Self talk

Self-talk originates in early childhood as a device for self-regulation, an internalization of the voice of the infant's caretaker(s), allowing children to control impulses in the absence of supervision. Additionally, some theorize that humans are like other social animals (such as gibbons) that use calls to establish contact with other members of a group, alerting individuals to the presence of danger. For social animals, silence can be misinterpreted as a state of vulnerability and danger, creating feelings of unease; self-talk alleviates discomfort by creating a sense of contact.

Over the years self-talk develops into an ongoing voiceover that often distorts as much as it elucidates. Clinical psychology and neuroscience demonstrates that self-deception is a prevalent characteristic, distorted by survival based agendas: people will unconsciously create puffed up self-appraisals to develop the confidence to attract a mate, or add self-diminishing thoughts to avoid threats. Denying one's harmful intentions suppresses, for the short term, feelings of shame and embarrassment. These distortions turn into a myriad of cognitive distortions that misrepresent experience, stunt emotional growth and result in self-sabotaging.

Changing how self-talk interprets our experience is a key practice to reducing stress and developing a path to peace of mind. The process rests on noting how and when cognitive distortions arise, disengaging from our attachment to inner views, challenging false conclusions and replacing unskillful thought patterns with skillful ones.

A good first step is instituting mindfulness. Developing inner awareness of breath and body provides us with excellent "canaries in the mineshaft' warning us that our self-talk is triggering stress responses. Well before we become aware of the distortions of obsessive thoughts, the breath has already begun to become shallow, exhalations shortened, and key muscle groups have tightened. Staying mindful allows us to gain distance from inner narration and establishes refuge in the here and now of embodied awareness.

Stress and depression are known to be prevalent in situations where people feel they have little control over situations; the mind creates a choice-less state where we feel driven to habitually ingrained reactions (avoidance, addictions, aggression, etc), failing to recognize that we have greater control over our situations than we had believed. For example, thinking "I can't meditate as I'm too busy with work…" eludes that a choice has been made: we have chosen to elevate how we address our present employment over meditation. A simple acknowledgment of the decisions we have made—be they through life choices or established routines—can lead to reduction of cognitive distortion (we realize we're less trapped by life than we thought) and open the possibility of reviewing one's priorities in the future.

Shoulds imply that there is an ideal way for everything to be, one that we and everyone one around us is constantly falling short of. Its generally a mandate that, when investigated, is arbitrary and in no way fits the specifics of the situations we experience. Its worth changing the way to talk to ourselves to reduce the sense of obligation, so that "I should go to the gym" becomes "i could go…" or "It would be nice to go…"

Magnification adds greater weight to our perceived failures and weaknesses. This practice is so common that we have phrases such 'making a mountain out of molehill.' However, this habit can result in depression and self-limitation. It's important to avoid inner statements that begin with "I'll never" and "I'll always," choosing language that instead reflects that abilities and circumstance are always in a state of flux and open to change.

In summary, before lending credibility to any self-talk, we should reflect on whether we'd make such observations—in the same language—to someone we cared and felt compassion. At the very least, our inner voice should be that of a wise friend, not a constant antagonist or puffed up yes (wo)man.