Talking to Yourself
I once thought talking to yourself was unhealthy, but it is normal to say things to yourself as you experience life. It is not that we talk to ourselves, but what we say that is important to happiness. Self-talk occurs when thoughts flood into our minds unexpectedly as we go through the events of the day. Self-talk is an inner conversation that we have with ourselves to explain life events. The story of Naaman in the Bible illustrates how this process works. Naaman’s self-talk caused him to respond in anger when the prophet failed to come out of his house and greet him. Naaman said, “I thought he would surely come out to me…” (2 Kings 5:11). Naaman was unnecessarily offended because of what he said to himself. Just like Naaman, we also have a running commentary that takes place in our minds each time we experience a life event. These comments determine our perceptions of things as well as our responses.
Self-talk can be beneficial when it helps us accomplish daily tasks. For example, we can use our inner voice to remind ourselves to run an errand or prepare for a test. Self-talk can help us work through the necessary steps needed to accomplish difficult tasks. Some people are benefited when they vocalize their self-talk, and there is nothing wrong with talking out loud to ourselves as long as it is socially appropriate. Vocalization reinforces the thoughts we have and encourages us to follow through at the appropriate time.
While positive self-talk can give us confidence to meet the challenges of life, negative self-talk can discourage and depress us. Negative comments can flood our thinking each time we face some new challenge. For example, we may say to ourselves: “I am going to fail,” “I am not smart enough,” or “Others will think I am a fool.” By listening to our negative inner voice, we allow negative thinking to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Thoughts can appear to be automatic as they instantly flood in our minds when something happens to us, but they are actually based on our beliefs. For example, if we walk in a room where other people are present, we may think, “I am about to make a fool of myself.” In order to discover why we say these things to ourselves, we must first examine the conscious and subconscious beliefs that are causing the thoughts. For example, the automatic thought, “I am about to make a fool of myself,” reflects a negative self-image in the conscious or subconscious mind (see chapter 2). A positive self-image would have produce a different kind of automatic thought, such as, “I look forward to meeting these people.”
Where do we get these negative thoughts? Sometimes they come from those who are closest to us, like our parents and friends. For example, if a parent tells a child, “You are not smart enough to go to college,” the child may form a belief that corresponds to the parent’s statement. If the child goes to college anyway, and then encounters difficulty in one course, he may say to himself, “I knew I was not college material.” Although this thought seems to appear automatically, it is actually the result of a belief formed long ago based on the parent’s statement. By saying this to himself, the student may give up and withdraw from college. In the student’s mind, the difficulty in taking one course confirmed the parent’s earlier statement. So, why do people allow others to define themselves in this way? In the case of children, it is because they are not mature enough to evaluate the negative statements of others. Once the statement is accepted and the negative core belief is formed, then automatic thoughts based on that belief will follow.
Some people become frustrated because they cannot stop their automatic thoughts. The goal, however, should not be to stop the thoughts but to change the beliefs that produce them. It is important to form beliefs about ourselves that are both positive and realistic. Positive thoughts that are unrealistic can be just as damaging as negative thoughts based on false beliefs about ourselves. For example, if you are not good at math, it is unrealistic to think you will do well in advanced math courses in college. We cannot just look in the mirror and say, “I am great in math,” and then expect to succeed. This leads to unnecessary discouragement, frustration, and failure. Instead, one should formulate a more realistic and yet positive belief, such as, “Although I do not have a good math aptitude, I can be successful in another field of study.” In this way, you can learn to control the kinds of thoughts that come into your mind. The goal is to become the master of our thoughts rather than being mastered by them, as Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).