Talking to yourself: is it good for you?
Have you ever been caught absent-mindedly talking to yourself in public? It can be really embarrassing. Unless you have the quick wits to pretend that you’re wearing an ear-piece and talking to someone on the phone, people will probably assume that you’re crazy. But don’t worry, talking to yourself is quite normal. What’s more, it can even be good for you. Let’s take a look at some of the surprising benefits of self-talk.
Is talking to yourself normal?
There is nothing strange about talking to yourself. It’s actually very common. We all do it, although most of the time, instead of saying things out loud, we talk to ourselves in our heads.
There are two kinds of self-talk that people regularly engage in: internal and external self-talk.
Internal self-talk refers to your internal monologue, your inner voice, which provides a constant flow of thought whenever you are awake. This type of self-talk is very healthy and plays an important role in organizing your thoughts, planning, consolidating memories and processing emotions. Our inner discourse – sometimes referred to metaphorically as a stream of consciousness – is vital because it improves our ability to control our actions and behavior.
External self-talk, on the other hand, can be a vocal manifestation of this inner voice. When we talk to ourselves out loud, it’s usually because we’re experiencing an intense emotion like surprise, anger, sadness, nervousness, or heightened focus. This is what happens when you stub your toe and exclaim out loud even though no one else is around, or when you mutter under your breath before an important public speaking engagement.
We also engage in self-talk when we’re facing a stressful decision, or trying to cope with difficult emotions.
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Benefits of talking to yourself
Not only is talking to yourself perfectly normal, but it can also have a whole host of benefits. Research suggests that both inner speech and having a conversation with yourself out loud can have a positive effect on your cognitive performance.
Talking to ourselves isn’t just something that we do occasionally when we let our guard down – it actually plays an important role in human development. Children learn by repeating things they hear to themselves, and one study has shown that pre-schoolers do better on motor tasks when talking to themselves. (1)
Here are some of the scientifically proven ways that self-talk can be beneficial for the brain.
Talking to yourself boosts confidence
Feeling nervous about a test or an important meeting? Maybe you just need a motivational pep talk – from yourself. Talking to yourself has been linked to increased confidence – but only when it’s done in a specific way.
In a compelling study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that it makes a difference what pronouns you use when talking to yourself in your head. (2)
Subjects were asked to participate in a public speaking challenge. When they referred to themselves in the second or third person during introspection, they experienced less anxiety attacks and performed better.
According to the researchers, this is because self-distancing – thinking about yourself as though you were someone else, from an observer’s point of view – increases self-regulation. When you change the language that you use to refer to yourself and move away from the egocentric, first-person point of view, you can look at your situation from a more objective, emotionally neutral place. This way, you are able to better control your thoughts, feelings and behavior, even in stressful situations.
These findings are important because they confirm that motivational self-talk, if done right, can be an effective tool to boost confidence, personal growth and performance.
Can talking to yourself help you perform better at sports?
Motivational self-talk has been extensively studied in sports psychology. Research on the connection between sports performance and talking to yourself shows that self-talk can be intentionally used to focus attention, increase confidence, regulate effort, self-control emotions and ultimately enhance performance. (3)
Both overt and covert (external and internal) self-talk have been found to use similar brain structures, and they are thought to serve the same self-regulatory functions.
Positive self-talk, in particular, appears to have benefits for sports performance (although it may not work for everyone, especially some people with low-self esteem).
Self-talk is so powerful that it can have an impact on an athlete’s motor skills. A study conducted among basketball players with the aim of evaluating the effects of instructional and motivational self-talk on speed and accuracy found that participants who engaged in self-talk performed better at passing and shooting. (4)
So next time you take part in a sporting event, why not try to give yourself a verbal pat on the back?
Talking to yourself improves control over goal-oriented tasks
In certain cases, saying something out loud works better than thinking the same thing to yourself.
A study published in Acta Psychologica showed that verbal instructions improve control over goal-oriented tasks more than inner speech. (5) Participants were given a set of written instructions and asked to read them either silently or out loud. When the subjects read the instructions out loud, both their concentration and their performance improved.
“Much of this benefit appears to come from simply hearing oneself, as auditory commands seem to be better controllers of behaviour than written ones,” says Paloma Mari-Beffa, one of the study’s authors in an article published on The Conversation. (6)
Talking to yourself may seem strange, but as this study proves, it can help you focus on tasks and carry them out more efficiently.
Talking to yourself improves search performance
So, if you were to deliberately use self-talk as a tool to focus your attention and make your brain work more efficiently, what else could you use it for?
Surprisingly, talking to yourself out loud can be very helpful when trying to find something, for example, your favorite shirt in a pile of other clothes or a specific fruit at the supermarket. As long as you can visualize what you’re looking for, saying the name of the object out loud may help you find it quicker.
A study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology showed increased visual search performance when subjects said the name of the object they were searching for out loud. (7)
The participants were asked to find a picture of a specific object (the target) – an airplane, a butterfly, an umbrella – among pictures of other objects (the distractors), and they were able to pinpoint it faster when they said the name of the object out loud. The researchers concluded that instructional self-talk appears to speed up cognitive processes and helps to improve search performance.
Talking to yourself: mental illness
In rare cases, talking to yourself may be associated with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. However, this type of self-talk is very different from the healthy internal or external speech that everyone experiences.
What disorder causes someone to talk to themselves?
Schizophrenic auditory hallucinations cause patients to perceive their self-talk as if it were coming from an external source, from a different person. This may lead them to engage in conversations with people who are not there. In reality, they are talking to the voices inside their heads. This is a sign of a very serious mental disorder that requires medical treatment.
Mindfulness and talking to yourself
Positive thinking and positive self-talk are often associated with mindfulness, the psychological process of bringing awareness to our thoughts and focusing on the present moment through techniques such as meditation.
Mindfulness coaches often hail positive self-talk as the key to reducing stress. (8)
According to them, paying attention to your inner monologue can help you discern forms of negative self-talk, such as magnifying the negative aspects of a situation, blaming yourself for things you can’t control, anticipating the worst and seeing everything as either good or bad, with no middle ground. These negative thought patterns may lead to unnecessary stress.
On the other hand, practicing positive self-talk and gratefulness may lead to better psychological wellbeing.
So is it OK to talk to yourself out loud?
Talking to yourself out loud is perfectly fine. You may get a few glances from strangers, but the truth is, it can help you rev up your brain and give your confidence a boost.
As we’ve seen above, there’s research to suggest that the language you use to speak to yourself in your head can influence your feelings, your behavior and your anxiety levels. Saying things out loud can help you perform better at certain tasks, like finding what you’re looking for in an assortment of objects. For athletes, self-directed verbal cues are especially beneficial, as they can boost sports performance.
So, if you want to reap the cognitive benefits, don’t shy away from talking to yourself.
(1) George Mason University (2008, March 29). Preschool Kids Do Better When They Talk To Themselves, Research Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080328124554.htm
(2) Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 304–324. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035173
(3) Judy L. Van Raalte, Andrew Vincent (2017). Self-Talk in Sport and Performance. Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from https://oxfordre.com/psychology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.001.0001/acrefore-9780190236557-e-157
(4) Shahzad Tahmasebi, Boroujeni Mehdi Shahbazi (2011). The Effect of Instructional and Motivational Self-Talk on Performance of Basketball’s Motor Skill. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 15, 3113-3117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.04.255
(5) Alexander James Kirkham, Julian Michael Breeze, Paloma Marί-Beffa (2012). The impact of verbal instructions on goal-directed behaviour. Acta Psychologica, 139(1), 212-219. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.09.016
(6) Paloma Marί-Beffa (2017, May 3). Is talking to yourself a sign of mental illness? An expert delivers her verdict. The Conversation. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from https://theconversation.com/is-talking-to-yourself-a-sign-of-mental-illness-an-expert-delivers-her-verdict-77058
(7) Gary Lupyan, Daniel Swingley (2011). Self-directed speech affects visual search performance. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(6), 1068-1085. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2011.647039
(8) Dana Sparks (2018, September 26). Mayo Mindfulness: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress. Mayo Clinic News Network. Retrieved March 9, 2020 from https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-mindfulness-stop-negative-self-talk-to-reduce-stress/
Vivien is a freelance content writer and journalist living in Barcelona. She enjoys diving deep into the research and writing about a wide range of topics, from technology to science and health.