Jeffrey S. Nevid Ph.D., ABPP

The Minute Therapist

Talking Back to Yourself

Had any good conversations with yourself lately?

Posted Dec 31, 2015

Source: Geralt/Pixabay

We all talk to ourselves under our breath, although many of us are unwilling to admit it out of fear that people might think we’re crazy. Sometimes we even talk to ourselves out loud, such as when we stub our toe and call ourselves stupid or a jerk for being so careless or exclaim expletives that would shock the sensibilities of a dissolute sailor. Self-talk falls within the realm of private internal speech. We may experience self-talk in the form of faint whispers to ourselves, as words said under our breath, or as silent thoughts. Whatever form this inner dialogue takes, it becomes part of the continuous stream of daily thoughts, of the ever-shifting sands of conscious awareness.

Had any good conversations with yourself lately? What thoughts go through your mind when you're alone with yourself? Allen Ginsberg, the poet laureate of the Beat generation of the 1950s, posed the question, "What do you say to yourself lying in bed at night, making no sounds?" Let me add some other questions you can pose to yourself: What is it that you say to yourself when you're driving the car alone? Or when you're traveling by bus or train? Do you recount the day's experiences in your mind? Or are you lamenting what you wished you'd said last night to you know who?

Have you ever talked back to the voices in your head? Have you ever stopped for a moment and said to yourself, “Wait a minute. Why am I thinking that way? Must it be so? Might there be another way of thinking about ____?” 

The voices in your head are expressions of your thoughts. Negative thoughts may ramble about the recesses of your mind unchallenged by your observing self, where they can do damage to your emotional health. To break this pattern, conduct a kind of mental accounting of your interior mental life by taking stock of your inner thoughts. Take a minute here and there to reflect on what you are saying to yourself under your breath, your private self-talk. Use these times of self-reflection to talk back to yourself when the things you mutter to yourself push your emotional buttons.

The self-talk of many patients with emotional problems often takes the form of negative messages they have internalized from important figures in their lives, from Mom, Dad, teachers, and well-meaning but misguided friends. In therapy, they work on talking back to the negative voices in their heads, as in these case examples:

Pamela, a 39-year old account executive for a pharmaceutical firm, felt like a knife cut through her when her father seemed disinterested after telling him about the birth of her second child. She recalled how he was never there for her. Not there for her skating performance in 4th grade. Not there for her middle school graduation. Not there for her Sweet 16 party. He made it to her wedding, but looked uncomfortable and left early. Later, he showed no interest in her children, his own grandchildren. She kept wanting his approval, feeling like something was wrong with her for not getting her father’s love and approval. Everyone else seemed to have doting grandfathers. But the more she thought about his own difficulties relating to others, the better able she was to see his emotional detachment as his problem, not hers. Whenever the negative voices started up in her head that pointed to her imagined flaws, she silenced them by saying to herself, “It’s unfortunate he is who he is, but I’m not responsible for it and I’m no longer going to suffer because of it.”

Taking control of your thinking involves challenging negative thoughts whenever and wherever they occur. Whenever you catch a negative thought, stop yourself right then and there. Jot down the negative thought in a diary or notebook. Then challenge the thought by talking back to yourself. You can get the ball rolling by practicing back talk—posing challenging countermands to your negative thoughts, as in these examples:

  • Challenge 1: Why must it be so?
  • Challenge 2: Who says it must be so?
  • Challenge 3: Is there any evidence that it must be so?
  • Challenge 4: Whose voice is talking in my head when I think this way? Whose words does it sound like?
  • Challenge 5: Is there any alternative way of viewing this situation?
  • Challenge 6: What rational thought can I substitute for this disturbing thought?

Through internal dialogues, you put negative and irrational beliefs on trial, challenging their validity and their hold over you. This internal Q & A helps you explore new ways of thinking and breaking free of the cycle of negative thinking that leads to troubling emotions, as in this case example:

Amanda, a 43-year-old divorced mother of two, practiced rational self-dialogue by challenging her own negative self-talk. She was victimized by her boyfriend who cheated on her and then lied to cover-up his relationships with other women. Amanda had met her boyfriend David only three weeks earlier at a church social function, but had already convinced herself that he was her one last chance for what little happiness she could expect in life. Not feeling good about herself, she came to accept that suffering and pain were the price she had to pay for any happiness at all.

Amanda began practicing thought tracking. A week later she reported the following examples of her most nagging and bothersome thoughts:

"I guess I don't deserve anything better."

"What's the point of having relationships? You only wind up getting screwed in the end."

"I feel worthless. I can't imagine that anyone would ever care about me."

By challenging these negative self-statements, she began to see how distorted her thinking had become. She practiced talking back to herself in her internal Q & A, as in this paraphrased sample of a rational dialogue she reported in one therapy session:

“Who says I must think that way? Probably my mother. That's my mother talking. She never expected I'd wind up happy, unless of course I always listened to her and did exactly what she said. Also my first husband. He never believed in me or in himself.”

“Why must I think this way? Where's the evidence that I deserve to feel rotten? I always had this negative outlook. Even in school I didn't feel accepted. I guess I didn't feel good about myself. I never made any attempts to join in. I was always afraid of getting hurt. I just came to accept that feeling rotten was normal.”

“Need it be so? I suppose not."

“You don't sound convinced. How can you not feel crushed when someone rejects you? There's a part of me that becomes angry, but I turn that against myself. I blame myself for getting involved in the relationship, and for not seeing his true colors from the start.” 

"Is there a more rational way to see the situation? Well, I thought that feeling depressed are the dues you pay when things don't turn out right. You know, you have to suffer when you feel rejected. I'm beginning to see that it's just my negative self talking when I get that way. It's not like it's written in stone somewhere that I can't get more out of life. I have to stop thinking I’ve committed some terrible crime and must make myself suffer this way."

Talking back to herself helped Amanda mobilize her resources to make significant changes in her life, such as dating more appropriate men and developing new interests. Stopping herself in the act of thinking negatively was the first step toward changing her thinking style. Challenging the validity of negative thoughts was the second step. The third step was turning around negative thoughts by substituting rational alternative thoughts.

Bear in mind that negative styles of thinking become so deeply ingrained over time that it becomes hard to imagine any other way of looking at things. It may be difficult to turn another leaf in your mind and see things from a fresh perspective. Changes can occur in a minute’s time but to have a lasting impact, they need to become a well-practiced habit over time.

© 2015 Jeffrey S. Nevid.