It used to be that talking to yourself was a sign that perhaps a chat with a health professional was in order. Today, when the guy in the cereal aisle is carrying on a conversation about Cinnamon Toast Crunch all by himself, there is no longer any worry about mental faculties. He’s obviously got an earpiece and is double-checking by phone with the supply chief at home to make sure he doesn’t make someone very unhappy with his choice. Cereal can be very personal.
There’s a new respectability to verbalizing out loud without a soul around, and there should be. It turns out that bringing thoughts from the head into the world of experience is a powerful tool to help humans focus, remember, keep anxiety at bay, and self-regulate. If you are not talking to yourself out loud, you are missing out on a force that can overcome the biggest obstacle to healthy functioning: the thoughts in our own brains.
SPOKEN WORDS CURB BAD HABITS
There is a lot of flotsam and jetsam washing in and out of our minds every day. Using key phrases out loud can override the noise and cue us to what we need to be emphasizing, prioritizing, or focusing on amid all the interior babble.
Researchers have found, for instance, that if you need to pay attention to something, you can get neurons to perk up and do just that by telling yourself out loud that you’re going to focus on a task like a laser. That command breaks through chaos and prompts increased attention.
Peter Gollwitzer at New York University has shown the power of stating your intentions out loud to strengthen prospective memory and prime the brain to replace a bad habit with a good one. Gollwitzer is creator of the implementation intention, one of the best devices to both remember something you have to do and get rid of a habit you don’t want. The technique is based on stating a future intention in an if-then statement. “If I see chocolate cake, then I’m going to avoid it.” Saying the if-then phrase out loud a couple of times builds a habit that counters the impulse of immediately scarfing down the cake next time you see it.
The implementation intention is an awesome weapon to help reduce stress, guilt, time frenzy, and a host of other autopilot habits that self-inflict dramas in our life. Yet it wouldn’t have nearly the encoding power on brain neurons if you just kept it to yourself and didn’t state it out loud. The goal gets lost in the thought factory; the commitment isn’t so resolute without the verbalization.
I’m a big believer in using the spoken word to counter ruminative thought and buoy motivation. It’s something we use strategically in my work-life balance and stress management programs to cut off emotional reactions at the pass and build better attention.
Speaking out loud to yourself works on several levels. It’s great as an instructional tool, helping you focus on how to do a new task as you’re doing it. “Step forward and pivot 180 degrees,” helps you concentrate and make the dance move. “Make sure the shelf is facing the right direction” prevents the IKEA misadventure.
Spoken strategic phrases also serve as motivational cues to help keep eyes on the prize. A study that measured the impact of out-loud self-talk showed that basketball players who used motivational phrases increased skills that involved speed. Instructional phrases improved skills that required accuracy and timing.
Another area that spoken phrases are very effective at is managing stress. Catching yourself with a loud “Stop!” as you slam a table can shut down the rumination factory of catastrophic thoughts and awfulizing. Phrases such as “Move on!” and “Don’t react” are also good at extracting us from the entrainment of negative thinking.
IT'S HOW YOU SAY IT
It’s not just what we say to ourselves, but how we say it that can calm a boiling mind. A fascinating study led by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan found that verbal self-talk can provide psychological distance from ourselves and emotions stirred up by the egocentric brain. When we frame our actions more objectively under social stress by referring to ourselves in the second- or third-person, instead of the usual first-person, we increase self-regulation over our thoughts and anxieties
“Psychological distancing strategies enhance people’s capacity to exert self-control when faced with tempting options in the short term,” Kross and colleagues write. In the study, they found that non-first person pronouns and using your own name, as pro athletes often do in interviews, creates more neutral thoughts and behavior under social stress.
If I was to say, “Joe Robinson can handle this meeting” out loud or “You can get that big project started,” I would be framing an impending stressful event more as a challenge than a threat, the signal of something beyond coping capacity that turns on the stress response.
Emotional distancing is key to almost all stress reduction techniques. The idea is to view a stressful scenario as a friend or lawyer for yourself would—detached or non-personally. Taking things personally is the default reaction when emotional reactions go off, and that keeps them going. We have to turn off the personalization to be able to turn down the emotions and bring back our 21st century analytical brain, which gets hijacked by the ancient emotional brain in a threatening moment.
When we bring thoughts into experience by uttering them, they achieve more weight. We take the thought, action, and us more seriously. The same goes for limiting things we might say about ourselves to ourselves or to others—such as “I can’t handle this,” “I’m overwhelmed,” or “these things always happen to me.” We box ourselves in to the stress response and pessimism with language like that, whereas statements that frame a positive intention can provide a healthy path forward.
It makes sense that talking out loud should work, since that’s the way we win any argument with somebody else. You don’t persuade through mind-reading but through the use of oral language. The sound of the voice makes it real.
Thoughts aren’t real, only experience is. Talk to yourself, and you cut through the clamor of internal self-talk to focus on the motivating words or the self-distancing phrase that can help you make the right choice under pressure. Like in that cereal aisle. Say it three times: "Cinnamon Toast Crunch," and you won't forget.
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