in your mind are two distinct types of talks. The difference is in the later the person is associated. As in:

1.      I am going to fail. (simulation)

2.      People won’t like what I write. (mind-read)

3.      I am useless. (issue of identity)

4.      Of course, I can do it. (thought on capability)

5.      I will do it. I will do it. (the work hasn’t started yet and is significant)

In dissociated states, self-talk appears as follows:

1.      X, don’t make the same mistake again. Haven’t you learnt from the past?

2.      You are terrific. Shabash.

3.      I know you can do it.

Here comes the first interesting layer to this self-talk. And that is, who is doing the talking? I find there can be three distinct voices doing the talking:

1.      Your voice

2.      You in third person

3.      Another person’s voice

Your Voice

In this state, the person is hardly conscious initially of the nature of talk. The association is deep. The negative talk simulates fear, reinscribes and validates limiting beliefs, plans and strategizes to meet catastrophic situations. The positive talk reinforces beliefs of capability, affirms identity, thinks through an topic or situation, chunks up or chunks down information. It is usually when person has been talking for a period of time, and visual or kinesthetic sensations change, that they become aware they are talking in their mind. This is specially with negative talk when it results in intense negative kinesthetic sensations and the person wants to ‘get away from it’, ‘shut it’, ‘stop it’, or ‘end it’.

There are two aspects to this issue. One is the language patterns of the talk and second, is auditory qualities used (pitch, tone, rate).

Language Patterns

Write out your inner talk exactly as you hear/see them. It is important you keep the syntax as is. Then check if they contain the following modal operators:

1.      Modal Operator of Necessity (Need/Must/Should/Ought and their negations)

a.      I need to do this.

b.      I must earn.

c.      He should behave properly.

d.      They ought to think about how it affects us.

This indicates that you have learnt to follow rules set by someone else. And you feel forced to do it. In other words, what you are doing is not a choice, it is an unpleasant task.

2.      Modal Order of Possibility (Can/could/able/possible and their negations)

a.      I can do it.

b.      I could experiment.

c.      I know I am able to complete this task.

d.      It is possible she had other issues and I was unfair.

e.      I can’t do this.

Stated positively, Model Order of Possibility support positive inner talk and open up choices. When stated negatively, they restrict and limit choices. Please look through Steve Andreas work on changing negative self-talk here.

Besides this, check for verbs like “have”, as in “I have to do this” where you are passive and the external environment dictates the action. Changing the syntax of how you talk to yourself will make a difference in the resultant emotions.

Auditory Qualities

Check the tone, pitch and rate at which you are talking inside. The qualities of that sound impact the way you feel about the issue. The anxiety talk sounds different from cheerleading affirming talk. If you have talk-sounded yourself into anxiety, please read Nick Kemp’s work on spinning feelings and internal voice tempo exercise here.

I used the technique to work with a ten-year-old client who had severe exam anxiety. Recently she showed me her report card proudly. Her grades had improved considerably. I asked her what she thought before and during the exams. She laughed, recognizing what I intended to find, “Woh toh tabhi katham ho gaya.” (It was over then itself) referring to the exercise.


You in Third Person

This talk happens when you dissociate from your current self and associate into the persona of a person who you think has the resources to think through and advice for the situation. It is a way by which you move out of the weaker identity to a stronger identity. This persona is usually someone you know and who either respect or has influence on you. It can also be a different identity state where you find yourself resourceful.

This talk can be positive or negative. However, that is not the point. What is important here again is what are the language patterns of that self-talk. If the third person voice says, “You must do it” then that persona is an authority figure (as personified in your brain) who is getting you to follow rules.

Further, dissociating into another persona is preceded by a trigger event. The person reaches threshold and finds current identity inadequate for further action. That is when dissociation into a new persona happens. (Please note: each person has a unique dissociation strategy)

This kind of dissociation is usually resourceful change for the person. However, I found there are cases where another unresourceful pattern is being sustained through this act.

For example, if dissociation happens because you do not want current identity to take up the unpleasant task, then to protect the current self, you dissociate into a different self and delegate the unpleasant task to it. The core of the issue is: a. Current self is liked and preferred to the other-self; b. Current self is deemed inferior/lesser to other self and the power equation is maintained. In this case, the self-talk hides an underlying condition, a split between selves which is maintained for a positive intent. That split is also the site of incongruence for the person is switching between selves.

Resolving this split and changing self-talk can help such a person return to wholesome authentic living. Timeline therapy can be effective in such a case.

Another Person’s Voice

In this talk, you hear faintly or clearly, another voice in your head. The language structure and auditory qualities are markedly different. It can be of an influential person in your life or someone you met who said something significant. You may or may not be able to match persona to voice. But the voice has a source from somewhere in your life.

I have noted that sometimes clients report the voice as haunting or chasing or filling the head. There are other cases where a person experiences many voices in the head and outside. 

General Reflections

I note that some websites advice viewers to change the negative sound qualities of trigger person with positive sound qualities of a non-triggering person. For example, if I hate Z, if instead of hearing her in harsh high-pitched tones, I inscribe loving compassionate tones of another person, the assumption is it will change the way I feel for that person.

That change is dependent on ecological congruence – does the client feel okay with the switch? It is akin to how sometimes a person is unable to accept a compliment. When a person has low self-esteem, a positive submodality change is cosmetic. The underlying issue has to be dealt with before a change is accepted.

I also find that dealing with the resultant feelings by identifying the location of the source and working with it using Lucas Derks’ Social Panorama model is helpful.

I note that self-talk is sometimes looked at negatively, either because it occupies a length of time in a world where we want instant gratification or because the person doesn’t appear active/prompt/bright. There are standards set for how a person needs to behave/appear in social settings. They deny the fact that each of us has a unique model of the world and sometimes our larger behavioral patterns are reflective type and not active. Reflective folks can create library of partially processed thoughts that they will bring in to build the final structure. Reflective folks are great in studying trends and patterns in environment. They are also effective in philosophical reflections.

The questions to be asked instead is:

1.      When do you find your inner talk unresourceful? Can you do without such contexts? If not, what else can you do to be resourceful? Is the inner talk process sustaining an unresourceful behavioural pattern? If so, change it.

2.      The language structure of inner talk. If that is providing evidence of how you are stuck, then change it.

3.      Sound qualities of the talk. If it is unresourceful, change it.

4.      Who is talking? What purpose is this other persona serving? Is it resourceful or unresourceful?

If you find your inner/self-talk annoying/debilitating/disturbing, please contact your nearest NLP Practitioner for help in resolving it.

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