Monday, September 26, 2011

Talk to yourself

I frequently encourage my patients to talk to themselves, or perhaps more accurately, to talk back to themselves.  Most of us talk to ourselves already, although not necessarily out loud.  (Examples include, "Man, I'm such an idiot!" "I can't believe I did that!" "Come on.  You're almost there; you can do it!" "I wonder why he said that to me." "I hope no one saw me trip on the stairs just now." "I don't think I can do this!").  Our minds tend to produce a constant stream of commentary, interpretations, and judgments.  For most of my patients, a lot of that mental activity is negative.  Hence the recommendation that they talk back to it.

So what are you supposed to get out of talking to yourself?  Well, I'll use my own experience as an example.  Part of the reason I decided to study mental health in college is because I wanted to help myself.  I had periods of depression throughout my adolescence and young adulthood.  I had very low self esteem.  I had very few adaptive methods for coping with my emotions. At times, I engaged in risky and/or self-destructive behaviors, usually aimed at trying to numb my emotional pain.

After I finished college I began to work in earnest at becoming emotionally and psychologically healthy; I needed to be if I was ever going to be able to help other people.  At some point during this process I realized that if I wanted to feel good about myself I needed to start treating myself the way I would treat someone I care about.  This was definitely a change from my typical way of relating to myself.  Like a lot of people, I "motivated" myself with harsh words about not being good enough.  I would tell myself that failures are worthless under the guise of pushing myself to work harder.  Maybe I thought if I gave myself a break I would become lazy and unproductive; certainly a lot of people believe that the only way they'll ever accomplish anything is to "discipline" (i.e., punish) themselves.  Unfortunately, this strategy has significant negative emotional consequences.  There had to be a better way and I was going to have to find it.

Now old habits die hard and my habit of putting myself down was deeply ingrained.  I had to be vigilant in monitoring what I said to myself.  Whenever my inner voice started its negative commentary I began imagining a louder voice telling it to shut up.  I started thinking of it as my defender.  It stood up to the bully that had taken up residence in my mind and had operated unopposed for years.  Of course the bully resisted; it wasn't going to give up its territory without a fight.  There was a struggle, but over time the bully began to lose power.  There was actually a period during which the bully ceded control but would still meekly offer up its negative opinion for consideration.  Its opinion was promptly and consistently rejected.  Eventually - and almost without me even realizing it - the bully became silent.

This is why I tell my patients to talk (back) to themselves.  I like to point out that they treat themselves in ways they would never tolerate being treated by others.  (They usually chuckle a bit at this).  Really, I encourage everyone to at least spend some time listening to what they say to themselves; you might be surprised at what you hear.


  1. I love this advice. Although i suspect there are many of us (me included) out there already who are already talking to ourselves and won't admit it since we think people with think we're a bit batty!

  2. Hi, my name is Sean. I just found your blog online. I really enjoy it. I wanted to send you an email saying all of this, but I couldn't find a link on the page. I was just wondering if you had any advice, I am a 3rd year college student going to school for my degree in social work. I haven't had many classes for my major and next semester is when I finally take on a large load of social work related classes and was just wondering if you have any advice for a social work student. thank you

  3. Sean,
    I'd love to chat and will definitely give you any insight I can provide. Feel free to send me an email:


My Favorites