Self Talk – Are You Judging or Coaching?

I once heard someone say that if we overheard a conversation at the next table in a restaurant with people talking to each other the way we talk to ourselves – we’d get up and leave.  Know what I mean?  This statement has stayed with me for a long time, especially when I am judging myself harshly or listening to the stern self-judgment of others.

Why do we do this? Why are we so hard on ourselves?

In psychological and personal development circles, it’s called Self– Talk and in our experience few people do it constructively and compassionately.  Self-talk is that endless mental chatter, often between parts of our selves that is essentially our LIFE SCRIPT.  It is the narrative that we run about our experience and the state of the world inside our heads.  Self-talk isn’t just pop psychology jargon, it is a real function of the processing of our brains as we attempt to gather new information and self-regulate. Mostly self-talk is our brain running on auto-pilot, out of our conscious awareness. Researchers say that 75% of the average person’s self-talk is negative. We don’t know how they measured that, but it sounds about right in our experience.

Where Does Our Self-Talk Come From?

The roots of self-talk are interesting. According to moral development expert, Lawrence Kohlberg, it begins with our earliest repetitive self-mutterings as toddlers, when we use certain words we hear for comfort.  As we get a bit older, we use it to learn to self direct our behavior by talking to ourselves as if there was someone else in the room.
By about age 7, this self-guiding talk becomes internalized thought.  At this point what a child has heard, seen and felt around them become their own internal voices. Fundamentally, what we have integrated by that age are most of the basic beliefs, ideas and often, feelings, of our closest care takers and cultural influences.
Most childhood experts agree that self-talk is a remarkably positive human (and unique) mechanism.  Using self-talk to learn new behaviors  and guide healthy and ethical choices is fundamental to positive growth. It is the essence of what we call “conscience.”  But experts also point to children and adults whose self-talk is so contradictory and self-defeating that they can act destructively or simply out of impulse.

Who is this Inner Critic?

It is a voice within you, but it’s not you.”               Sharon Good

One thing many of us know is that  the Inner Critic is a know-it-all. The Inner Critic or Judge is an all- powerful, seeing and knowing voice. The Critic can draw with complete accuracy (or so it thinks) from the past – and see with uncanny vision into future.  In fact, the Inner Critic mostly likes to hang out in the past and future.  It also shows up in the present, but usually just to point out how things didn’t go well in the past and might not go so well in the future.  It dwells on mistakes.
“The Inner Critic uses words in powerful ways. One of its favorites is mistake. It dearly loves this word.  “That was a mistake. I should not have gone out to lunch. I should have sent that email. I should not have eaten that sandwich. I should accept that invitation.”     Embracing Your Inner Critic, Hal & Sidra Stone
The Inner Critic has one essential message that shows up in several ways:

  • There is something wrong with you
  • There is something wrong with them
  • There is something wrong with the world

What is so important to understand about your self-talk and its implications is that your thoughts (self-talk) trigger your emotions (feelings) and drive your behavior.  Self-talk is not idle. Ultimately it translates into choices and actions.

Can we turn our Inner-Critic into an Inner–Coach?

The good news is that we can. Unless we have certain psychological or brain disorders, we can change, with effort and consistency, and rewire our brains to positive self-talk.
The brain likes and looks for patterns. Negative or positive.  The brain likes patterns because it doesn’t have to work as hard in processing information. Every time we change a negative self-talk pattern (and we do this – thought by thought) we are reshaping our neural networking.
The brain will also eliminate unused neural pathways. In other words, if we disrupt and minimize certain thinking patterns, the brain will eventually excise that neural network.

The 5 Essential Tools to Changing Self-Talk

  1. Awareness – This is the basic tool for change.  Becoming conscious of what you are saying to yourself is key. Noticing the patterns of your self-talk, negative and positive.  This often shows up as chronic worry (the “mother ship” of self-talk), anger, irritation, fault-finding and blame.
  2. Cultivate Your Neutral Witness – The neutral witness is a keen observer of what you say to yourself and under what circumstances your self-talk is triggered. The witness is non-judgmental. Its job is to observe and note – not to fix or prescribe.
  3. Stay in the Present – Of course we all have to reflect on the past in order to self-correct (gently) and plan (non-obsessively) for the future. But the Inner Critic has a much tougher time operating in the NOW, so it is a good place (and in reality, the only place) to be.
  4. Watch your Language – The Inner Critic’s language is much harsher than that of the Inner Coach. The Critic’s voice is generally not very kind. Language can be loaded with emotional impact and the Critic likes to use words that dramatize and catastrophize circumstances.  While the Critic may say something like: “Tina has betrayed my trust and our relationship is over,” the more rational, kinder Inner Coach may reframe the experience by saying  “Tina’s actions are upsetting to me and I want to understand them better before making a decision.”
  5. Start Replacing Inner Judgment Statements with Positive Ones – Yes, despite what many “Outer Critics” say about positive affirmations – they can work.  But they are less effective if you don’t believe them. So if you say “Wow I look great” over and over, yet you really believe you are 20 lbs overweight they won’t work.  Find statements that match what you believe, even if they seem only a bit more positive than your negative self-statements. In other words, inventory all of your goodness, your best qualities and accomplishments and use them to support yourself – often!

You can change your personal narrative. Start now by imagining a day of self-talk that reinforces your most positive beliefs (about yourself, others and the world). It can have a life-changing impact on your work, relationships and most important, your health.  It also feels a  lot better.

Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. Hi Ronnie,
    Glad you appreciated the post. Since self-talk is so universal (and it has been found in every culture) it’s important for us to understand that we can use it as a resource or let it run us with “unchecked facts.”
    Thx for the comment!

  2. Hi Sandra,
    Thanks for your insights. Yes, cultivating the inner coach takes time – and nuturance! But so does listening to the negativity of the inner critic, not to mention the energy drain. Glad you discovered us – just followed your work on Twitter. Nice meeting!
    Louise & George

  3. Hi Jonathan,
    You’ve done a lot of good work in your blog illuminating the kinds of insights that can keep the inner coach on track. Yes, it is a practice – and it is oh – so – easy to surrender to the inner critic (who let’s face it, can be merciless).
    You hit the key – getting familiar with the internal dialogue – those tapes running 24/7 – what are they saying? Are they supporting me or sapping my energies?
    Thx so much for your comments,
    Best, Louise & George

  4. Thank you Russ. I must admit I’ve never had the analogy drawn to the “inner puppet” but it does beg the question, “who is in control here?”
    Glad you found the blog and appreciated this post.

  5. Russ Lewis Russo says:

    Thank you Louise. You put it precisely. “Who is in control here?” The primary or the second self. I thought you and your readers groups might enjoy the following from David Goldblatt; Art and Ventriloquism.
    “In an atypical notebook entry which he entitles, “Oedipus/Soliloquy of the last philosopher,” Neitzsche writes about an intense loneliness that forces the philosopher to talk with himself.
    “No one talks to me other than myself, and my voice comes to me as the voice of a dying man! Let me associate for but one hour more with you, dear voice, the last trace of memory of all human happiness. With you I escape loneliness through self delusion and lie myself into ‘multiplicity’ and love. For my heart…cannot bear the shudder of the loneliest loneliness and so it forces me to speak as if I were two persons.”

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