Posted: Tuesday, May 30th, 2017 by Gaelyn Whitley Keith

Everyone engages in self-talk. But much depends on the way we do it. Scientists now find that the right words can free us from our fears and make us as wise about ourselves as we often are about others.

While addressing a body of research, scientist are forcing a whole new take on what has long been ignored or relegated to pop psychology—the use of self-talk to boost confidence. Their studies now elevate self-talk to something far more significant: a powerful instrument of consciousness itself. When deployed in very specific ways at specific times, it frees the brain to perform its absolute best.

By toggling between the way we address ourself—first person or third—we flip a switch in the cerebral cortex, the center of thought, and another in the amygdala, the seat of fear, moving closer to or further from our sense of self and all its emotional intensity. Gaining psychological distance enables self-control, allowing us to think clearly, perform competently. The language switch also minimizes reflection, a handmaiden of anxiety and depression, after we complete a task. Released from negative thoughts, we gain perspective, focus deeply, plan for the future.

Scientists studying the inner voice say it takes shape in early childhood and persists lifelong as companion and creative muse. It is so intimate, so constant, that it can be considered thought itself. This talk may be misused or pushed to extremes, becoming a source of painful reflection or even psychosis. Yet it can also make us detached observers of our own life. Inner talk is one of the most effective, least-utilized tools available to foster success.

Self-talk starts audibly during the toddler years. The incessant self-talk of toddlers is conducted out loud as a kind of instruction manual, a self-generated road map to mastery; your voice directs you to build Lego houses, sound out words and sentences in big-letter books.

Here’s what it sounds like as a little boy guides himself through the construction of a Lego truck: “The wheels go here, the wheels go here. Oh, we need to start it all over again. We need to close it up. See, it closes up. We’re starting it all over again.” That early out-loud self-talk “transforms the task in question, just as the use of a screwdriver transforms the task of assembling a shed. Putting our thoughts into words gives them a more tangible form, which makes them easier to use.

By contrast, an abrupt, angry teacher, can set children up for an enduring pattern of self-defeating self-talk. Children exposed to such teachers learn the language of frustration, becoming inefficient self-guiders, getting mad at themselves the minute they feel confused. “Idiot, you can’t do anything,” a child might say to himself, tossing his book across the room. To add injury to insult, the child also fails to master the task.

 

Through self-talk, children plan out and activate their make-believe characters. The more that children self-talk during make-believe play, the more likely they are to carry such a strategy into adulthood, setting the stage for a lifetime of focused attention, organization, and self-control.

The blueprint for self-talk that is provided by caretakers and built up during years of pretend play guides adult self-talk as well. Words wired into the brain in the early years extend their influence beyond the language centers of the thinking cortex into the primitive limbic brain, seated in the amygdala, where emotional memories take shape and fears can tether us to the certain and the known. As the words of self-talk reach the amygdala, they either mire us in anxiety or free us of its constraints, allowing us to exert high levels of self-discipline under all kinds of demanding circumstances (say, athletic competition or speaking in public).

In a series of studies reported recently in Psychological Science, scientists asked student subjects to consider how the recession of 2008 would affect job search from an immersed perspective (whether it was happening to them) or from a distant vantage point (whether it was happening to someone else).They also asked subjects to discuss from both vantage points how the future would unfold should their favored political candidate lose the presidential election that year.

In each experiment, those with the fly-on-the-wall perspective had more intellectual humility; they were more attuned to future changes, more flexible, and more open to diverse viewpoints. They were, in general, far more able to think things through in a wise and measured way. The psychologically distanced perspective allowed people to transcend their egocentric viewpoints and take the big picture into account. We usually have trouble with that in the West; we need some kind of mechanism, a trick, to take us out of our own head.

Working together, scientists have recently obtained evidence from brain scans that self-distancing through self-talk indeed confers wisdom. They directed student volunteers to self-talk while they monitored their brains with an fMRI machine. Among subjects who talked to themselves in the third person, the brain scans resembled those of other students in the act of giving advice to friends. Not so among a control group of students addressing themselves with personal pronouns.

The findings are applicable to the entire range of social relationships, because asymmetry pervades the way people think about all problems—better at dealing with others’ than with their own. Self-distancing, can bring clarity in thinking about social conflicts, whether in business or romance. Used correctly, inner language can focus thinking, enhance planning, and prevent the poison of later reflection.

“Jennifer( 1), what are you nervous about? It’s not the first date you’ve ever been on. I know you like this guy, but take it slow (2), and stay calm. Even if it doesn’t go perfectly, it won’t be the end of the world. You’re capable (3), intelligent, accomplished, beautiful. Just do your best and let the chips fall. Chill, Jen.”

1: Jennifer distances herself from the stress of a first date by addressing herself by name, seeing herself as she would a friend. The distance confers wisdom, confidence, and calm she would never have if immersed in the situation as I or me.

2: She also taps the kinds of strategies children use when engaging in activities like building with blocks, only instead of instructing herself to put the small square on top of the big rectangle, she now tells herself to be calm. Her self-direction is precise.

3: Not least, Jennifer alleviates the gravity of the situation with a few self-affirmations, allowing her to see the date in the context of her whole being. She will not be devastated or reflect endlessly on the experience if the date doesn’t work out.

It turns out that affirmations work—but not the way you think. Switching from pronouns to names isn’t the only path to wise perspective. There’s a kind of self-talk that has long been looked on as hokey—self-affirmations, positive statements (“You are brilliant,” “You are beautiful”) that have that 1970s, New Age aura and seem like shortcuts to self-esteem.. But researchers now find that they, too, serve a purpose. Just like using given-name self-talk, such affirmations have the power to defuse threats and confer perspective.

Psychologists Clayton Critcher and David Dunning of the University of California at Berkeley have found that such feel-good ego boosts can undercut criticism, providing a cushion against blasts of harshness from the world. They can help us stand up to outside threats and persevere in negotiations, in difficult jobs, and in the face of health problems. They widen our perspective on our self, help mitigate bad blows, and alleviate defensiveness. They are cognitive expanders.

To determine what it is that self-talk does, scientist looked through the opposite end of the telescope—at what threats do that self-talk may serve to counter. They hypothesized that threats give us tunnel vision, narrowing our focus to one facet of the self so that we see only the hungry bear and not the beautiful forest.

In one study, the researchers set up Ivy League students to fail on a test, and prepped some of them with self-talk like “I feel proud” and “I currently feel confident.” After all failed the fake test, the affirmed reported a better sense of self-worth, even though the affirmations had nothing to do with their intelligence. “Self-talk broadened perspective, bolstering self-worth by undoing an otherwise constricted perspective under threat.”

In another study, the duo gave students a phony personality test, then delivered 36 statements of feedback, 24 of which were negative. Those inoculated by positive self-talk were able to spend more time poring over the negative feedback, a sign they were less defensive. Those who were not pre-affirmed put the personality-decimating results aside quickly, too defensive to consider them.

Self-talk helps us to avoid the tunnel vision that threats encourage. Bolstered by an affirmation or two, we can more easily transcend a threat and see ourselves more fully.

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